October 29, 2020

BARAN | Who’s My Advisor?

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One of the benefits that is supposed to come from attending an Ivy League university is a vast network of resources. Cornell students are ostensibly privileged with all the guidance and mentorship they can ask for, all at the tip of their fingertips. For the most part, this is true. If we truly need help with a particular problem, we can almost always seek it out. And at the core of this support network is the advising system.

Most of the colleges within Cornell assign students a faculty advisor. Although each college is different, each advising department generally purports to do their best to help students achieve their intellectual, professional and personal goals. This may be true. But based on conversations with my peers, advisors aren’t as helpful or communicative as Cornell makes them out to be. The advising system needs an upgrade; specifically, advisors need to build closer relationships with students.

Almost across the board, my peers have expressed frustration with the Cornell advising system. Many of them have never met their advisors; some simply don’t know who their advisor is.

Each college has a different advising structure, and they’re not all equal. In the comparatively small College of Architecture, Art and Planning, faculty and students become very close. “Because our department is so small, you get to know your professors really well,” says Gianni Valenti ’22. “It’s super comfortable.” Since advisors are drawn from that same pool of professors with whom AAP students interact so much, the advising relationships within the school are bound to be a bit better than those in other colleges.  Students in the College of Human Ecology , another relatively small school within Cornell, also had good things to say about their advisors.

On the other hand, students within the College of Arts & Sciences, the largest school at Cornell, tend to have an inferior advising experience. Those who know who their advisor is tell of relationships fraught with communication issues and one-and-done meetings. CAS student Michael Cadogan ’22 has seen his advisor once. “It kind of sucks because I’ve basically had no advising through college,” says Cadogan.

Nina Oleynikov ’22, another CAS student, says she didn’t find out that her advisor had left Cornell and was replaced with a new one until she decided to declare her psychology major during her sophomore year. When Oleynikov scheduled a meeting, she found that her advisor primarily dealt with the Performance and Media Art major and couldn’t help her with her course load; “Since then I haven’t really reached out to Cornell advising and I definitely lean on my friends, my parents and mostly my brother.”

Of course, not everyone has bad experiences with their advisors outside of small colleges like HumEc and AAP. The College of Agriculture and Life Sciences is a relatively large college, yet most of the CALS students to whom I’ve spoken have had very positive things to say about their advisors. Jotaro Kurachi ’21 interacts with his advisor frequently to talk about his academic goals and to ask for help with job recruitment. “I consider him almost like a friend,” says Kurachi. I suspect that the strong advising relationships in CALS stem from the fact that students generally matriculate into their major immediately, rather than waiting until sophomore year as CAS students are required to.

The size of a student’s chosen college and the time of matriculation into their major are certainly factors in predicting the strength of their advising. However, neither of those variables matters much in the face of one glaring flaw of the advising system: Advisors don’t reach out to students as much as they should.

By this I don’t mean that advisors never reach out to their advisees. Almost all of them do at first. But then they inexplicably stop making an effort. This is a significant issue, as students continually revise their career and personal goals throughout their four years at Cornell.

Peers brought up this concern over and over again in interviews. “It’s entirely on the student to reach out,” said Alex Tinkham ’23. “If you wanted to you could probably graduate without talking to an advisor.” Of course, this issue doesn’t mean that students can’t get help when they need it.  “Whenever I need a second opinion or ask for help they are able to answer very strategically and think long-term, but in all my interactions with [Cornell advising], it requires me to reach out,” explained Parsa Salsali ’22.

This failing of the advising system is exacerbated when a student is assigned to a particularly busy professor or one that isn’t attentive in their communications. Abby Frankel ‘22 expressed frustration with her advisors’ response times; It “discourages me from reaching out as much.” If students don’t feel that they can even get a response from their advisors, they are forced to either figure things out on their own or find other sources of guidance, as was the case with Oleynikov.

This criticism may seem a bit pampered. After all, most of us are entirely capable of reaching out to advisors on our own or establishing other relationships with people that can provide guidance. However, that’s not the point of the advising system. The assumption behind students having access to strong, communicative advisors is that we’re myopic, confused, slightly overconfident college students still trying to determine our paths in life.

It’s not that we’re incapable of fending for ourselves, but establishing a good relationship with an unfamiliar faculty member isn’t something most of us would necessarily think to prioritize. We may not always want to get help or even think we need it. But, at this point in our lives, we do need it. Our advisors have been in our shoes and they understand what we’re going through. It should be up to them to form a guiding relationship and check in with us periodically. We don’t have to understand the advantage of such a connection right now, but we should certainly have access to it.

I envision an advising system wherein caring professors regularly reach out to their advisees and talk through their accomplishments and goals. I think it would be helpful if a professor is a member of the student’s department, but I don’t think that’s a requisite for a good mentor. I envision a more open, friendly system. I would like to hear reviews more similar to Kurchai’s and less of those like Salsali’s. Maybe this is a pipe dream, but I don’t think so. I understand that Cornell is a big school and faculty members have exceedingly busy schedules. It would be much more work for advisors. But after all, isn’t advising in the job description?

Christian Baran is a junior in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. He can be reached at cbaran@cornellsun.com. Honestly runs every other Friday this semester.