Advising changes aim to increase accessibility

by Felicia Schwartz | 11/20/11 11:00pm

Editor's Note: This is the second installment in a three-part series chronicling recent changes to the College's advising structure.

As part of the College's effort to revamp its advising system, undergraduate deans are now assigned to a smaller group of students for more specialized advising and have increased outreach efforts in the form of personal emails and office-wide initiatives. Although some first-year students began the school year without a definitely-assigned dean, the creation of four new dean positions and the work of those individuals has been met with student enthusiasm, Dean of Undergraduate Students Deborah Tyson said.

The College decided last spring to add four new deans in order to "reduce the loads deans were carrying," Associate Dean of the College for Student Academic Support Services Inge-Lise Ameer said in an interview with The Dartmouth.

Several dean positions were eliminated in 2009 as part of the College's effort to reduce its budget by $47 million for the 2010-2011 fiscal year. With only "five and a half" undergraduate deans serving students before this year's additions with the half accounting for the dean overseeing the East Wheelock cluster each dean had approximately 850 students to advise, Tyson said. In past years, deans responsible for first-year students had fewer students than deans assigned to upperclassmen so they could best help new students adjust to the College, she said.

"When the cuts happened three years ago, the College lost several dean positions," Tyson said. "That raised the number of students each dean was responsible for throughout all four classes."

The increase in the number of students assigned to each dean limited the services that deans could provide, according to Ameer. Most deans were only able to perform "reactionary advising" for students who were already in trouble rather than general counseling services, she said.

One of this year's four hires began work in September while the other three began in October, Tyson said. Because two of the three deans who work with first-year students June Chu and Natalie Hoyt had not arrived by the start of Fall term, some members of the Class of 2015 had not been assigned a dean during Orientation, Tyson said.

"When the students came through in Orientation, they were anxious and curious to meet their deans," Tyson said. "We told them at that time they were assigned a dean, but we didn't have those names yet."

During Orientation, the Undergraduate Deans Office was open approximately 50 hours per week and all six deans were available to meet with incoming students, since upperclassmen had not yet arrived on campus, she said. Approximately 150 students visited the office during Orientation week, according to Ameer. The deans also hosted group meetings with first-year students during pre-Orientation, she said.

Amanda Zieselman '15 said she attended the deans' open hours during Orientation. Although she received help, Zieselman said she found the open hours "kind of impersonal" and that she did not know that she had not been assigned a dean when she arrived on campus.

"I didn't even realize that having a dean was a thing," Zieselman said.

At the beginning of Fall term, Tyson sent first-year students an email to inform them that they would receive dean assignments shortly, Tyson said. Chu and Hoyt sent their assigned students emails introducing themselves in October, which also let students know where to find their offices and encouraged students to visit, Tyson said.

A new initiative, "Deans To Go," aims to bring advising to already-established groups on campus, including affinity houses, Greek organizations and special interest groups. Through this program, a member of a student group can approach a dean to discuss a particular topic with his or her organization, Tyson said. In the past, deans have sat in residence halls or held sessions in Collis Common Ground in an attempt to attract students with questions, according to Tyson.

"We are increasing group facetime when and where they will find it most useful," Tyson said. "We are basically reaffirming that great conversation and academic support can happen anywhere."

Ten different groups including first-year floors, affinity houses and Greek organizations have participated in the program this term, according to Tyson. These meetings allow students to get to know the deans and make students more inclined to visit the Undergraduate Deans Office for assistance, Tyson said.

"We don't just do something because it's a great idea, we need to get some assessment on this," she said. "We want to hear from students. Was this useful? Were your needs met?"

Tyson said she has received positive anecdotal feedback regarding the extended office hours but is hoping to conduct a more conclusive and formal analysis of the changes to undergraduate advising. Tyson is currently developing an evaluative "matrix" that includes a series of questions that students will answer when they meet with deans in the office, she said.

In addition to their assigned students, each dean assumes a different "focus area" including the junior and senior year experience, veterans, transfer and exchange students and at-risk and readmitted students, Tyson said. There is also a dean dedicated to the training and development of staff.

First-year deans have visited residential clusters three times and plan to go a fourth time by the end of the term, Tyson said. Cluster visits are part of a larger attempt to offer more proactive advising, Ameer said.

Other efforts to expand advising at the College include extended drop-in hours on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, during which the Undergraduate Deans Office is open until 8 p.m. Over 55 students have taken advantage of these hours so far, Ameer said.

Former undergraduate advisor David Jiang '12 said the deans' extended walk-in hours are "great" and show that the deans are aware that students often have problems during "off hours."

Hoyt also sends all first-year students a weekly e-newsletter that "highlights all of the things going on for first-year students," Tyson said.

Two groups of students typically come to the Undergraduate Deans Office students who come because they have to and students who come because they are confident and comfortable seeking help from administrators, according to Tyson. She said she wants to reach out to students who do not fit in either category.

"I am concerned about students who might have a question, who know where the office physically is but don't feel confident that they know the question to ask or are comfortable in the space," she said. "We want all students to have the same opportunity for success at Dartmouth."

The relocation of the Undergraduate Deans Office from Parkhurst Hall to Baker-Berry Library also aims to make advising more accessible by placing advising in a student-centered location, Ameer said.

"I see students really enjoying the library," Ameer said. "I wanted people to feel that way about coming to the Undergraduate Dean's Office for advising."

Isabel Murray '12 said she appreciates that the deans are now located in a hub of student activity.

"It is nice being here because I never enter Parkhurst but I enter the library a lot, multiple times a day," she said. "It's nice that it's right there and I can just pop in. The visibility might encourage people to use the deans and remind them of their resources."

Baker-Berry is only a temporary home for undergraduate deans, Ameer said. A planned advising center will likely open next fall, although its location has yet to be determined, she said. The center will most likely be in an existing space on campus, Ameer said.

The center will bring together student support services, including pre-health advising, the Undergraduate Deans Office, the Academic Skills Center and possibly the Office of Pluralism and Leadership, Student Accessibility Services and the Academic Skills Center, Ameer said.

Tyson said she strongly believes in a space in which students can see other students "learning, interacting and connecting to academic support services."

"Right now we don't have space for that but we're hoping the visual of the activity will allow students to know they can go to the center and get the support they need," Tyson said.