By Lori Dresner, Managing/News Editor
Choosing the right major, selecting appropriate classes, putting together a schedule, and planning a clear path to graduation can be daunting tasks that require the assistance of an advisor. For the past four years, the University of Missouri-St. Louis’ College of Arts and Sciences (CAS) has been undergoing upgrades in order to enrich students’ experiences in the 303 Lucas Hall Dr. Marcus Allen Advising Center.
Two of the latest upgrades to take place in the CAS Advising Center were the addition of an undeclared advisor/career counselor and a pre-professional advisor position. The undeclared student caseload was previously split between four advisors. One advisor also previously managed all pre-professional students in addition to a full caseload of biology, chemistry, and biochemistry and biotechnology students.
According to Associate Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences Beth Eckelkamp, the two new positions were created because CAS has been focusing on a developmental approach to the student experience. When she moved into her current position about four years ago, the advising office was understaffed and advisors had about 1,000 students apiece.
“It was clear that in order to improve the student experience in the college that we needed to look at increasing the staff and changing some things about the business practices in the office,” said Eckelkamp.
She explained that understaffing can impact the way students are advised. “When an office is understaffed, everything becomes transactional. So you have time to take care of a transaction, but you don’t really have time to have a conversation about planning or about your campus experience,” she said.
As a first step to improving students’ advising experiences, CAS hired a doctoral student from UMSL’s industrial-organizational psychology program to work with them on a consulting basis about how to make improvements within the advising office. The student also assisted the office in creating a satisfaction survey for advisees.
Feedback gathered from the survey helped CAS make decisions about business practices that were informed by students’ thoughts and experiences. Advisors were able to get feedback on how they were doing, and the advising office was able to determine what students’ experiences were like when they came into the office.
After the assessment, the college hired three new advisors, doubling the advising staff. Eckelkamp said that over time, the advising office has seen a great impact of having the additional advisors. Since there are national standards for advising caseloads, CAS is trying to get the advising office functioning at a best-practice level.
About two years ago, the advising office also added a grant-funded student retention coordinator position. The coordinator now works closely with the First Year Experience Class as well as students who are in academic recovery.
Another position added was a Latino/Latina retention coordinator who helps Hispanic students with their campus experience and also assists in recruiting those students from the area.
In addition to staff upgrades, a shift took place in the manner in which students are advised. The college now tries to have their advising practice informed by student development theory, focusing on meeting students where they are in their academic journey.
Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences Ron Yasbin explained that with this approach, “The advisor and the student work together from day one. The advisor gets to know you and gets to figure out where you’re going. [The advisor] gives you all your options, but it’s your responsibility to make the choices.”
This form of advising contrasts with prescriptive advising, where advisors give students a checklist of courses for their major and students return to their advisor when they encounter a problem or when they are ready to graduate.
Eckelkamp said that the motto for CAS this year has been creating a sense of belonging for their students, and that belonging helps students have both a better campus and academic experience.
She explained, “We set a lot of goals. We know that there are campus-level strategic goals for our students’ success, and so we try to create our office goals based off of those so that we can help contribute to the campus success as well.”