Academic Advising Takes Into Account More Than Students’ Courses
This article is one in an occasional series about the people, offices, and services dedicated to supporting WPI students and our community.
The idea to overhaul the academic advising experience for new WPI undergraduate students came to life last spring through a collaborative effort of student-focused professionals across campus. And that provenance seems fitting since the first year of college is, after all, largely about trying new things and connecting with others.
Paul Reilly, assistant dean of student success in the Office of Academic Advising (OAA), started thinking about different approaches to help new students after he learned that many incoming students were having difficulty navigating WPI’s systems, especially over the summer as they prepared to move to campus.
“That was their first direct experience with WPI’s processes, and it was overwhelming for students. I figured there had to be a different way to do this,” says Reilly.
Over the next few months, OAA staff partnered with the Admissions and Student Life offices to launch the new First-Year Welcome Experience—a revamped orientation program to help first-year students acclimate to campus life more smoothly. Last summer, each participating student (and their parent, if desired) was paired with an academic support advisor who talked with advisees about their course preferences and manually registered them for all A- and B-Term classes, a change that eliminated a major source of stress for students early in their time at WPI.
The OAA also looked at how to support faculty advisors, who work one-on-one with students throughout their undergraduate experience. Students are assigned a faculty advisor in their major at the beginning of their first spring semester. Ideally, the faculty advisor will communicate with the student’s OAA advisor and together the pair will guide their undergraduates through their time at the university.
“WPI’s curriculum is very flexible, which is great, but there are many degree requirements and each one has its own set of nuances,” says Jeannine Coburn, assistant professor in the Department of Biomedical Engineering and chair of the faculty Committee on Advising and Student Life. Coburn organized a recent training to help faculty understand those nuances.
“The training provided a one-stop shop where faculty could learn the gist of the campus-wide undergraduate requirements so we can more effectively guide our advisees—because if students are struggling to just navigate courses, they can’t really focus on other tasks,” Coburn adds.
Faculty advisors are also paying closer attention to the multiple responsibilities students juggle, Coburn notes. While Covid-19 didn’t, for the most part, create altogether new obligations for students, Zoom classes and asynchronous schedules made us all more aware of one another’s personal lives and obligations.
As a result, she adds, “faculty are trying to understand how we can better support our students in their education process, while also helping them tailor their courses for their unique career trajectory. As we mentor our advisees and offer career advice, we ask them, ‘How does this relate to future you? How do we help you get from where you are now to the person you want to be in the future?’”
This sort of future-self thinking fits in with the university’s focus on wellness. Amid the ongoing national student mental health crisis, campuswide conversations last spring sharpened that focus and created several new initiatives that weave well-being more seamlessly into the fabric of the WPI student experience.
One of those changes was to broaden the undergraduate physical education requirement to include wellness. Courses such as Koru Mindfulness Meditation and Walking for Fitness can fulfill that requirement, as can participation in Insight, a program during A- and B-Terms designed to help ease students’ transition to college.
“Our students are so busy, and if they don’t get class credit for something, they’re less likely to prioritize it. So we wanted to give them ‘permission’ to prioritize their well-being by making Insight a for-credit program,” says Wesley Boucher, assistant director of academic advising and coordinator of the Insight program.
“We really try to think about the quality of our students’ experiences at WPI,” Boucher adds. “Just because they can do something doesn’t mean they need to do it if it’s going to require taking on lots of stress. We used to talk a lot about doing ‘more in four [years].’ And while we still encourage students to work hard and stretch themselves, there’s more of an acceptance that doing ‘just enough in four’ is perfectly okay.”
Looking at the quality of students’ experiences means stepping back to consider the real-life impacts that specific programs, experiences, and requirements are likely to have on them. Those impacts can relate to practical things like a student’s daily schedule as much as to the subtleties of a student’s feelings. Reilly and the rest of the OAA staff weigh all of those as they continue to adjust WPI’s approach to academic advising—especially for first-year students.
“Transitioning to a new environment can be both energizing and challenging,” Reilly says. “We want students to know that they have the support from our community to help set them off on the right foot for their WPI experience and beyond.”