Backslash Magazine: Academic Advisors – The Secret Superheroes of Universities

Published in Backslash Magazine (print and online) in 2011.


It takes a village to do a lot of things, and one of them is keeping a student in college. One of the most important villages you will ever have is the corps of oft-forgotten academic advisors. Some of us see them a mere once per term to select classes, but there is a great deal that advisors do behind the scenes, and all of it is for the good of the student.

Advisors Aaron Petuch and Sarah Wray work in the English Department at the University of South Florida, but seeing students is only part of their jobs. “There’s a lot behind the scenes,” says Petuch. “We do a lot with the website,” he tells, and for six months out of the year the advisors do orientations for freshmen and transfer students.

Wray adds that she and Petuch also developed a pilot program to track English minors and eventually declare them – an action not built into the current system. In addition to handling the freshman summer institute – a program designed for incoming students who need additional guidance – they work the offices of all the other colleges across the university, and serve as administrators rather than staff, which is a an important difference. “USF has three kinds of employees,” Wray explains, “faculty, administration, and staff, so as administrators we’re almost like managers. We’re involved in a lot of different areas – with admissions and enrollment. We have to be on terms with a lot of different departments and offices.”

Despite working with a different population of students, Reginald Lucien of the Honors College agrees that advisors do more than advise. “I see less students on average than other advisors because I do international trips and the Honors LLC (Living and Learning Community),” Lucien says, “We get a lot of interaction with parents during orientation. The dean makes himself available to take on questions from parents.”

In addition to advising, Lucien serves as a teacher for Honors study abroad classes, including one going to Jamaica for Spring Break (which I am a part of). This means he handles fundraising and organization, as well as the other duties he takes on as advisor for the Honors Student Council and my Creative Writers’ Club.

One of the most defining features of advisors that sets them apart from the staff is their confidentiality agreement with students. As Petuch explained to me, federal law prohibits certain people from seeing personal information, such as transcripts and records, so “the only people that have the rights to see everything is the advisors.”

Financial aid and the registrar’s office have access to these records, but the other faculty that deals with students on a personal basis has no access to the records, and advisors often deny requests by professors to see personal information. This lack of information availability means advisors have to be very thorough. Petuch compares himself to Santa Claus in the sense that he “checks once and checks twice” before he advises a student, and recognizes that his advice often carries a great deal of weight.

“Any problem in a course with a student – we usually wind up getting wind of it,” Petuch tells of why confidentiality is important, “it could be their mental health or their physical health – if something goes wrong, we have to devise a plan.”

Wray commented that during their time in college students may experience a variety of tribulations.

“A lot of our students have crises, like eating disorders, sexual assaults and physical assault,”  Wray said. “A lot of students are sick… it’s amazing to see some of the students – students who you wouldn’t think of in a million years – who have some of the biggest problems.”

One can imagine that such a job would be taxing. Lucien explains that one of the most difficult parts of advising is when students are unhappy with the options given. “Our job as advisors is not to tell you what to do,” he says. “If they say they’re unhappy, I encourage them to go talk to their major advisors.”

Wray tells that the job can be taxing, since the relationship built with students often leads them to the door of an academic advisor before it takes them to the counseling center. “It does take an emotional toll on you because you’re helpless, but it does make you feel better when you can help them,” and advisors often guide students to the necessary resources to get them through tough times.

So what are the perks of being an advisor? Wray says that it’s getting to see all the different types of students. As an English advisor, she works with creative writing, literature, and technical writing majors, and can tell which discipline a student belongs to from their personality. “It’s neat to work with the students. We have a lot of different personalities.”

Petuch instead claims that it’s the unpredictability of the job. As I spoke with him, he told me that two students had come to him that day in a good mood, another was crying, and a fourth was filing a grievance against a professor – not a happy task.

For Lucien, it’s working with the “best and brightest students on campus” through the honors college, which serves all majors and disciplines.

There are many paths to advising, and some of them are not what you would expect. Petuch worked with student affairs and counseling, and is currently seeking his PhD in higher education administration, while Wray, who holds the same position in the next office, holds her masters in English Literature and became an advisor through her familiarity with the curriculum and her love of working with students.

While working with the medical students at the University of South Carolina, she organized study groups and such, and learned that she preferred working with students. “I love working with students,” she says.

Lucien shares this sentiment, as he came to advising through a job as an undergraduate working in an academic advising office. “They were the most effective people on that campus, in my opinion.”

Regardless of how they came to the profession, academic advisors put their heart and soul into what they do – keeping students in line and working towards their goals. Maybe it’s time we stop by more than once a semester to check in and take advantage of all advisors have to offer – their advise and insight are immeasurable and their knowledge invaluable. So take some time today to go to your advisor and thank them for all they do, like serving as a liaison between the student body and the faculty, or maybe just for keeping your secrets.