Campus Mentors, Advisers Share Strategies to Address Changing Student Needs

  • The 2019 Mentoring and Advising Summit was a time for information sharing. From left are Macrina Lelei, associate director of the African Studies program in the University Center for International Studies; Sheba Gittens, academic adviser at the Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences; and Christine Wankiiri-Hale, assistant professor and associate dean for Student Affairs at the School of Dental Medicine. "The best thing about an event like this is connecting with colleagues who work closely with students in our respective units and sharing what we do," said Lelei. (Mike Drazdzinski/University of Pittsburgh)
  • In her keynote remarks that opened the second annual Mentoring and Advising Summit, Provost and Senior Vice Chancellor Ann E. Cudd said that personalized education “is both a culture and a way of life.” She spoke of the “life-changing roles” mentors and advisers have in the lives of students and recalled two of hers who encouraged and inspired her, including Tamara Horowitz, former philosophy department chair and Cudd’s dissertation adviser when she was a student at Pitt. Here, she shares her mentoring story in the Story Booth set up for the event. (Mike Drazdzinski/University of Pittsburgh)
  • After lunch, an interactive panel answered questions relating to diversity, inclusion, cultural empathy and global competence. From left are Joseph McCarthy, Office of the Provost; Derek Fischer, Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences; Belkys Torres, University Center for International Studies; Audrey Murrell, Pitt Business; and Susan Meyer, Interprofessional Center for Health Careers and the School of Pharmacy. (Tom Altany/University of Pittsburgh)
  • More than 200 faculty and staff came together on March 7 for the second annual Mentoring and Advising Summit, which this year focused on inclusion, diversity and excellence in mentoring and advising. (Tom Altany/University of Pittsburgh)
  • Julia Spears, associate vice provost for academic innovation, oversaw the steering committee that planned the second annual Mentoring and Advising Summit. Spears said that she heard from people throughout the day that they were enjoying how the event facilitated opportunities to present their work in mentoring and advising students and meet and network with like-minded colleagues. (Tom Altany/University of Pittsburgh)
  • From Pitt–Johnstown, Stephen Kilpatrick, assistant to the vice president for Academic Affairs and associate professor of biology; Kate Kinsinger, director of the Academic Success Center; and Janet Grady, vice president for academic affairs and professor and chair, Division of Nursing and Health Sciences. (Tom Altanyi/University of Pittsburgh)
  • Carol Balk, career consultant for the College of General Studies, shares her advising story in the event's Story Booth, which spent time at Alumni Hall and the University Club recording testimonials about mentoring and advising. "In reality, students need more than academic counseling. Most of our interviews are about helping students figure out what motivates them to be curious," said Balk. (Mike Drazdzinski/University of Pittsburgh)

When Pitt’s Provost and Senior Vice Chancellor Ann E. Cudd was in high school, she planned to graduate early to attend vocational welding school — but a mentor changed her path.

A guidance counselor encouraged her to apply for a scholarship to a New England college, and that, Cudd said, “set me on an intellectual path that wouldn’t have been possible otherwise.”

Now, Cudd is the chief academic officer responsible for overseeing all aspects of education, research and faculty and student life at one of the nation’s top research institutions. In this role, she’s made it a priority to support faculty and staff in their mentoring and advising efforts of students.

To that end, more than 200 faculty and staff came together on March 7 for the second annual Mentoring and Advising Summit, which this year focused on inclusion, diversity and excellence in mentoring and advising.

The summit allowed staff and faculty who serve in an advising or mentoring role of any capacity — formal or informal, at the Pittsburgh and regional campuses — to network across disciplines and learn about the work their colleagues are doing for an increasingly diverse student population.

“Nationally we’re seeing lots of shifts and changes in the higher education landscape that we have to pay attention to,” said Provost Cudd in her keynote address. “One, of course, has to do with population shifts.” Nationally, there will be about 7 percent fewer high school graduates by 2025, “and in this region it’s even worse. It means that we’re going to need to appeal to a different group of students, a diverse group of students, in different ways,” she said.

“Actively pursuing diversity,” Cudd said — particularly socioeconomic, national origin, racial, religious and sexual orientation — “serves justice. It enables us to foster equity and expand horizons.”

“Prospective students at both the graduate and undergraduate levels sometimes simply cannot access what they need to give them an education, and we need to ask, ‘How many stars get lost in the dark, and how can we decrease that number?’

And that’s where trusted mentors and advisers are indispensable.  

At the summit

Twenty concurrent sessions covered topics from personalized transfer student advising to building a welcoming environment for first-generation students.

Representatives from Pitt–Johnstown discussed the regional campus’ innovative approach to retention: engaging every faculty member in the responsibility of academic advising. And a senior at Pitt–Bradford spoke at a session on going from microagression to microaffirmation: building a culture of positive support.

At an interactive panel, executive director for Global Engagement at the University Center for International Studies and co-chair of the Year of PittGlobal committee, Belkys Torres, discussed the addition of a global competence certificate to the faculty and staff development curriculum, which facilitates understanding and working with international student populations. The U.S. has seen a decline in those enrollment numbers in recent years.

Paths forward

Advanced analytics tools will play a role in further personalizing education for students, but they are by no means replacing the critical knowledge and skills that mentors and advisers already bring to the table every day.

For instance, tools like Pathways — now in pilot version in the schools of nursing and engineering — can streamline the check-in process for student advising appointments and centralize advising notes across schools and departments, making it easier for double majors to hear consistent feedback. Other mentors and advisers in the Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences are looking forward to the continued rollout and evaluation of the platform.

The group at large also engaged in talks about privacy policies with regard to best practices for using and sharing available student data.

For example, the platform provides advisers with critical financial aid information to help guide students on a financially viable path through college. “We’re really not doing a good job if we don’t ask the student about their financial aid,” said Ryan Sweeney, assistant director, career consultant for psychology majors and undecided students in the Career Center.

“I do think that the technology might help us do a better job and not miss things that could potentially be great opportunities for students,” said Jane Wallace, a lecturer, undergraduate adviser and co-director of undergraduate studies in the Department of Economics.

Beyond the data, a critical part of the mentoring and advising role involves learning how to help a student respond to adversity in a way that maintains enthusiasm for the work, noted Kevin Binning, assistant professor of psychology and research scientist in the Learning Research and Development Center. He is working with faculty advisers in the departments of biology and physics, who noticed an achievement gap between underrepresented students in their classes. The project uses social psychological interventions to improve inclusive mentoring and learning for all students.

DaVaughn Vincent-Bryan, assistant director of engagement and leadership in the Office of Residence Life in Student Affairs, said being in spaces like the summit opened his eyes to potential partners.

“I’ve been working on developing a coaching program that works to take a closer look at why students run for roles of leadership, particularly in residential life organizations, and partner them with someone across the division who does that work on the professional level. I’ve found our students appreciate having a wider network of folks to rely on and speak to particular perspectives. I offer perspective, but I am one individual, and it takes a village, right?”