Empowering Students to Stay the Course


Student Jacob Smith (left) reviews general education requirements with Shanna Pendergrast (right), advisor.

According to the recently published (and controversial) book Academically Adrift, which discusses the academic performance of today’s students, “Many students entering higher education today seem to understand that college education is important but have little specific information about or commitment to a particular vision of the future.”

This observation may be especially applicable for arts and sciences majors, whose education and career paths might be less linear than those of professional schools such as engineering, business, or nursing.

Indecision on the part of students entering college and the lack of effective advising for their academic planning can be obstacles to students’ timely progress toward graduation.  This is an issue of increasing concern among parents, higher education administrators, and other stakeholders. 

However, staff in Arts and Sciences Advising Services are working hard to remove obstacles to timely completion of academic goals.  They are engaged with the provost’s staff in an ongoing process of diagnosing where the needs are for student support. The intention is to invest in support services that will help students make informed critical decisions within their first two years that will lead to the educational outcomes they want. The goal is to facilitate students’ selection of a major that’s good for them while encouraging students to move forward with their course of study to graduate within a reasonable timeframe. 

Finding a Path

Arts and Sciences Advising Services, now housed in Ayres Hall, works with arts and sciences students who are undecided about their major, have not declared a major, or have not completed the requisite courses to declare their major. In addition, advising staff are responsible for students who are unsure of which college they wish to enter, as well as those enrolled in pre-professional programs such as pre-law and pre-health.

Because the college is the gateway to the university for all arts and sciences and undecided students, Arts and Sciences Advising Services staff see approximately 2,500 first-year students during freshman orientation each year. Melissa Parker, director of Arts and Sciences Advising Services, says her office’s immediate goal is to start first-year students on the right path by educating them about the curriculum and introducing them to the resources of the college and the university that will help them with academic planning decisions. Advising Services staff provide the support these students need until they can choose a major.

Previously, students from these categories would have received advising from graduate students and professors across various departments, who might not always be fully acquainted with the diversity and complexity of educational options at UT. However, in June 2010, Advising Services hired four full-time professional advisors, making it possible for each new student to work with an advisor until he or she declares a major, at which point a faculty member in that field is appointed to be that student’s advisor.

Shanna Pendergrast, one of the full-time professional advisors in Advising Services hired under the new plan, explains how the process works.

“We serve as resources for students as they navigate the policies and procedures of the university, aiding them in developing sound educational plans that align with their values and their academic and career goals,” Pendergrast says. “Advisors do this by encouraging students to become self-directed learners and decision makers. Our advising meetings center on helping students think about what major fits their interests and goals as well as encouraging them to think about their strengths.”

Parker notes that this aspect of counseling—linking majors with career goals and future employment prospects—has become vital over the past decade, especially in the face of shrinking job opportunities. She says that advisors work closely with UT’s Career Services staff to identify opportunities—internships, additional classes in business, volunteer positions—that will give these students an edge and equip them for a broader range of potential jobs.

The Right Direction

“We’re always examining ways to structure a more intentional program of student support in the first year, so students know where they can go for advice about majors and careers and get that advice sooner rather than later,” says Robert J. Hinde, the college’s associate dean for academic programs.


Robert J. Hinde (left), associate dean, and Melissa Parker (right), director, confer about plans for student orientation.

For example, beginning this fall, the College of Arts and Sciences (in coordination with University Housing) will introduce a new living and learning community dedicated to entering students who are undecided about their majors. This “Compass Community” will be housed in North and South Carrick and will help ninety-two freshmen develop a clear academic path through a number of targeted initiatives. Each student will enroll in a first-year seminar course that will be taught by the student’s academic advisor and will focus on major and career decision-making. In addition, Compass Community members will participate in ongoing programs designed to introduce them to all of the colleges and majors available at UT. Advising staff, faculty, and students from each college will meet with students and discuss the academic and career opportunities each program provides. 

Parker and Hinde agree that college should be a time of exploration, and students need not worry if they cannot decide on a major right away. There are ways to choose courses and select opportunities that will give each student more time to find a path without compromising his or her chances for on-time graduation.

Hinde says the college is working hand in hand with the university to improve four-year graduation rates.

“We are working to implement a four-year academic plan for arts and sciences students in the Class of 2016,” Hinde says. “Students who follow the plan will be able to explore the wide range of options that the college offers, find a major that they’re passionate about, and graduate in a timely manner.”

“We’re here to help,” Parker adds. “It’s not a mentality where we expect students to know all the answers when they come here; we know they won’t. We can help smooth that transition, however, by preparing them to make informed academic planning decisions and getting them on the right path so they’ll stand a much better chance of being successful.”

–Lynn Champion