Be People to People 

Courteney Rae Palis, First Year Advisor, Myth Buster

Faculty member Casey Haymes recently Zoomed with Courteney Rae Palis with a keen interest in clarifying the many myths and misunderstandings about what academic advisors do in Parsons First Year.

What is the terrain of your work? The location? How many colleagues? How do students and faculty interact with you? How have the last two years changed the environment and culture of student success advising?

I work on the Parsons First Year advising team along with three other advisors and the Director of Student Success Advising for Parsons First Year. Together, we advise all Parsons First Year students and collaborate with many other offices across campus, including the Registrar’s office, International Student and Scholar Services, Housing and Residential Education, and others. We have weekly meetings with the First Year department Associate Director and monthly meetings with the Dean’s office. We also regularly meet with other advisors across campus and communicate often with First Year faculty. As specific student issues come up that bring in other offices, we’re often looped into those conversations, even if they’re non-academic.

When non-academic challenges do arise, I might not be the best person to address them, so I may recommend a student to visit Student Health Services (SHS), the University Learning Center (ULC), or another office. I often tell students that what’s most important to me is how they’re doing as a person. And if they’re not okay as a person, then it’s no surprise they’re struggling as a student. This is why I may refer them to other, more appropriate offices–in order to help them tackle these personal challenges. What I can help with is the academic aspect of the issues they’re experiencing. For me, the job of being an advisor often entails answering: How can I help you personally first, then academically?

Advice for students for reaching out to an advisor for advice? How can we improve the conditions for giving students advice?

Any time I’m talking with students, I encourage them to be proactive when they encounter a problem. A lot of students become completely overwhelmed, freeze, and then run in the other direction when they face academic challenges in a class. We try to steer them back before they reach “the point of no return,” and it’s too late to turn things around. This is why Starfish flags can be so useful. Their main purpose is to notify the student that there are certain learning outcomes that they’re not meeting. Faculty members can raise the flag to give students ample time to reach out to someone because they now know they’re falling behind in some respect. And it also gives advisors a notification that maybe the student needs some support so we can reach out if necessary.

Sometimes just talking through their problem is all a student needs to realize what steps they can take to improve their performance. A lot of students come to meetings with their advisor fully equipped to handle the challenge that has popped up in front of them, and they just need someone to steer them in the right direction, offer to work together on the steps, and then students can learn what they need to in order to do better for the remainder of the semester. But at the heart of what we do is just really emphasizing the responsibility that students have for their own educational experience. Sometimes, along the way, they forget that they chose to be here and, with this choice, comes a responsibility to turn in assignments on time and show up to class–and if they have a challenge that prevents them from doing this, then they should reach out to an instructor or advisor for help. Of course, it’s hard to ask for help sometimes, but hopefully communicating how we’re here to support students in their journey will instill enough comfort in them to reach out. Most often, when students do reach out to an instructor or advisor, they feel a lot better after being able to talk with someone.

Have you seen a student shift from not being able to reach out to becoming more communicative about their needs within an academic year or semester?

Some students have a really rough first semester but don’t reach out for help until the last few weeks to begin asking what they should do to avoid failing a class. At that point, it’s often too late to turn things around, and students need to accept whatever’s going to happen. I’ve seen students who have experienced that, and it sometimes takes hitting rock bottom for them to realize they never want to go through that again. Those who have learned from their mistakes will often be a lot more proactive in the following semester because they don’t want to be in the same tough spot again.

Regardless of the challenges a student is experiencing, it is important for them to understand that instructors don’t give grades; students earn their grades. We try to emphasize this perspective in order to encourage students to be more active and proactive in their academic experience and have more agency. It’s tough but important to teach students to take responsibility. This is the time, in college, to learn how to navigate all these challenges, take responsibility for actions, and learn that there are consequences. If we don’t ever let students experience the consequences, how are they going to learn to function outside of this academic context, for example, in their future career? And one potential consequence for not meeting the learning outcomes of a class and not reaching out for help when needed is a failing grade–but this is also an opportunity to learn from mistakes and make changes to do better next time.

What does it mean to truly support students v. being satisfied with getting the job done? What does it entail for both sides of the desk/phone line/email? Who all is involved? Any stories about working with parents?

You could feasibly get the job done as an advisor by checking the boxes of the things you’re supposed to do administratively and otherwise, but my goal when advising students is to make sure they’re learning what they need to learn both inside and outside the classroom to not only be successful students but also successful professionals and people. I feel really good about a meeting when a student is about to leave and says, “This was really helpful. I feel like I learned a lot. I feel a lot better.”

Sometimes all they need is information they don’t know where to find. From the beginning of a student’s educational experience, we communicate that we are just one part of a very large network of support services, and we aim to help them learn how to advocate for themselves, navigate the university on their own, and understand which office is the best one to direct their questions. Other times, the conversations are a lot more serious: a student questioning their future at Parsons or not knowing what their major will be. These meetings may entail deeper discussions about a student’s expectations for their learning experience–and what information they may need to find in order to make a well-informed decision. Regardless of what kind of meeting it is, it all boils down to the same thing: Are they getting the support and information that they need in order to feel better prepared to move forward after they leave our meeting?

If student success is a family, and a goal is one member of that family, who are the siblings and parents? And what are they eating for dinner? Eating together? Separate? Microwave TJs? Minestrone? Please feel free to mix metaphors and exhaust this one.

The siblings are other goals, and the parents are probably the student and the advisor. It all comes back to this idea of students and advisors being partners. Oftentimes we are working with students to create goals, talk through what their aspirations are, and discuss some of the things they see themselves doing in the future.

Everything’s interrelated, not only with academic goals but also with professional and personal goals. For example, students may aim to secure an internship at some point before they graduate, but an important, related goal is to do well academically because oftentimes employers want to know students are successfully completing classes that will help them build the skills necessary for being a successful intern. There are some students who don’t care as much about grades, which I think is totally fine. Their main goal does not have to be getting a 4.0 every semester, and sometimes it can be damaging to only think about education in terms of getting perfect grades because that puts a lot of undue pressure on students.

Instead, I encourage students to look at their goals and educational experience in this way: How am I going to grow? What am I going to learn? What skills do I want to leave the university with? 

Education is an investment of time and a lot of money. If you’re not taking advantage of every opportunity to learn and grow, then you’re quite simply wasting your own investment and will likely leave with regrets.

So what do you think this family is eating for dinner? What would be a meal they would all show up for?

A graduation cake. Down the road, if students put in the work and if they approach their goals in the right way, that will get them to the milestone of graduation. And that’s not where it ends. It’s actually the beginning of a lot of things. In working with students to meet their goals, we strive to help them build a solid foundation from which they will be able to propel themselves into whatever career they want to pursue or into whatever the next thing is for them.

What are some unseen dimensions to you as a person that compliment your role as an advisor? Before becoming an advisor? While becoming an advisor? While evolving the work of being an advisor?

I’ve always seen myself as a lifelong learner. The reason why I’m here today is that my dad came to the States to get his PhD. My parents have always emphasized the importance of education for education’s sake. Not just to get a job, but to really be able to learn things and to enjoy learning. Relatedly, one thing students typically don’t know about me is that I’m also a student at The New School–I just finished the MA in Psychology program at NSSR, and I’ll be starting a PhD program in the fall. This means, at the points in the semester when the Parsons students are freaking out, I’m internally freaking out, too! I’m also a part-time faculty member. All of this helps me see the many sides to the academic experience at The New School. 

What is the question you want to make sure you answer that would be most difficult for a person outside your experience to know how to ask?

I wish students, parents, and faculty members would ask us: What do you do? 

Even when we try to communicate what we do, especially to students, they still have this very specific, very different idea of the scope of our jobs. A lot of our job involves clarifying what we can and cannot do, and wherever possible finding resources for students when they need them. For example, others may think we are “fixers” with a lot more power than we actually have. But our main job, when it comes to academic policies and procedures, is to simply communicate them to students and try to help them understand and navigate them. 

Another misconception that some people have is that we are the best point of contact to help students with urgent, non-academic issues. In these cases, the Student Support Services office can be contacted by a faculty or staff member if there is an urgent student situation,  or students can be referred to Student Health Services if they need support with their physical or mental health.

Anything else?

Sometimes students may be having trouble meeting the learning outcomes of a class for any number of reasons–and they may ask for a little bit of grace and flexibility as a result. In the same way that a student would want people to understand that the challenges they’re facing may be outside of their control, we often experience the same, or very similar, types of challenges in our jobs.

I hope for recognition that advisors, other staff members, faculty, etc., are people, too, and, just like students, many of us must deal with our own personal difficulties or work within boundaries over which we have no control. I think everyone needs to humanize others, in general, in the world, but I would especially hope this happens on both sides of the advisor-advisee relationship. In other words, I hope we can all simply be people to people. And I hope that, after completing their educational experience, students can confidently answer the question: Who do I want to be in the world?