When Alejandro Gaytan Zepeda ’24, a first-generation, low-income student, first stepped onto campus, he was surprised by aspects of Harvard life.
“I took college courses my high school years, and that was very different from actually coming on the residential campus — opposite side of the country, the $50 billion endowment where the top one percent are,” Gaytan Zepeda said.
Like other freshmen, he received a first-year adviser, meant to facilitate his transition from high school to college. But Gaytan Zepeda said he soon realized Harvard’s formal advising system was ill-equipped to provide the necessary support.
“The infrastructure wasn’t really there for me,” he said. “I don’t think the adviser had the proper training in terms of how to provide resources. I had to do a lot of digging myself.”
Gaytan Zepeda said he ultimately leaned on upperclassmen for support.
Harvard undergraduates receive a series of advisers over the course of their four years at the College. During freshman year, students receive a first-year adviser, who may also be their live-in proctor. Freshmen also receive a Peer Advising Fellow — upperclassmen assigned to check in with individual freshmen.
During sophomore year, students are paired with a tutor in their house before receiving a concentration adviser specific to their declared field of study.
Though Gaytan Zepeda described his first two years at Harvard as “difficult” due to insufficient support from his assigned advisers, he acknowledged the advising system’s “crucial role” in helping students from all backgrounds succeed in the face of Harvard’s rigor.
Indeed, Harvard lauds its advising system as “the key to ensuring that [students] are able to explore fully all of the curricular and co-curricular opportunities that exist as part of the liberal arts and sciences education,” according to its website.
But some students and advisers are less convinced of its merits.
For some undergraduates, assigned advisers have fulfilled their roles well, serving as valuable guides through the uncertainties and challenges of undergraduate life.
Sidnee N. Klein ’25 said her first-year adviser helped her steer through both the social and academic pressures of Harvard.
“My first-year adviser was really helpful,” Klein said. “I felt like our advising sessions were simultaneously about my mental health but also the trajectory of my classes and [the adviser] was very supportive.”
Victoria M. Zhang ’24 said her advisers were not overbearing but always available when she reached out for help.
“The advisers I’ve had, most of them have been not super hands-on — which I like,” Zhang said. “Anytime I reach out to them, they respond quickly with very good feedback.”
But others have pointed to gaps in advising system's ability to provide individualized counsel, particularly in light of the unique and varied backgrounds of Harvard's undergraduates: Of the current freshman class, 15.3 percent hail from outside the United States, and a record-high 19.4 percent are the first in their family to attend college.
Alida S. Andon ’25, a first-generation college student, said her first-year adviser and proctor were unable to provide sufficient guidance on how to navigate pre-med requirements.
“I didn’t really have great advising until sophomore year. I feel freshman year, they just weren’t really guiding me in the direction I needed,” Andon said. “I didn’t know any of the requirements. I didn’t know the pre-med track.”
Andon attributed the challenges to the fact that it was her proctor’s first year in the role and added that her adviser, who also held a dean position, was “really busy."
Aracely J. Davila ’25 said a “lack of communication” characterized her freshman advising experience.
“I only talked to my adviser twice my whole first year, so I think communication is what was lacking,” Davila said. “It was really up to me to go and find those resources in the first year.”
Before registration each term, students are required to meet with their adviser to get their classes approved and registration hold lifted. In contrast to her previous advising experience, Klein said her sophomore adviser’s role has been relegated to signing off on courses she has already selected.
“I’ve needed to navigate — almost advise — myself and then just get confirmation from my advisers,” Klein said of her experience this semester.
Ruppert-Gómez said meetings with her adviser have been condensed into meeting once per semester for “10, 15 minutes over Zoom” to get her registration hold lifted. She added she feels there is “a gap” in her relationship with her concentration adviser because her career questions are often outsourced to other resources like Harvard’s Office of Career Services.
“There’s some barrier somehow, and I don’t know how to overcome that,” Ruppert-Gomez said. “It’s hard to find someone to really direct you, in my opinion, and someone that can not only direct you but you can build that connection with.”
Dissatisfied with Harvard’s formal system, some students have turned to older classmates for advice on how to navigate classes, social scenes, and careers.
“I’ve actually had more advising on classes and what to take and what not to take and more advice from my classmates and peers than my actual adviser,” Marcella R. Ruppert-Gómez ’23 said.
In an emailed statement, Advising Programs Office Director Aliya S. Bhimani wrote that Harvard students are encouraged to seek informal advisers such as peers and faculty members, noting that "everyone is willing to help in our community."
“The beauty of the College’s broad advising network is that it includes peer advising fellows (PAFs), who are in fact older students,” Bhimani wrote. “An advising network is large, and students shouldn’t feel bound by certain individuals alone, but should feel empowered to reach out widely.”
Aeden Marcus ’25 said she has been “very happy” with her assigned advisers but finds it “frustrating” that most academic advising happens so close to the time of course registration.
“It sometimes is frustrating to not be able to get advising until the week before you choose classes or the week that you’re choosing classes,” Marcus said. “Harvard does everything so late, but now we don’t have shopping week — it’s different.”
In May, more than 60 percent of Harvard’s faculty voted to replace shopping week — a longtime scheduling quirk that allowed students to sample classes during the week before the start of term — with previous-term registration. The faster registration timeline is set to go into effect in spring 2024, raising the question of how the role of academic advising may be impacted.
Shopping week was overwhelmingly popular among undergraduates, with more than 96 percent voting in favor of keeping it during a Sept. 2021 referendum.
Bhimani, the APO director, said the adoption of previous-term course registration “necessitates change” in Harvard’s advising programs.
“Efforts have thus far gone into understanding how advising and support networks currently work back on campus after the pandemic necessitated shifts, and identifying what gaps or challenges exist with advising, with an eye to future change and enhancement,” Bhimani wrote.
Advisers are typically Harvard staff members, faculty, or graduate students who opt to advise undergraduates on top of their full-time roles.
Kenneth Alyass, a non-resident tutor in Leverett House who advises History concentrators, said he was “amazed” by the advising Harvard offered its students compared to his undergraduate experience.
At the same time, Alyass questioned the “trade-off” the system creates for those who choose to be advisers.
“I feel like universities want to do this stuff really well, but on the cheap, too,” Alyass said. “You think about these roles — concentration adviser, res adviser, all these various advisers, proctor positions. Ostensibly, they could all be full-time faculty positions that just emphasize advising and teaching a bit more than research, similar to what they do at private liberal arts colleges.”
Alyass said the system might be improved if faculty members were to fulfill the advising role.
“Would it look differently if we had full-time staff members doing this stuff instead of grad students or other weird positions?” he added.
One proctor, who spoke to The Crimson on the condition of anonymity out of job security concerns, said they feel “stretched” by having to provide academic advising they feel unprepared for. Last semester, The Crimson reported some proctors felt elevated levels of burnout and tension, with some proctors advising double the typical number of students.
“Other universities don’t just outsource this important role to the community. They hire folks who have studied this and know the ins and outs of the curriculum and can really advise students in meaningful and individualized ways,” they said. “Harvard can do better and I hope that they do pay knowledgeable staff to be the advisers for students in the future.”
In response to concerns about Harvard’s advising system, Bhimani wrote that “there are many models for success.”
Outside of the College’s academic advising system, Harvard hires full-time staff in the Office of Career Services, who answer students’ career questions.
The proctor also said they felt “ill-prepared” to provide academic advising for freshmen transitioning into college, despite attending trainings hosted by the Board of First-Year Advisers.
Bhimani wrote in her statement that the Advising Programs Office “leaned in heavily on training and supporting all advisers ahead of this academic year.”
“Advisers were offered in-person and virtual training sessions, recorded sessions, presentations and a robust tool kit of resources in a new centralized online Advising Portal,” Bhimani wrote. “Regular communication to members of the advising network continues to support the community throughout the year via newsletters, active Slack groups, on-going training sessions, and consultation with the APO when challenges arise.”
In addition to training, all first-year advisers — excluding PAFs — receive confidential information about their students, including their Common App materials and test scores, in order to facilitate personalized advice.
“I’m very grateful that Harvard actually gave me all this context. Otherwise, I would have been very uncomfortable just walking in blind and having to force the student to tell me all these things,” said Pablo Lozano, a new proctor this year. “Harvard was pretty kind in the sense that they weren’t making the students have to retell their story over and over and over again.”
Outside of offering academic advice, proctors and advisers also provide emotional support for students.
“The fine line between academic advising and proctoring isn’t always clear because I think oftentimes personal issues blend into the academic aspect,” Lozano said. “I’ve genuinely appreciated being able to be a resource that can be accessed at any hour of the day, anytime of the week.”
“It’s just helpful to have someone there constantly reminding you and showing you what resources and opportunities are available at an institution like this,” he added.
In a September interview, Dean of Harvard College Rakesh Khurana said the College is currently focused on improving freshman advising.
“What we’re going to be looking at in the future is how we strengthen advising for first-year students who have not yet arrived on campus, and how to understand how to navigate their academic choices as well as understand the Harvard system more critically,” Khurana said.
Khurana said he hopes “fact-based information” becomes more accessible and accurate, making advising more efficient for both parties.
“In an ideal world, the advisers would then spend more time working with certain questions and hearing the student’s perspective and points of view instead of looking for that information,” Khurana said.
In her statement, Bhimani wrote that the APO in the last year has focused on improving training for both proctors, non-resident first-year advisers, and broader College staff.
Maria Keselj ’23, a three-time PAF, said training this year was more substantial than what the APO provided in past years.
“This last year was my first time getting official PAF training. We arrived on campus three days early and had full days of speeches from people and going through scenarios,” said Keselj, a former Crimson Editorial editor. “My first year being a PAF it was the complete opposite — I was kind of just thrown into the deep end.”
The APO expanded the PAF role this year, training PAFs for the first time to provide academic advising to freshmen — a shift Keselj described as a "complete 180."
“Just this year, they introduced an academic advising portion to the role,” Keselj said. “There’s a perspective that I feel upperclassmen can give on classes, which students can’t otherwise obtain through academic advisers or proctors, so it was a good change.”
Still, some students expressed hope for reforms to Harvard’s upperclassman advising system as well.
Gaytan Zepeda said he hopes the College can include an “FGLI voice” in designing changes going forward.
Darian I. Benitez Sanchez ’25 said he misses the many “links to support” that he had through his freshman advising network.
“I really liked the structure where, especially for first-years, you have a PAF and you have your proctor, it’s so many links to support,” Benitez Sanchez said. “That was the best part about the advising system. And if there’s a way to really ramp that up, that would be great.”
—Staff writer Vivi E. Lu can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @vivielu_.
—Staff writer Leah J. Teichholtz can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @LeahTeichholtz.