Williams sells itself on the unique nature of the student-faculty relationships it fosters. Thanks to small class sizes, a tight-knit community and faculty and students who value these relationships, close friendships between these two groups are common and celebrated at the College. In light of how much we value these friendships, it is surprising to see them not fully extend to encompass a potentially powerful relationship between a first-year and his or her faculty advisor.
It should be noted that the College offers students a valuable resource in giving them a point of contact within the faculty immediately upon their arrival on campus. However, what could be a fundamental relationship for first-years has not yet reached its full potential, for first-years are often left looking for outside guidance on beginning their academic paths at the College.
Part of the problem with student-advisor connections may be due to the artificial nature of relationships between students and their advisors. While the most valuable relationships grow out of shared experiences, faculty advisors and students are thrown together and expected to form an immediate bond. While providing a basis of shared interests and passions is a step in the right direction, it is also unreasonable to expect that common ground will be enough to lead to a valuable relationship.
Furthermore, the environment in which first-years initially meet their advisors is a stressful one that is not conducive to forming lasting relationships. As students struggle to choose the right courses, meeting with an advisor to have a hold removed at the last minute can seem more a burden than an opportunity, making an advisor seem more an obstacle than a resource.
Given that many first-years may not understand what classes they need to remain on track academically, it is paramount that advisors be well-versed in academics across departments. On this front, the College’s recent expansion of advisor resources is a commendable effort to ensure that faculty can assist students in making critical academic decisions during the first year.
However, it is important that advisors be available for students beyond the realm of academics. Faculty should emphasize that they are interested in getting to know their advisees, for this may have implications beyond their one relationship. While close faculty-student interactions are often cited as an integral aspect of what makes the College unique, new students may be apprehensive or wary of approaching professors and initiating those connections. Having an advisor who expresses interest from the outset could encourage students to start cultivating relationships with professors during their first year.
Despite the current bylaw requiring all faculty members to advise incoming students, such a commitment has not manifested itself within the relationships themselves. Perhaps students should be allowed to provide feedback on advisors in order to indicate to professors what aspects of their advising approach should be reevaluated and what has worked well. While issues of anonymity may arise considering how few advisees most advisors have each year, the value of evaluating advisors as we do professors seems self-evident.
Furthermore, first-year advisors would ideally be a self-selecting group: Allowing faculty members to pick into the first-year advising system would ensure that new students get the unique help and support they need. Other faculty members could then advise in areas where they feel more comfortable. Although a change such as this could be difficult to implement and thus could not address students’ current needs, we encourage administrators and professors to consider such long-term adjustments.
Addressing students’ desires for more personalized interactions with their advisors, however, will not be solved by a simple policy change. Faculty should be encouraged to have individual mid-semester check-ins with each of their advisees in order to cultivate those deeper relationships. What’s more, an informal lunch or coffee with an entire advisee group would serve as a low-stress situation in which advisees and the advisor alike could all get to know each other. In either case, the focus should be on distancing the student-advisor relationship from just removing holds in order to develop a more genuine and beneficial connection.
While the proposed peer advising system would offer first-years a unique student perspective on course choices, this initiative is not a solution to student concerns about faculty advising. Peer mentors can serve as a key welcoming group for first-years by contacting them over the summer to answer questions and offer advice, and we’d like to see the spirit of the initiative, if not the practical measures, extended to faculty advisors as well.
The only way to allow the student-advisor relationship to reach its full potential is if both parties are invested in developing it. The impetus in this case, however, lies primarily in the faculty. As professors are contracted to act in this advisory role, they need to reevaluate both the feeble relationships the system has created thus far as well as the overall system itself, for the potential does exist to create the kinds of relationships we all want and need.