By Alicia Mandac

From 2007 to 2016, I worked in higher education in Washington, DC. When living in a career driven city like DC, a common question upon meeting someone new is: “What do you do?”

 “I’m an academic advisor.”

 “Oh, so like a high school guidance counselor?”

 “No, I work with undergraduates.”

 “That’s cool. So you help students pick classes and stuff?”

 “Well, not really. I help students figure their lives and tell them it’s all going to be okay.”

Upon reaching my one year anniversary as an Academic Advisor for the College of Letters and Science at UC Berkeley, and nine years overall as a college advisor, I have been reflecting a lot on this question: “What do I really do?”

As I seek answers, I find myself excited for future of academic advising. From the liberal arts to engineering, the transformational power of advising is taking center stage, pushing aside the field’s transactional roots. However, this is also what I find most frustrating about advising. The transactions that are a reality of the advisor job can cast a heavy shadow upon our work, covering up the meaningful conversations and significant impact we are making in the lives of students. It is from this place of excited frustration, or maybe frustrated excitement, that I wrote the following piece about how I see myself as an advisor, in hopes of finding a way to communicate what it is I actually do as an academic advisor.

In my experience, to be an academic advisor is to be misunderstood. Commonly, this is what people think I do:

  • Tell students what classes to take
  • Tell students what major/minor to pursue
  • Make decisions for students regarding their academic progress (i.e. late drops, withdrawals, extended time to degree)
  • Evaluate students’ academic performance based on GPA
  • Tell students yes or no according to university policy/procedure

While this might be what advising looks like from the outside, this is not how I approach my advising role with the College of Letters and Science at Berkeley. Degree requirements, policies and procedures, coursework can all be tracked by a computer and are actually the last reasons why I am an academic advisor. Are these important? Of course. They are the markers by which we measure degree completion and arguably, the rules and regulations define what it means to “earn a degree” on paper.

However, there are interesting, complex human beings trying to fulfill these requirements and make decisions according to policies and regulations. There is a powerful undercurrent of life experience, growth, and development that is propelling students through their education. It is here where my work as an advisor lies; in the dynamic world of change and uncertainty that students must tread through during their college years. The world that computer programs cannot capture.

To illustrate my approach, I will provide a few case studies from recent advising appointments:

Case Study #1: Student is failing MATH 1B and earned a D+ in MATH 1A in the previous semester. Wants to double major in History and Applied Math. Planning to take MATH 1B equivalent over summer at a community college to focus in on his math skills, to make sure he can be successful in math courses here.

Transactional approach: Discuss letter grade repeat policy, repeating courses at a community college, refer to math department to discuss applied math major, discuss double major procedure and outline requirements.

My approach: Spend time talking at length about his experience in MATH 1B course: What are the challenges? What might have he done differently? What has he learned from this situation? How does he want to move forward? Discuss the bigger picture about whether the Applied Math major is the best fit given his performance in MATH 1A and MATH 1B, and uncover assumptions he holds about majors and careers. Through open ended questions, elicit where his true passions lie in terms of his studies. Discuss the change process and growth/development that occurs in college. Help him reframe how he thinks about his education. After this discussion, help him determine next steps and how to move forward in a way that better aligns with his goals and academic passions. Outline related regulations and policies to ensure that his decisions adhere to such rules.

Case Study #2: Student is planning two major prerequisite courses (ECON 1 and MATH 16B) and one breadth for Fall 2017. She is pursuing Economics as a major, with Political Economy as an alternate. She wants to take another course in the fall and she came to advising for help in picking a fourth course. She noted that she does not want to take a class such as a deCal or seminar that does not count for any requirements.

Transactional approach: Provide her with resources to show her how to find open classes, give suggestions of what she can take and remind her about deadlines to add classes. Ask her what else she might be interested in taking.

My approach: Talk through what she envisions for her fall semester: Does she plan to do any extracurricular activities? What else does she anticipate on her plate? When she considers the ECON 1 and MATH 1B courses, how much time does she feel she would need to be successful in these courses? Spend time talking through the assumption that the only courses of value are those that fulfill some type of requirement and the tunnel vision that can happen when only focusing in on required courses. Help reframe her belief that taking 13 units means that she is taking it easy or not challenging herself enough. Provide perspective that this unit load could help her focus in on the major prerequisites, ensuring that she does well in the courses that will determine if she can declare the major. Discuss making decisions according to the “shoulds” in life and how this behavior can work against a person.

These two examples are glimpses into my advising style and demonstrate the following skill set:

  • Reframing and perspective taking
  • Exploring values
  • Challenging assumptions
  • Eliciting core interests
  • Open ended questioning
  • Motivational interviewing

It is these so-called “soft skills” that are the backbone of my approach as an advisor and enable me to move far beyond the transaction. When we stay at the transactional level, we float atop the surface of all the assumptions, expectations, uncertainties, and judgments that are strong forces in a student’s undergraduate career. What is more, we fail to recognize the unique identities, cultures, and life experiences of a student.

So who I am as an advisor? I am a developmental coach who builds relationships with students through open, honest, and transparent communication. My ultimate goal for every student is to ensure that they are fulfilled in their college education and tune into a path aligned with their core values; with the full understanding that those core values can and most likely will shift during the college years.

As I always tell students, my name is not on their transcript so I will never tell them what to do, what classes to take, what decisions to make, etc. My role is to help them find ownership of their college experience and feel empowered to make decisions that promote personal growth and fulfillment. This way at the end of the day their transcript, and ultimately diploma, represent so much more than just a piece of paper.  And as their advisor, I have done so much more than what a computer can ever do.

This is who I am as an advisor.

Alicia Mandac