A woman lowers her head to the table in front of her and starts to cry. UC Davis advisor Stephanie Myers quietly reaches out and gently pats her on her shoulder. The woman seems to sob inconsolably.
This dramatic moment was part of a role-playing exercise during a communications workshop for UC Davis academic advisors. Training — some of it mandatory — is integral to recent initiatives to professionalize and expand the academic advising services that help students identify and achieve their goals and graduate in a timely way.
Not just growing advising services but also improving them has taken on more importance over the last several years as the campus has increased undergraduate enrollment and diversified its student body with more international students as well as traditionally underrepresented and first-generation students.
Importance to campus initiatives
The need for a more cohesive model for delivering academic advising was identified in a 2013 report on enhancing the student experience and a second for campus accreditation. Since then, the campus has invested $2.8 million to support the hiring of 25 additional academic advisors across the colleges. It has also spent more than $2 million to improve the technology that supports advising — including shared systems that facilitate advising for students who change majors and colleges. And, with the establishment of the centralized Office of Academic Advising in 2014, the campus is also increasing expectations and opportunities for advisors’ professional development.
Brett McFarlane, executive director of Academic Advising, said university leaders at UC Davis and elsewhere are learning to appreciate the role academic advising can play in major campus initiatives, like helping reduce the time it takes for students to earn their degrees. "People are now understanding the impact advising can have," he said.
The advising office, housed within Undergraduate Education, plays a key role in supporting academic advising across the campus through strategic planning and by coordinating professional development and fostering a sense of community.
McFarlane estimated that there are about 125 academic advisors in academic departments and the deans’ offices of the colleges.
Advising certificate series
In fall 2015, the office launched a certificate series aimed at ensuring consistency of advising services and helping advisors develop new skills identified as critical to supporting students' academic success in a changing world.
All academic advisors are required to take a four-session course called "Developing Deeper Advising Relationships." The 12-hour course includes training in cultural awareness, communication skills and the role of social justice in advising.
After completing the mandatory course, advisors are urged to continue their first-level training in three more courses and an elective — 18 hours in all. Other topics addressed in the first level include helping distressed students and training in advising technology. A second level of training, expected to launch later this calendar year, will offer greater depth and specialization; plans call for a third level for advisors interested in research and publishing.
Myers was among the advisors in a recent workshop on developing effective communication skills that explored communication styles, nonverbal communication and cultural sensitivity.
“It’s very useful,” said Myers, whose job as a student services assistant in the mathematics department includes some student advising. She had experience as a student orientation leader before graduating in June with a bachelor’s degree, but she’s been in the position in the math department for less than six months.
In fact, seven of the 10 participants in the class had less than a year of experience as an academic advisor.
Kyle Westbrook, graduate program coordinator for electrical and computer engineering, and Julie Agosto-King, assistant director of advising and retention services for Education Opportunity Programs, facilitated the session.
McFarlane said workshops for academic advisors were once outsourced. Today's training features curriculum developed by UC Davis academic advisors themselves. A 15-member Advisor Training and Professional Development Task Force is charged with enhancing training and professional development and building a professional community.
The Office of Academic Advising also offers other opportunities for professional development and networking, including a certificate series for academic peer advisers, a mentoring and coaching program for staff and faculty advisors, and webinars. The office’s website includes a “virtual café” that publicizes upcoming monthly presentations and provides online access to past presentations related to academic advising.
The task force also plans the UC Davis Academic Advising Conference. The third annual event, on May 2, will focus on how advising can promote educational equity.