February 4, 2020

YAO | Revise Advising

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My eyes glazed over the platitudes typed on the glossy notecards I was organizing during a guest-led advising seminar session. “Get good sleep.” “Have fun.” “Practice mindfulness.” Sounds like the perfect plan for a productive college career. Just one tiny question: How do I manage all those things with impending prelims and essay deadlines? The question lodged itself in my throat as I glanced at the mental health resources listed on a notecard — the same list I’d seen in every community email.

In theory, the College of Arts and Sciences advising seminar is a great idea. The eight group meetings throughout the semester are a vast improvement from the single student-advisor meeting during O-weeks of previous years. It brings clueless freshmen with different interests together while helping them navigate the throes of higher education. And I’ll admit, in many ways it succeeded. I learned some nifty speed-reading hacks from my faculty advisor, and my inner wannabe artist thoroughly enjoyed the trip my group took to the Johnson museum.

But the notecards I later laughed about with my roommates also highlight the flaws in the system. When other students in my seminar nodded sagely at the suggestion of “prioritizing your mental and physical health,” I pasted on a Joker-esque smile and bobbed my head as well. Never mind the four hours of sleep I’d gotten the night before. The absurd thought of disclosing to the group my organizational ineptitudes and unwavering fear of office hours rose to the forefront of my brain. I clamped it down. The other students were fine. I was fine. Everything was perfectly peachy.

Perhaps we were all culprits of the “fake it ‘til you make it” mindset, unwilling to admit to struggling, but there was no way to tell. At the end of the day, well-intentioned advice given in group settings rarely moves beyond triteness. Without personalized counsel, sessions devolve into another method to rehash what we should be doing to succeed but fail to impart specific guidance for accomplishing those goals. And no, pointing us toward the directory of Cornell Health hotlines doesn’t count.

It was only when I met with my professor independently that my inhibitions lowered. I met with him twice: Once about my difficulties adjusting to college life and once for a brief appointment before November pre-enroll. Each time, I shared unfiltered concerns that I didn’t feel comfortable sharing in a group setting. On the 0.01 percent  chance you’re wondering, that included my time management and office hour woes. In return, I received thoughtful, situation-specific advice that I could apply.

Not every faculty advisor chooses to hold individual conferences, so the arts college advising seminar requirement should include a mandatory one-on-one component along with the small group setup. At the very least, there should be three individual meetings between advisor and student, each around 15 minutes long. The number of 50 minute group sessions could then scale down from eight to five. Group meetings are necessary to provide general information on subjects such as library literacy and study abroad opportunities. However, an added personal element would be more conducive to addressing the independent questions or concerns freshmen may have. Scheduling advice, for example, is a matter that merits separate conversations for each student, as CAS first-years enter Cornell with access to the widest array of majors and distribution requirements.

My self-confessed shyness may be at fault for this line of thought, but I like to think that there exists a slew of students similar to myself. Students who avoid asking for help, even when they’re floundering, and who require those elusive one-on-one interactions to open up. From the moment we step above Cayuga’s waters, we’re constantly told to throw ourselves uninhibited into new experiences and use our resources to cope. Yet I hear too often the stories of students who didn’t get the help they needed academically or mentally until consequences had already occurred.

People underestimate the effect that individual check-ins can have on students. One-on-one advising appointments have the potential to act as a buffer against the initial challenges of college. They create a confidential space for us to drop any facades and allow us to admit that we’re uncertain or overwhelmed. These sessions enable closer relationships between students and faculty than group meetings do.

First-year advising seminars form a crucial bridge between high school normalcy and the rigors of college life. The College of Arts and Sciences implemented this program to overhaul pre-major advising of old, but it still has room for improvement. Students would benefit from sessions that are based around individual circumstances, not those generic, “Practice Mindfulness” banalities. The mandatory inclusion of individual student-advisor conferences would serve as a tangible reminder that we don’t have to navigate the next four years alone.

Katherine Yao is a freshman in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at kyao@cornellsun.com. Her column, Hello Katie, runs every other Wednesday this semester.