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Seeking guidance: Academic advisers play a key role in students’ success

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Jake Brand was failing math his sophomore year, but no one told him he should resign the class. It ended up hurting his GPA.

He partly blames his adviser for not telling him about the resign option.

Brand is a senior business major in the School of Management, where 2,950 undergraduates are advised by six full-time advisers and one advisement director, according to Diane Dittmar, the assistant dean of the school.

That means each adviser supervises approximately 421 students.

The strain shows.

And it’s happening across the campus. In the College of Arts and Sciences, UB’s largest academic unit, with 27 departments and 8,000 undergraduates, the ratio is one adviser to every 900-1,000 student.

Students who know how to work the system and actively seek out their advisers for help navigate UB well.

But many don’t.

Sometimes they don’t even know what questions to ask.

“This semester I’m taking a lot of classes I don’t really need just to meet my credit hours," Brand said. ''My advisers weren’t keeping me on track for that. This is the first semester anyone mentioned credit hours to me. It’s frustrating because I should have been told sooner.”

Whether the mistake is the student’s fault or a result of miscommunication with an adviser, the student gets stuck dealing with it. That can mean loading up on credits in remaining semesters, or staying at UB for extra semesters.

Saeed Darbo sought out his adviser in Spring 2016, but got bounced around.

He wanted to be an engineering major and asked his general adviser about the program. His general adviser told him to go to the school of engineering and ask. When he got here, no one would help him because he wasn’t in the program.

“'They would ask if I was an engineering major and I would say that I was intended,” Darbo said. “So they would tell me to contact my general adviser, who advised me to contact the major adviser in the first place.”

The ratio of advisers to students looks like it will grow, not shrink in coming years.

“It’s getting harder because the [enrollment] numbers are going up,” said Brian Waldrop, director of the College of Arts and Sciences Advisement and Services. Waldrop said he has about 450-500 students he advises, but that most of his eight colleagues have double that number. 

Darbo got so frustrated with UB that he transferred to Buffalo State College for his senior year. He finds the set-up at Buff State much easier.

“The advisers are also the professors,” Darbo said. “It’s very easy to get an appointment during office hours, which is very efficient for us students.”

Buff State has roughly one-third the number of students at UB. There are 21 general advisers for undeclared majors, then different advisers depending on the major. The ratio of students to advisers is about 500-1. 

Some programs at UB – the Honors College, The Educational Opportunity Program, The Athletics Department – have separate advisers and smaller student to adviser ratios. Each academic department has advisers for the major.

How the college advisers work with the department advisers differs.

"In the College of Arts and Sciences, the answer is always ‘it depends’ because of our diversity in function and approach,” Waldrop said.

For example, in the communication department, the department adviser Azita Safaie sees only approved communication majors, while the Park Hall advisers handle intended majors.

Students work with their Park Hall adviser until they are officially accepted into their major. With their pre-requisites completed, the student fills out the proper paperwork and works exclusively with Safaie.

Safaie handles 200 approved communication students.

In the Department of Media Studies, Ann Mangan handles all DMS-related questions for 284 undergraduates and 60 graduate students from her office in the Center for the Arts. In Park Hall, Darren Portis helps DMS students with their general education requirements.

While some advisers say they prefer that face-to-face interaction to build a better relationship with students, Waldrop said he answers many questions through email.

Safaie has been advising at UB since 2005 and loves speaking one-on-one with her students.

“I try to spend as much time with them as I can because I feel that some of them are not where they need to be academically," Safaie said. "It’s not just about coming in, having an appointment, ‘these are the classes that you need to take,’ and then go about your business. I kind of get into their business as far as life and what’s happening, and why they're not doing well.”

While building a relationship with students and helping them figure out life beyond school is a nice bonus, it goes beyond the central role of an adviser.

“To get the student through the program in a timely fashion is what I think the role of an adviser would be,” Mangan said. “You come in and I tell you your requirements. This is how you can get out in four years. If you fail to come in, you may be here longer.”

Students are able to register for classes and view their requirements on hUB, but if they want to make sure they are on track to graduate, they must communicate with their advisers.

Other students say they have great relationships with their advisers.

“I’ll meet with her once a semester, but that’s more than enough,” said Mark Montoro, a junior civil engineering major. “She really knows the major inside and out. The most helpful thing is before I enroll in a class, she gives me a summary of the course and what sort of difficulty I can expect.”

Montoro said his adviser is always available when he needs to meet with her and she made his time at UB “much easier.” When Montoro sends an email, his adviser responds that day.

Safaie – who prides herself on her relationship with her students – leaves it up to students to dictate the extent of their relationship, while recognizing the dangers of doing so.

“I leave it up to them,” Safaie said. “They don't really need to meet with me face to face. They just need to know what classes they need to take and this is very doable via email. But then the responsibility is on you. If there’s something missing that you haven’t done when it’s time to graduate, that’s when they’ll want to see me.”

David Tunis-Garcia is the arts editor and can be reached at david.garcia@ubspectrum.com


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