Graduating senior Marlene Piceno (left) has benefitted from the support of CA&ES academic advisor Joe Lee, who recently won a campus award for outstanding advising. (Robin DeRieux/UC Davis)
UC Davis is a big place. To make it feel a little more intimate and easier to navigate, the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences (CA&ES) Dean’s Office has made several changes in student advising.
“We’re trying to take this big campus and make it smaller for students,” said CA&ES Associate Dean Susan Ebeler, head of Undergraduate Academic Programs (UAP). “We want to help students make the connections they need to build a network of support and succeed here.”
Toward this end, the CA&ES Dean’s Office hired a new director of advising and increased staffing to accommodate growing student enrollment. The advising unit has organized casual social events so that counselors can get to know students and students can learn about the different types of advising services. For instance, once a year, students who drop by the Mrak Hall lawn for a free ice cream social can discover more about the campus network of advising that includes peer advisors, department staff and faculty major advisors, and Dean’s Office advisors.
“We want to devise ways to help students build community,” said advising director Donna Vivar, who joined UAP in 2015. “We tell students that if they don’t know where to start, start at the Dean’s Office.”
The college has also influenced the campus trend toward more holistic advising, one that encourages academic advisors to have deeper conversations with individual students. “Holistic advising gives us a chance to consider the student first and how their story fits within the policy rather than how the policy applies to the student,” said CA&ES academic counselor Lili Bynes.
Typically, advising at large public universities has addressed the short-term challenges that face students, such as how many general education requirements remain to be completed, or which petition needs to be signed to circumvent what policy.
“These answers may address immediate needs, but they don’t encourage students to think beyond the moment,” said Ebeler. “By using more holistic advising approaches, students are leaving appointments with an understanding of how their educational goals and current choices relate to their post-graduation options.” As part of the holistic approach, UAP also works closely with campus partners such as Student Health and the Student Academic Success Center to help students create a network of support throughout campus.
Support encourages success
Graduating senior Marlene Piceno is a holistic advising success story. A first-generation college student from Caruthers—a small town in the Central Valley—Piceno entered UC Davis as an animal science major. By second quarter of freshman year, she was struggling with chemistry and in academic difficulty. She was no longer sure she wanted to become a veterinarian.
She received an email requesting that she meet with Dean’s Office academic counselor Joe Lee, and she went to the Dean’s Office with trepidation. “But as soon as I met Joe, he put my mind at ease,” said Piceno. “He asked about my interests and about things going on in my life in general, not just about my classes. He suggested I take some exploratory classes.”
When Piceno decided to withdraw from UC Davis during third quarter, advisor Joe Lee said something to Piceno that stuck with her. “He told me, ‘This doesn’t mean your journey here at UC Davis is over. If you want to come back, you can.’”
Eventually, she did. But first, Piceno returned home for a year and took courses at the local community college. Lee had laid out tough standards for what courses and grades Piceno would need to achieve during her time away in order to apply for re-admission to UC Davis.
“I appreciated that,” said Piceno, “because it made me apply myself. Once I knew I could get an A in a course like calculus, I started trying to excel in every class.”
Back at home, Piceno pored over the UC Davis General Catalog in search of majors and topics that interested her. When she returned to UC Davis, she explored new academic areas and reconnected with the Aggie Ambassadors Club, a student leadership group housed in the CA&ES Dean’s Office. This year, she is serving as a club officer—an opportunity available only to students in good academic standing.
Piceno is just one of many CA&ES students who have benefitted from improved undergraduate advising, with an increased emphasis on student retention and success.
Serving growing numbers of students
Advisors in the CA&ES Dean’s Office serve nearly 7,000 undergraduates, an increase from about 4,600 students in 2006. In 2015, 43 percent of CA&ES freshmen enrolled were first-generation college students and 15 percent were international students, both groups that typically need more support as undergraduates. During the 2015–2016 academic year, the CA&ES Dean’s Office advising unit saw a 24 percent increase in student appointments over the previous year.
Gabriel Silva, a first-generation college student who transferred to UC Davis from a Los Angeles community college, has benefitted from the support of CA&ES advisor Kim Mahoney. Silva is a managerial economics major who at first found the fast pace of the quarter system at UC Davis to be daunting. When he got into academic difficulty, Silva thought, “Oh, no, am I going to have to leave after I worked so hard to get here?” He said he felt that as a first-generation college student, a failure on his part would disappoint his entire family.
Silva consulted with advisor Mahoney, who helped him set up a planner to manage his time better. During the summer, she suggested he take just one course per session rather than two. “I trusted her judgment, and I did really well over the summer,” said Silva, who will graduate in June. “It was a huge GPA boost.”
Now that Silva has established a solid connection with Dean’s Office advisor Mahoney, he considers her a resource he can turn to for an answer to a quick question or an occasional check-in. “I’m grateful for Kim’s advice,” said Silva. “It feels good to know I’m not alone out there.”
— Robin DeRieux