Advising doesn’t have to be so bad after all

Eavesdrop on enough conversations of soon-to-be-graduating Portland State University seniors and you’re bound to hear at least a few horror stories.

Laments over incomplete University Studies requirements. Grief over transferred credits. Gripes about advisers who don’t return phone calls. Whatever the problem, it all translates into the same result: yet another quarter spent in the classroom.

The obvious question is, why does this have to happen? At a school where students are expected to chart their own academic course, is the minutiae of the process too difficult to navigate? Are students skipping advisers in lieu of self-counseling? Are counselors providing everything students need?

The truth is that we’ll never know. There are as many advising stories as there are students, and not all of them are negative. Those are just the ones that happen to circulate.

Take Astrid Baroffio’s story for example. It has classic horror story written all over it. In her two years at PSU, the 25-year-old transfer student has met with an adviser within her department only once, but not for lack of trying.

“I’ve called my adviser three or four times since last term, and she hasn’t returned my calls,” says the French major. “The lady is so hard to talk to.”

As a senior, Baroffio wants to make sure she is fulfilling the right requirements to reach graduation next spring. Now, she plans to give up on her adviser and switch back to a professor who has helped her in the past.

“I’d like to know which classes I should take since I only have one year left,” she says.

Enter Robert Mercer. He has heard stories like this before. And he doesn’t think they should dissuade students.

“One person’s bad experience can explode into 25 people who don’t visit an adviser,” says Mercer, the senior academic adviser for the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. “At almost any school, students tend to not speak very highly of advising experiences.”

In Baroffio’s case, Mercer suggests pinning down the adviser in person during regular office hours to set up an appointment. He also recommends that she asserts herself and appears prepared.

Swamped advisers or cryptic student voicemail messages are sometimes to blame for situations like this, he says.

“I don’t think it’s rare,” he says. “But I don’t think it should stop someone from getting advising.”

Communications problems aside, Mercer believes students who stay on track with an adviser will be far more successful in the long run. Not only can advisers point out things a student may have missed (“It never hurts to have somebody check your work.”), but they can also offer advice and assurance.

As for how often a student should check in, Mercer says it depends. Everybody has their own level of need. Some stop in all the time, some once a term. Others send the occasional e-mail to make sure everything is going smoothly.

And he admits advising is not always for everyone. Some prefer to go solo.

“That’s okay it works for them,” he says. “But it’s nice for people to have individual interaction with faculty and staff.”

How to avoid the nightmare

PSU is unique in it has no formal advising requirements. Schools such as the University of Oregon and Lewis and Clark College require students to meet with advisers several times throughout their college careers. Advising sessions are recommended but not mandatory at PSU. And perhaps it is why students question the role of and need for advisers.

The bottom line is this: Advising is most likely beneficial. Without it, students run the risk of getting screwed.

Some of the most common mistakes students make, Mercer says, are getting outdated advice from friends or family members, ignoring or not understanding pre-graduation degree audits, and not keeping track of the credits required to graduate.

The requirements at PSU call for 180 credits to graduate, 72 of them coming from upper-division courses. Oftentimes students keep track of their B.A. or B.S. requirements, and their University Studies and major requirements, but fail to look at the big picture.

“One could have met all those specific requirements and only have 160 credits,” Mercer says. “These students – often the most organized – are shocked when they find they need some number of electives yet to graduate.”

Another problem is students who petition at the last minute for a class they think should apply toward their junior cluster, even though it’s not specifically listed. If the petition isn’t approved, it’s back to the classroom for another quarter.

“Tuition is too damn expensive to spend more than you need to,” Mercer says. “Students shouldn’t have to take more classes because of not having advising.”

So, first thing’s first: Educate yourself. Use the “Undergraduate Advising Handbook” (available in the Information and Academic Support Center, Room 425 of Smith Memorial Student Union) or visit IASC’s Web site ( to learn the lay of the land. These are great sources for information on everything from finding academic resources to planning a schedule to understanding the University Studies Program.

Once all of this is absorbed, discover the beauty of the degree audit report system, or DARS.

This little gem, made available May 7, is about to make students’ lives a whole lot easier. Instead of keeping track of classes on random scraps of paper – or awaiting the dreaded official degree audit issued a term before graduation – students can access their academic progress on the Web any time they want. Not only will they see the credits they’ve earned, more importantly they will see those they need to graduate.

Granted, the clunky layout takes some getting used to. But it’s nothing a little time or an adviser can’t help sort out.

To access the report, head to the PSU Information System as if checking grades. Scroll down to the bottom of the Student Services menu and click on DARS. From there, follow the series of pull-down menus. It’s fairly straight forward.

Remember: Separate audits must be done for majors and minors.

This system is also a cool way to “try on” a major. Want to switch majors – or haven’t yet decided on one – but aren’t sure how your existing credits will apply? It’s possible. Want to see if your credits qualify you for a second major, such as liberal studies? Knock yourself out.

Armed with these resources, it’s possible to visit an adviser – either within your department of study or at IASC – feeling somewhat more knowledgeable. Prepared. Ready to conquer the mythical beast that is college graduation. So bring a pen and paper, any questions, and the boundless enthusiasm to avoid becoming immortalized in yet another scary advising story. You’ll thank yourself for it later.