Thursday, May 26, 2016

Maureen Schafer explains the role of academic adviser

By Sara Moninger

What’s one thing that differentiates the University of Iowa from some of its peers? Mandatory student advising. All first-year students must meet at least three times during the fall semester with their academic adviser, someone who will help them develop a plan to meet their academic goals.

Most first-year students are assigned to an academic adviser in the Academic Advising Center based on their major (the exception is students directly admitted into the colleges of business, engineering, or nursing—they meet with an adviser from their college). Students first connect with their adviser during Orientation to plan their fall schedule, and then they meet at least three more times in the fall, including an appointment to authorize spring registration.

 “Students at Iowa have an adviser who knows their name, and I think that’s important,” says Maureen Schafer, senior associate adviser in the UI Academic Advising Center. “Some schools operate under a ‘let us know if you have questions’ policy, and that can be a problem, because people who need help don’t always ask questions.”

Schafer has worked in advising at Iowa since 1999, and she says an adviser is like a guide who helps students navigate their overall college experience:

Q. How is an academic adviser different than a guidance counselor?

First of all, we understand that students come to the university with varied experiences with guidance counselors. What students can expect to be different, however, is that their relationship with their academic adviser is one that has some structure to it. It’s very intentional—we are not just here to answer questions when students have them. We assume there are many questions they don’t know to ask, and that’s why we require appointments. While we answer the questions they do have, we also are proactive and guide them with our own questions, like “How are you feeling about your major?” 

Q. Do students come to you with questions that are not academic in nature?

All the time. We can be a good point person at the university, helping students find the best resources on campus and making referrals. Some of that is academic, and some of it is not. In fact, sometimes they’re surprised when they come in for their first planning appointment and we start by asking, “So, where are you living, and how do you like it?” or “What have you gotten involved in outside of class?” Students often expect the appointment to be all business, but we really are interested in their overall university experience. 

Q. What changes have you noticed in students since you became an adviser?

We have seen an increase in mental health concerns, and that’s a nationwide issue. Parenting itself has changed over the years, and our students have varying levels of their own self advocacy. At Orientation, we tell parents: “Your student might be overwhelmed at the end of the day, and that’s normal. They may make more decisions today than they did in all of high school in terms of classes and requirements.” Students who don’t have a lot of skill in making their own decisions have a harder transition, and we see our role as helping empower students to advocate for themselves and also to really engage in their own education. We don’t want them to think it’s overwhelming; we want them to think it’s exciting.