Students get educational edge
November 15, 2017
The transition of the college’s Advising Center to a new model for recruiting and advising is nearly complete and showing positive results.
“The national trend in higher education is toward the model of professional advisors and centralized advising units because it gives students an academic advantage,” said Stephanie Hart, director of the Advising Center.
Traditionally, the college’s students were assigned a faculty advisor. Now the center’s full-time advisors, who have advanced degrees and proven experience, work one-on- one with students on course selection, scheduling, and career planning.
This frees faculty members to concentrate on their academic and research responsibilities while continuing in a mentoring role. A formal faculty mentorship program, including guidance on internships, careers, and graduate study opportunities, is being developed.
“The college’s professional advising model is proceeding to maturity to match demand,” said Dean Paul Winistorfer. “The support students receive to guide their progression from admission to commencement demonstrates our commitment to ensuring their success.”
Student success is essential as the college advances from current enrollment of about 940 undergraduates to its goal of 1,250 by 2022, which is in step with enrollment growth for the university, according to Winistorfer.
“As the university and college grow, so do the complexity and choices,” he said. “The advisor’s role is to stay current on curricula changes across 11 majors on a daily basis as each student progresses to graduation.”
Aside from the required 120 credits to graduate, “every student’s check sheet of classes is unique,” Hart said. “No two students’ paths are exactly the same. Some may graduate early, some may study abroad. We help each student figure out their own path.”
The college’s transition to a professional advising model began to take shape in 2015, when the Advising Center was established and Hart, who had served as academic advising coordinator, was named director.
John Gray Williams was hired that year as director of recruitment. He has since been instrumental in promoting the college across Virginia and beyond, and driving enrollment. Much of his time is spent on the road visiting prospective students, school guidance counselors, and science teachers.
“Career planning begins on Day 1, when I first meet prospective students,” Williams said. “They are passionate about the environment and science, but they don’t often know about careers related to natural resources and conservation, wildlife and fisheries, geography and meteorology, and sustainable biomaterials. A whole new world opens up when they are introduced to the possibilities and career earning potential.”
Statistics for the spring 2017 semester indicate that students are responding well to the new advising model. The advising team had 725 student appointments, with some students visiting multiple times. “We are excited about those numbers and expect them to increase with our additional advising staff,” Hart said.
Two new advisors joined the staff this fall so that each of the four college departments has a dedicated professional advisor. Melissa Cumbia (Department of Forest Resources and Environmental Conservation) and Dana McGuire (Department of Sustainable Biomaterials) came on board in September. Lauren Varboncoeur, who has been on the staff since 2016, is now dedicated to the Department of Fish and Wildlife Conservation. Maureen Deisinger continues to advise students in the Department of Geography as she has since 2010, before the new advising model was adopted college-wide.
Several other staff members round out the Advising Center team. Professor Tom Hammett, interim associate dean of academic programs, represents the college on university-wide academic and student-centric issues, and works with faculty on curriculum development. Cathy Barker, student services coordinator, tracks course proposals, manages enrollment data, and plans commencement. Lisa Lawson, academic support specialist, serves as a resource at the front desk and responds to requests from within the university community and across the country.
Conveniently located at the entrance to Cheatham Hall, the Advising Center’s inviting glass façade is hard to miss. “Sometimes students don’t know where to turn. Now we have a central spot for them to meet with members of the Advising Center team, who are great resources,” Hart said.
“We are fostering a partnership among the Advising Center’s professional advisors, faculty members, and students,” Winistorfer said. “We enjoy a research-intensive, student-centered culture in the college, and the creation of the Advising Center is a demonstration of our commitment to the success of our students and to preparing them to be highly successful after they graduate.”