Nov. 3, 2005 • Volume 14 Number 5

Academic Advising Center Director Elizabeth Nathans: "Advising is not about course selection: Any robot can do that. [Advising should] help students deal with important questions like, how you got to where you are now, where you might go from here, and what happens if that path doesn't work."

Centering on Advisement

Nathans is laying the groundwork for new student advising model

By Sean Smith
Chronicle Staff

Elizabeth Nathans' office suite in Carney Hall is quiet and a bit on the spartan side right now - in fact, she's the only one in the whole place. But by this time next year, Nathans expects the newly created Boston College Academic Advising Center she directs to be going at full tilt.

Nathans arrived at BC during the summer after serving as dean of freshmen at Harvard University for 13 years. Prior to her tenure at Harvard, Nathans was a dean at the Trinity College of Arts and Sciences at Duke University, where she was a founding director of the Trinity pre-major and freshman advising centers.

Her immediate task at BC is to recruit staff and otherwise put the Advising Center into operation in time for the 2006-07 academic year. The larger chore for Nathans will be to implement BC's new approach to advising, which places a greater emphasis on helping students develop a big-picture view of their college years.

To accomplish this, the center will be staffed by advisors with teaching and research experience, who administrators say can offer students a wider perspective on opportunities for academic, personal and spiritual formation at BC.

"Advising is not about course selection: Any robot can do that," said Nathans. "What advising should do is to help students deal with important questions like, how you got to where you are now, where you might go from here, and what happens if that path doesn't work.

"In fact, part of an advisor's role is to help students find the right questions to ask about matching their coursework with their possible directions in life. You know you've succeeded if the student comes back and says, 'I have 20 more questions.'"

Associate Academic Vice President for Academic Programs J. Joseph Burns says the idea for the center was initiated several years ago by Sister Mary Daniel O'Keeffe, OP, associate dean for freshmen in the College of Arts and Sciences, and has been supported by the Undergraduate Government of Boston College.

"The philosophy represented by this new system is that the first year of college is academic planning for four years, perhaps beyond," said Burns. "First-year advising is often a difficult process, so our feeling is that it should be done by those who are particularly understanding and skilled for its demands."

"In Elizabeth Nathans, we have someone who not only possesses faculty qualifications but also is a major figure in the development of pre-major advising, who has written on the topic and is widely respected. We think this is a great opportunity to improve advising at BC."

Nathans and Burns add, however, that the center's establishment will not diminish the vital role faculty play in student advising. As Burns points out, undergraduates are assigned a departmental advisor once they declare a major, thereby encouraging faculty-student interaction.

"Boston College continues to place great importance on the mentoring relationship between professor and student," said Burns. "The opening of the Academic Advising Center does not change that. We simply believe that, by having a center that encourages students to take a longer view of their college career, BC's advising resources as a whole will be strengthened."

Nathans said, "The center is here to serve the faculty, not the other way around. We're a clearinghouse of information, but at the same time we will also try to integrate some existing resources on campus. And we want to be as flexible and as visible as possible. Students can schedule appointments, but there will also be hours for drop-in visits. We'll also plan to hold some programs out of the office, such as in residence or dining halls.

"Ultimately, students are the ones who decide how much, if any, help they need. We simply want them to know we're available."

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