Award highlights essential function of academic advisors

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If the advisor can be an effective advocate, then she or he is essentially helping the student take control of his/her education, and it may be the first time ever that students realize they really do own their education and the direction of their lives.”

At the end of each school year one of the awards conferred at Honors Convocation recognizes excellence in advising and highlights a faculty/staff function that is easy to overlook yet often crucial in determining a student’s successful passage to graduation.

As the end of the spring semester approaches, and as Honors Convocation gets closer, Advising and Career Center Director Sara Kinerson will be in her Dewey office reading comments that students have submitted throughout the year.

These comments will tell stories of how advisors have helped them succeed that year. Students nominate that year’s “most excellent” advisor, and after tallying the results the recipient of the award will be given a framed piece of student art, a $100 gift certificate, and well-deserved applause.

Some of the recent recipients of the award are Mary Martin, associate professor and co-chair of Fine and Performing Arts (winner 2011-2012), Gina Mireault, professor of Behavioral Sciences (2010-2011) and Tania Bacchus, professor of Environmental and Health Sciences (2009-2010). Their interviews paint a picture of what makes an advisor “excellent.”

“I originally thought that an advisor was a person who helped students select classes, but experience has taught me that students really do not need their advisor to serve in a clerical role,” said Gina Mireault in an e-mail interview.

“I’ve learned that an advisor is really more of an advocate for students. Often advisees need their advisor most when the student either has a great idea (e.g., a course they want to take to enrich their major, even though it doesn’t meet any requirement) or a major crisis (medical or otherwise).”

For Mireault, one of the most beneficial things an advisor can do is provide students with the type of motivation that will lead to a sense of empowerment for their own education. “If the advisor can be an effective advocate, then she or he is essentially helping the student take control of his/her education,” she said, “and it may be the first time ever that students realize they really do own their education and the direction of their lives.”

According to Mireault, her most joyous moments as an advisor are those when she witnesses growth within her students. “Those usually happen when I have upperclassmen in my office (working on my research project) and underclassman advisees stop by to check in or ask questions,” she said. “The upperclassmen invariably take over the advising session and it is truly just a joy to facilitate and to watch that kind of mentoring. Those are the best moments.”

Mireault commented on the importance of advisees being just as involved in the advising process as their advisor, and believes this shared responsibility will bring about the most beneficial advisor/advisee meetings. “I think the word ‘advisor’ is a poor description of the job, because it suggests that the advisor ‘knows all’ or ‘knows best,’ and that advisees are passive in the relationship,” said Mireault. “And that’s just not true. The most effective advising occurs when advisee and advisor are collaborating together in the interest of the student.”

One student nomination speaks of Mireault as being the best adviser on campus: “Gina Mireault goes the extra mile for every one of her advisees. There is never a time when Gina doesn’t show interest in your plans for school and you as an individual. She will always make sure that she schedules you into her day if you need to meet with her . . .[she is] an overall great teacher as well as adviser. Gina knows what is expected for the psych major and when I switched majors, I had no doubt in my mind that I would ask Gina to be my new adviser. She is caring, kind, and always has a smile on her face. Gina is the best teacher and adviser on campus!!” said the student.

Professor Martin said that she purposefully chose to teach at a smaller school so that she could fulfill the role of a student advisor as well as a professor.

“The role of an advisor is to have compassion and clarity,” said Martin. “Compassion because you should see that student as someone you could have been however many years ago.”

Part of Martin’s philosophy of advising is putting herself in the shoes of her students. “How would I want to be treated as a student, and what confusion would I have if I was a student at Johnson right now,” she said. “It’s about seeing them as a person, not advisee number twenty-five.”

Martin spoke about how one of her goals as an advisor is to be effective in helping her students make the transition from college to the workplace. “A good advisor should know what the student’s possibilities are, and what internships are out there,” she said. “As an advisor, the next step and goal is to help them make the transition from college to a career. That’s my personal goal as an advisor.”

As an important piece to advising she also emphasized availability. “We should be the navigators for them, or to help them navigate through Johnson waters,” she said.

A student nomination speaks of how Martin became one of the most important parts in the student’s academic success: “For the past three years, Mary has always been there for me to talk to regarding my academic progress. She has helped me immensely in guiding me towards my goals and has been hands down the best resource I have encountered in this school. I am so lucky to have had the pleasure of having Mary as my advisor for these past three years, and I couldn’t have asked for a better advisor. She always worked so hard to ensure I got out of school on time, even when my personal folder was a huge mess from switching majors and advisors,” said the student.

The student also spoke of the level of dedication and care that Martin shows towards her students: “The point I want to stress the most is that Mary worked tirelessly to get me back on track, and would always take the time to talk with me about any questions I had. I always left her office feeling surprised that an advisor would go to such an extent to ensure her advisees success, and it always made me so happy to have an adviser who would take so much time to help EACH of her advisees. I hope she can get the recognition she deserves, because in my opinion, she is the best advisor a student could ask for.”

Tania Bacchus has taught at JSC for 21 years. When she won the award she had taken medical leave for serious surgery. She was in the hospital for five weeks, and during that time she worried about her students, hoping that they didn’t feel left high and dry.

Bacchus spoke about the motivation and support that she received during her time away from her students. “I got a call from the academic dean’s office while I was at home recovering,” she said. “It really helped me because it was during a time when I was ill, and to get a call to say I had won…was quite special. When you were in the situation that I was, when you get that reinforcement that in fact you had been doing a good job with interacting with students, it’s very special.”

Bacchus thinks of advising as one of the many ways individuals benefit from others throughout their life. For her, having good advisors while going through college made a huge difference in the kind of decisions she made. “All of us benefit throughout our lives from having people who guide us into the right decisions and this is no different than that,” she said. “I know that if I didn’t have advisors when I was going through college I might not have made the right decisions for myself, and having somebody help me make these decisions is very important.”

One student nomination highlights Bacchus as being an advisor who is willing to help anyone in need. “The three years that I have had Tania as an advisor she has gone above and beyond what my previous advisor did to find classes that not only filled my requirements but suited my interest,” said the student. “Having Tania for several academic classes, I have also seen her take the time to help other students who are not even her advisees sort out their program evaluations and schedules to a degree their own advisors did not help them. Seeing the minimal distance some student’s advisors have gone to aid them proves just how incredible of an advisor Tania is as she is willing to take as much time as a student needs to find a schedule or set up a plan of study that allows them to succeed (regardless of who that student’s advisor actually is.”

The student also spoke of how Bacchus helped in other ways, including facilitating a desired internship, something that can be very time consuming. “Tania was willing to take the time and work extremely hard to assist me in writing internship contracts for two years, and to find a way to make my internship happen to begin with which took quite a bit of work,” said the student. “Overall, I feel that had I had any other advisor I might have had trouble in finding a schedule that suited my needs during my attendance at JSC and might have been unable to set up my internship at all. I cannot say enough just how wonderful of an advisor Tania is and how supportive she has been,” said the student.

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