Freshman Advising: Under Construction



Stories from students reveal that, despite ramped up efforts and investment from many places within the University, some problems with the advising system persist. Many advisers are able to give the time and attention to students necessary, but others are too busy with their full-time jobs; either way, advisers face challenges guiding students through a vast curriculum on which no one has complete expertise.



Advising Programs Office Under Construction

The fourth floor of the Smith Campus Center is under construction. Right by the elevator, a crew of workers guts and reinforces the ceiling. A few steps down, by the end of the hall, the staff of the Advising Programs Office is in the midst of building next year’s Board of Freshman Advisers.

The stream of candidates includes: a professor of Comparative Literature; the director of undergraduate studies in Chemistry; a senior associate director of athletics; a postdoctoral fellow in Stem Cell Biology; an alumni affairs officer; and a Divinity School administrator.

The BFA is a diverse body composed of about 400 resident and non-residential advisers from all parts of the University. The Advising Programs Office and its small staff of six is responsible for coordinating and overseeing Harvard’s formal advising system, which guides first-year students through the maze of courses and requirements that compose Harvard’s undergraduate education. Though students arrive on campus with a pre-appointed network of peer and residential advisers, the academic adviser is billed as the point person for students entering the curricular labyrinth.

Freshman academic advising at Harvard has undergone a complete rethinking in the past decade, with changes to its administration and philosophy. There has been a marked rise in the number of non-residential academic advisers and a serious investment by the University in advising oversight.

Stories from students reveal that, despite ramped up efforts and investment from many places within the University, some problems with the advising system persist. Many advisers are able to give the time and attention to students necessary, but others are too busy with their full-time jobs; either way, advisers face challenges guiding students through a vast curriculum on which no one has complete expertise.

‘WE HAVE IDENTIFIED SOME WEAKNESSES’

Problems with advising at Harvard are not new. In 2002, then-Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences William C. Kirby initiated the first major review of Harvard’s undergraduate curriculum in three decades. Three years later, after intensive research conducted by eight committees focusing on individual issues, Kirby’s office released the Curricular Renewal, which delivered recommendations on areas from pedagogy to Wintersession. The Review’s longest report, at 44 pages, came from the Standing Committee on Advising and Counseling.

On the subject of advising, the report’s conclusion was clear: Advising at Harvard was in need of repair. The Standing Committee “identified some weaknesses in the first year advising experience,” which ranged from ineffective adviser training to disparate interests between advisers and their students.

Then, as now, academic advisers came in the form of non-residential faculty and staff members, or residential proctors living in freshman dorm entryways. At the time the report was written, the 62 proctors carried the bulk of the advising load, each assigned to 20 to 30 students. There were 232 non-residential advisers, averaging two advisees each. In total, about three quarters of Harvard’s first-year students went to their proctors for study card signatures.

In the early 1990s, Glenn R. Magid served as a proctor in Thayer Hall. During his time as a proctor, the number of students he was required to advise was so large that he felt it detracted from the time that he could dedicate to each student.

Glenn R. Magid Outside of His Office
Glenn R. Magid, director of the Advising Programs Office, stands outside of his office on the fourth floor of the Smith Campus Center.

“We were the advisers for sort of all the students in our entryways,” Magid says. “[Proctors] had a much greater advising load, and it was insupportable.”

Until 2006 there was no singular office at Harvard dedicated to advising; the recruitment and matching of academic advisers to advisees was coordinated by the Freshman Dean’s Office. Many other elements of the present freshman advising program simply didn’t exist. There was no “Advising Fortnight” or “Professors and Pastries” to help guide first-year students into a concentration or introduce them to faculty in a casual setting.

The report’s largest structural recommendation was to create a so-called “Office of Advising” that would serve not as a place where students could go for guidance, but as one that would “help to improve the effectiveness of all our advising.” The imagined office would fulfill roles ranging from adviser coordination and training to evaluation.

Following the release of the Curricular Review, freshman advising underwent several key changes. The report’s recommendation for the creation of an Office of Advising was realized in the form of the Advising Programs Office, which would take on many of the FDO’s former tasks, including selecting and assigning advisers.

Almost 10 years later, the office now has six staff members that work year-round finding and training advisers, managing the Peer Advising Fellows program, and coordinating various events throughout the year.

Gregory Tucci, a co-director of undergraduate studies in the Chemistry department, served as a member of the Standing Committee on Advising and Counseling. He says he believes that the creation of the APO was successful in institutionalizing advising as “not adjunct to the student experience, but part of the student experience.”

“It’s really quite amazing how in this past decade, advising has just changed so radically at Harvard,” Tucci says. “When we started this Advising Programs Office, it really helped to infuse advising into lots of conversations around here....I don’t think it was valued as much in the past.”

In addition to the new office, Harvard committed to lessening the burden placed on proctors by increasing the number of non-residential advisers. The Board of Freshman Advisers—made up of all proctors, as well as faculty and staff who serve as freshman academic advisers—has since grown by over 100 people. The number of proctors has remained relatively stable, but there are now close to 360 non-residential advisers.

This increase has significantly lowered the advising load on proctors, who now average approximately six to eight advisees. Dean of Freshmen Thomas A. Dingman ’67, a former proctor himself, says this change has been positive in that it reversed a system in which proctors were overloaded and “students would get cheated.”

UNDERSTANDING THE APO

Magid, the former Thayer proctor, takes his job very seriously. Wearing a dark suit accompanied by a thick beard and a deep baritone voice, Magid sits in his office on the fourth floor of the Smith Campus Center and discusses his passion for his responsibilities. He now works as the director of the Advising Programs Office, but his time as a freshman entryway proctor almost 20 years ago still helps color his philosophy on advising today.

And in an office that’s less than a decade old, with six staff members responsible for coordinating close to 400 freshman academic advisers and about 190 peer advising fellows, the system won’t function without complete buy-in at the top.

Glenn R. Magid Discusses Advising in his Office
Glenn R. Magid discusses the advising resources at Harvard in his office at the Smith Campus Center.

A holistic view of advising prevails at the APO, and Magid sets the tone. In both recruiting academic advisers and pairing them with students, he looks for a dedication that reflects his own.

“We want people who are really dedicated and who are very, very clear on what the expectation is—and it is an intensive expectation,” Magid says. “What is the priority for us is that we have excellent people who understand what the freshman experience is about, who know advising, who have dedication to the role. If that balance of people happen to be all faculty, fantastic. If it happens to be all staff, so be it.”

However, Dingman says it’s also largely a function of who has the time and motivation for the entirely voluntary—and unpaid—position.

“Frankly, it’s who is available and who wants to take on this role,” Dingman says. “Our experience has been that folks in those areas have to overcome, maybe to a greater extent, the stigma attached to the role. But in fact, some of their scores [on the APO’s annual advising survey] are very, very solid, so it’d be too bad to throw them all out because they don’t have the right academic label.”

Magid says the APO wants to engineer meaningful connections between students and advisers, but not based one-to-one academic matches. In his time as a proctor, Magid felt overloaded by the number of students he was expected to advise, and feels the current system with fewer students per adviser allows for closer relationships. Both incoming students and advisers fill out questionnaires detailing a range of interests, both academic and social, and from there Magid and his office work very deliberately to make pairings.  

Matching over 1,600 freshmen and nearly 400 advisers may seem daunting, but fortunately Magid has help in his office from someone with dedication similar to his own. Brooks Lambert-Sluder ’05 is an assistant director in the APO, as well as a proctor in Apley Court. His first job after graduating from Harvard was helping to work on the Curricular Renewal report, and he plays a key role in overseeing the PAF program and running the BFA matching and training processes.

SETTING THE BAR

“Expectations for both advisers and advisees may be unclear or confusing.”

- Curricular Renewal in Harvard College (2006)

When Lambert-Sluder goes through the recruitment and matching processes, he looks for someone who buys into the APO’s holistic vision. He also looks for advisers who will help their students not only in academics, but also in navigating Harvard as an institution.

“We’re in the business of making sure all of our advisers are invested in advising all of our students with a lens for holistic advising and that’s something that’s constantly improving,” Lambert-Sluder says. “Harvard is also a very complex place; there are a lot of resources, and a big role in advising is making sure students can navigate those resources well.”

When adviser matches are made, oftentimes the determining factor is a common hobby or geographic background. Some advisers deliberately choose countries or cities whose students they prefer to work with. Lambert-Sluder says this is about creating a spark between student and adviser without having to start from scratch.

Drawing on the multi-faceted approach of the student-adviser matching process, the College envisions advisers as serving a variety of roles. They are meant to be consultants for academic matters as well as resources for extracurricular life and members of a larger advising network.

Dean of the College Rakesh Khurana, who serves as an academic adviser himself, says the relationship is meant to serve as an introduction to the Harvard College experience, and to help students when they confront the “firehose” of opportunities that the University presents.

“It’s to have an opportunity to work with somebody who has a few years ahead of them at Harvard and who can act as a sounding board and help students think through their aspirations,” Khurana says. “I always tell my students you can do everything at Harvard, you just don’t have to do it all at once, and it is about getting them off to a good start.”

In addition to trying to select individuals with common dedication to advising, the APO expects freshman advisers to have a minimum baseline of curricular knowledge. Magid says this includes information about overall degree requirements, concentrations, the General Education program, and additional advising services.

Many current and former members of the BFA recognize that the role of the academic adviser does not stop with knowledge about the in-classroom experience at Harvard. David F. Elmer ’98, the director of undergraduate studies in the Classics department and a former freshman adviser says, “freshman advising frankly centers on questions that are not strictly about course selection…there’s a much broader range of issues there.”

Anya Bernstein Bassett is the director of undergraduate studies for Social Studies and a freshman adviser, and says she views the role as covering more than just formal academics.

“With freshmen, my job is to help them acculturate to Harvard both academically and socially,” Bassett writes in an email. “Sometimes I act as a mom to them, asking about their sleep habits, making sure they are getting regular exercise and finding balance in their lives.”

When it comes to academics, advisers conceive of themselves not as the ultimate sources of knowledge but as directors of the large and often overwhelming amount of resources at Harvard. For Tucci, who has been an academic adviser since 2002, advisers are there to “help students synthesize all of the information that they have out there.…And then see how they can use that information to make a decision.”

On helping students come to answers, Tucci says, “I try not to be prescriptive. I try as hard as I can not to tell people what to do. You have to let students make their own decisions because if you’re telling them what to do you’re taking away all their agency and all their ability to grow and develop.”

Twice a year, one week into each semester, advisers and advisees must meet in order for students to get their advisers’ signatures on study cards. At minimum, the relationship is one in which advisers must sign off on the courses chosen by their students. However, the curricular review included an advising calendar, which recommended that advisers meet with freshmen once or twice before signing their study cards and email or meet with them periodically throughout the semester. These continuing interactions would ideally cover topics like add-drop, midterm review, and final exam preparation.

DISSATISFIED CUSTOMERS

“Quality of advice is too variable.”

- Curricular Renewal in Harvard College (2006)

In practice, the APO’s aspirations for a large team of voluntary dedicated advisers able to holistically guide first-year students through Harvard doesn’t always play out. Some students express a dissatisfaction with the amount of information that their advisers are able to provide. Harvard’s curriculum is inherently complicated and vast, and for freshmen encountering Harvard academics for the first time, they may be frustrated by unmet expectations of advisers who can provide all the answers.

Additionally, many students report a lack of outreach and time commitment on behalf of advisers, while others found their advisers weren’t helpful in providing advice, academic or otherwise, and thus turn elsewhere for help.

When Gabriella A. Germanos ’18 arrived on campus this past fall, she had no idea what she wanted to study. She came to college with a general interest in the humanities, but hoped that in navigating Harvard’s nearly 3,000 courses offered to undergraduates, she needed some help. However, she says she’s resorted to looking up requirements and courses herself.

"I’m very disappointed by the lack of advising I’ve received,” Germanos says. “I am well aware of the requirements I have to complete, so I tend to just spend hours on my own deciding what classes to take. But in terms of just knowing what kinds of things I should get done by freshman year or what kinds of things are good or bad, it’s more just talking to upperclassmen and my PAF and perhaps my proctors.”

Germanos wasn’t alone in reaching out to other advising resources out of a lack of faith in the academic advising system. Aisha Bhoori ’18 says she has developed a network of upperclassmen to whom she can go to for advice based on their shared experiences in the First-Year Urban Program or at the Institute of Politics in lieu of the formal advising system.

“I trust my FUP mentors and my IOP mentors…a little bit more than I trust institutionalized advising, just because they know me, they know my interests,” she says. “It’s a little less bureaucratic and more just personal.”

Janice Y. Jia ’17 arrived on Harvard’s campus a year ago similarly undecided on what she wanted to study. However, her issue with the advising system is not about frequency of meetings, but whether advisers are simply able to provide the kind of information that makes those meetings useful.

“I’m not sure how much direction they can give to the advisers and how much they know about the most popular classes, the best professors,” Jia says. “What I’m looking for in a great adviser is someone who gives me more information. So I come in with a list or something and they tell me, ‘Oh, this professor is really awesome,’ or, ‘This program is really great.’ Because I have the basics down. Maybe that’s just expecting too much.”

Not all students report that they’ve found the system to be unhelpful. Victor Domene ’18 says that as a Brazilian student, he shares the same academic adviser as many of his fellow countrymen. He says that he’s had a positive experience in being matched with an adviser who has knowledge of his background.

‘LABOR INTENSIVE’

One challenge to meeting students’ expectations may be that most academic advisers, while passionate about their relationships with students, have other jobs that take precedence over advising. Being an adviser is a secondary concern as an unpaid non-residential position, making it difficult to devote a lot of time away from advisers’ primary responsibilities.

“I loved it, but because I have so many other commitments, I had to give it up,” says Caroline Light, a former academic adviser and current director of undergraduate studies for the Studies of Women, Gender, and Sexuality. “It’s very labor intensive.”

Light further says the sheer scope of academics at Harvard contributed to the difficulty of the job. “Learning the curriculum was the hardest part for me,” she says. “I think that was harder than advising.”

The time crunch at Harvard affects many advisers, especially those that work in academia. Although they may volunteer to be an adviser out of personal interest, Dingman says there are certain institutional barriers that may hold them back.

“It’s tough especially for faculty, because faculty, once tenured, aren’t used to reporting to anyone, and they work very hard. There’s a lot on their plate, from publications to conferences in their disciplines,” he says. “Some I think just find it hard to make the full commitment.”

The rise of non-residential advisers over the past decade has played a part in underscoring the significant obligations that advisers have to each advisee. From the perspective of proctors, all of whom are also academic advisers, the academic aspects of freshman life are inseparable from more general well-being. Living alongside students in the College’s 61 first-year entryways, proctors are the primary College staff members with whom freshmen interact.

Lisa Frankel, a proctor in Matthews Hall from 2004 to 2006, says she often dealt with the social and emotional issues of her students.

“Academics kind of blended in with that together,” Frankel says. “I definitely had one kid who I pulled out of Lamont and made him go to sleep during finals.”

Non-residential advisers may be less able to dedicate as high a proportion of their time to advisees as proctors can. “A lot of the advising would happen in the halls or they’d knock on my door. It was all the time,” Frankel says. “They had access to an adviser when they needed it.”

However, Tucci says the lack of time and quick pace of life at Harvard affects not just faculty and staff, but the students they advise as well.

“I think Harvard is a busy place, so it’s always hard to get people to sit down and have a conversation, from the student point of view and the faculty point of view,” Tucci says. “One of its challenges is always going to be the busyness that we all have and trying to find a way to slow us down and sit down and get together and have conversations.”

ACCOUNTABILITY

“Advisers are not…accountable with regard to their performance.”

- Curricular Renewal in Harvard College (2006)

When it comes to holding advisers accountable, the APO has one important tool; its annual midyear advising survey has a participation rate of almost 90 percent among first-year students, offering a robust set of data for administrators to analyze. The survey measures students’ satisfaction with their advisers, and the information is used by administrators to identify advisers who may need extra guidance.

According to Jasmine M. Waddell, the freshman resident dean for Elm Yard, freshman resident deans receive a list of underperforming non-residential advisers, and Waddell says she arranges meetings with every individual on her list. Waddell says that oftentimes, advisers who receive the worst marks are trying very hard but are not what students are searching for in a match.

However, in cases when an adviser receives consistently low scores, Waddell says that “sometimes advisers are encouraged not to return.” What remains unclear is if advisers are ever explicitly told they may not come back. Magid declined to comment on that question, as did Lambert-Sluder.

In fact, though Lambert-Sluder called the participation rate “awesome,” he says that, because the sample size of students rating a given adviser is fairly small, the data is not as representative as it seems.

The role of accountability in the academic advising system is also colored by the fact that academic advisers serve in a voluntary capacity, and don’t receive compensation for their time, as opposed to PAFs, who receive a $1,000 stipend, and proctors, who are compensated in the form of room and board.

Illana Rosen, who worked in the admissions office at Harvard and served as an academic adviser from 2002 to 2004, says she would skip meals to meet with her advisees, and that the lack of financial compensation did not affect her motivation. However, she says that because academic advisers are volunteers and not professional advisers, they need intrinsic motivation to commit to the role.

Referencing the distinction between proctors who serve as academic advisers and non-residential advisers, Frankel worries that by virtue of their different positions, non-proctor advisers may be less dedicated.

“If you’ve got a proctor as your adviser, that person is already by default extremely committed to ensuring that freshman have a really good first year experience. It’s a priority for them to begin with,” Frankel says. “I don’t know if that’s always the case with someone else.”

On the other hand, many people think that the non-professional nature of Harvard’s advising staff is a positive for the students, and doesn’t affect advisers’ ability to be held accountable.  

“Some institutions pay their advisers an extra stipend...maybe that provides more accountability,” Dingman says. “I’ve never felt—well, my role [as Dean of Freshmen] is different—I never felt I needed some accountability, I wouldn’t [serve as an academic adviser] if I didn’t feel like the relationship should result in something that’s useful.”

The make-up of the BFA staff stays the same from year to year, according to Magid, and he says that he gives serious consideration to advisers who are not performing up to expectations.

“The relationship is a two-way street. If students are not responding to advisers then that’s another consideration in the fray. But if it is the case, and I don’t doubt that... when it is the case, that advisers are not fulfilling their responsibilities, that’s something I regret deeply and take very seriously,” he says.

MOVING ON

In 2006, as part of the changes proposal Curricular Renewal, the deadline on which students had to declare their concentrations was moved from freshman spring to sophomore fall. The shift added an extra semester in which students no longer have extensive freshman advising networks; nor do they have official departmental advisers. Instead, they have sophomore advisers—staff associated with upperclassman Houses.

While sophomore year more fully integrates academic guidance and residential life, sophomore advising is not always an improvement on the year before, according to some students. Jia says she wishes she had gotten more advice on course selection sophomore year. “I was like, ‘I’m shopping 10 classes,’ and then I disappear for a week. I come back and then she signs the paper.”

The Standing Committee on Advising and Counseling, anticipating that the date of declaration would be pushed back, recommended that students have the same advisers for freshman year and sophomore fall “as often as possible.” The suggestion, however, was not adopted by the College, leaving some students with the sense that sophomore fall is a semester of limbo.

“I’d like to see more connection between freshman and sophomore advising,” says Gaby Ruiz-Colon ’16, a PAF. “Freshman year is a transition that everyone expects. Everyone knows that the switch from high school to college is going to be tough. Sophomore year is extremely different from freshman year. Sophomore year comes with reconciling these new identities: your House, your concentration.”

Whether the structure of advising will change such that freshman advisers continue to serve into their students’ third semesters at college is not “an active discussion” within the APO, according to Lambert-Sluder.

Once students declare their concentrations, advising resources are primarily found within individual departments. Tutors, professors, and department staff members are often highly knowledgeable about course offerings and concentration requirements, because they need only to know the details of a single field.

The smaller, specialized nature of academic departments and committees allows students to receive significant attention from advisers who have a much stronger grasp on a student’s given academic interests. Elmer and Tucci both say they are able to have individual meetings with all of the concentrators in their departments. Tucci goes as far as developing a tentative plan of study with every chemistry concentrator.

“When I’m advising my own students in the program, I know the curriculum so well...I usually know in advance what's coming up the coming year because I make those hires and I help appoint the lecturers,” Light says. “ I have a really good sense of what our requirements are so I feel really confident.”

At the end of March, Annenberg will host representatives of the College’s 48 concentrations. The space so closely linked with Harvard’s freshman year experience will become the kickoff location for Advising Fortnight and the starting point in the transition to becoming upperclassmen. With the move to sophomore year, some of the problems associated with freshman advising fade away. But for the Class of 2018, that transition is still several months away.

As the APO begins to assemble its slate of academic advisers for the Class of 2019, its office—and approach to advising—remains under construction.

—Staff writer Gregory A. Briker can be reached at gbriker@college.harvard.edu.

—Staff writer Ivan B. K. Levingston can be reached at Ivan.Levingston@thecrimson.com. Follow him on Twitter @IvanLevingston.