As a recent Chancellor's Outstanding Staff Award recipient, Facebook communicator, and CalSO enthusiast, our June inspiring advisor has ideas about advising that you want to know about. Meet Christopher Hunn, Associate Director for Undergraduate Matters in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science.
How did you find yourself on this career path?
CH: Very serendipitously! I studied cognitive science here for my undergraduate work and interfaced with the CS division quite a bit. My emphasis was in neuroscience however and I started teaching high school as full-time faculty just two weeks after graduating. I taught AP Biology, Biotech 1 & 2, Physiology and Anatomy, and other courses which then led to running a California Partnership Academy with a STEM focus (it's essentially a themed charter school with corporate sponsors). Unfortunately, after the economic downturn of 2008, things became very challenging for educators as they saw much of their funding dry up.
Working in urban education without the necessary resources is not just difficult, it's also exceedingly stressful and high-stakes, so I decided to pursue a career change that was simpatico with my passion for advising students and impacting their performance--both academically and generally. My predecessor in CS was something of an "institution" and when she announced she was retiring, I had to try for what I knew would be something quite close to a dream job. I don't think anyone had any idea that the major would explode in this unprecedented surge of enrollment and majors; it's been both a labor of love as well as the busiest I've been in my entire life (somehow I'm much busier than I was on a 120% teaching contract and running a California Partnership Academy).
Do you have any of your own memorable experiences with advisors when you were in school?
CH: This is a great question. Part of what's amazing about my job, for me, is that as a first-generation college student who transferred to Cal, I had no idea about advising. I had done everything on my own through self-research and had I understood the value of advisors (or even what they "do") I would've utilized them much more often. My major advisor was great, but I only visited when I had to and it was very brief; this was mainly because it was during the busiest times of the year, but I had tremendous respect for her.
What is your favorite part of the job?
CH: Having serious impact on the lives of my students. When I figure out a way for a student to complete their "reach" major, despite the fact they discovered it the end of their sophomore year and have been discouraged by family, friends, etc., it's an amazing feeling (it's even better when they graduate with great performance). When a student made a fatal error in program planning and isn't graduating as intended, but I can figure out a way for a summer session course to count and graduate them on-time, it feels great. To know, nearly for certain, that had I not suggested a solution or helped in some way the result would've been a student paying 20k more for another semester, or losing the major they want, or not getting that "dream job", is a great feeling and far more satisfying than anything else I've done, though teaching is a close second.
You use Facebook to reach students--Is it a 'meeting them halfway' type of strategy? How else are you using social media of do you think this is a step other advisors should take?
CH: I definitely wouldn't say I'm a facebook fan in general, but it has been the most broadly useful tool in my advising. It's more of meeting them all-the-way, and I think that's why it works so well. When I'm getting dozens of email a month asking the same question, and I then decide to post a well-formed, comprehensive answer on facebook, it's amazing to see those email stop. Students are on facebook all of the time and they check it often because it's more engaging than email; does anyone check email for "fun" anymore? The best part is crowdsourcing advising. Empowering students to help each other and commending them when they do, builds community and respect, instead of simply answering questions. If a student asks a common question, other students will provide the precise link to a comprehensive answer I gave months ago, and then students can add to the thread by asking ancillary or related questions; it definitely feels like a tight-knit community. Of course, we have more than 3,000 students on our CS facebook page and some posts get hundreds of likes and 50 comments so I don't think this would be as useful for a really small group of students. It does, somehow, make an enormous student population feel more intimate and connected. It also proudly displays what takes place in our departments on a day-to-day basis. I think students engage advising more frequently now because they can see its utility, instead of relying on a misconception of what goes on in our office.
Any advice for the advising community?
CH: I'm still too new to this community to feel comfortable giving advice, but I'm happy to offer a suggestion to those who feel their job is routine. As advisors, we are often able to decide how we "practice" and that's a wonderful opportunity to decouple ourselves from routine procedure and engage with students as people who must work within procedures -- that are routine to us. Each time a student comes into my office I think, "What did I know about policy when I was here?" and the answer is, not very much. If you explain why our policies exist and how they're often in place to protect the student or ensure their graduation, it conveys genuine interest in the student's success and that can make all the difference--not just for them, but for you in the day-to-day. It makes all the difference for me. I'm sure this sounds cliche', but even I was surprised by how doing the same work, through a different lens, can fundamentally change the way you feel about your job.
Are you looking forward to CalSO?
CH: I'm looking very forward to CalSO. I'm a little nervous about attempting to meet all of the cs-intended students individually, but I'm very excited to have a cohort of students who may get a seamless advising experience during their stay at Cal. I attended every CalSO last year and covered some basic information about the major and initial course selection and it made a sizable difference in my work. I had far fewer students in crisis over their first semester, despite having far more students in our courses, and some of my most popular email queries basically stopped. Of course it's wonderful that this provided more time to work on other projects, but what it really did was bring students into the advising office before there was a crisis. It also became apparent that many of the students who were struggling when they visited my office had missed CalSO or weren't intending a STEM field at the time (I only presented for the physical sciences groups). There were even a few instances where students said, "I should've listened to the guy at my CalSO session, he basically said the same thing as you, but you were more convincing." This year, I hope to be as convincing at CalSO as I am in my office. :)