Dietrich School Advising Center ‘meeting the students where they are’

Advisers working with studentBy DONOVAN HARRELL

The Dietrich School of Arts & Sciences is rebranding its Advising Center with a new advertising campaign and updating its programming to adapt to the evolving needs of students.

The effort comes as the dean of the school, Kathleen M. Blee, wanted to focus on improving students’ undergraduate experience, said Jessica Hatherill, senior director of Undergraduate Studies at the Dietrich School.

“She certainly felt that advising was a core part of that and has really made that a priority for the school,” Hatherill said. “I feel like advising, well it’s the heart of a student’s experience in terms of how to help them develop into the student/person/individual to take advantage of all the opportunities that are here at Pitt and beyond.”

There are 26 advisers — 25 have a master’s degree — in the Dietrich School Advising Center who serving more than 5,600 students, including roughly 75 percent of first-year students, sophomores, transfer students and others. More than a third of Dietrich School students also double or triple major, which advisers help make possible, Hatherill said.

Dietrich School representatives also realized that students and parents held outdated conceptions about the role undergraduate advisers play.

Barbara “Babs” Mowery, who has been with the advising center since 1972, said the misconceptions can be attributed to “phases,” which are influenced by pop culture and other external events.

For example, she said she’s seen students who have picked majors like astronomy, anthropology or forensic science because of movie and TV franchises such as the “Star Wars,” “Indiana Jones” and “CSI.”

The most recent phase Mowery said she experienced involved parents and students believing that advisers were supposed to help students find careers that have high salaries to help pay off student loans.

Parents and students also thought that advisers were supposed to help students find “easy” classes or professors.

“You can’t tell somebody ‘oh, take this’ or ‘take this person, or this person’ because everybody has a different experience,” Mowery said. “No matter who they are.”

To address these and other misconceptions, the school introduced new advertisements around campus with student testimonials and began adding to its programming.

Derek Fischer, director of the Advising Center, said he and his staff are emphasizing “meeting the students where they are.”

That also entails peer advisers coming to residence halls to assist first-year students with the advising process, with Tom Converso, one of the advisers, heading the initiative. Advisers also will be available for “drop-in hours” in the Hillman Library for the students who can’t make it to the center.

Some advisers are making themselves available through Skype, and another adviser provides short YouTube tutorials.

These and other strategies came from each adviser’s unique background and experiences, from teaching to counseling, to help students with more than just staying on track to graduate, Fischer said.

“I’ve been very intentional about letting them know that I’m open to them trying new things, and to put themselves in situations where their interests align with the professional work that we do as advisers to get them motivated to try new things and to do new things,” Fischer said.

Advisers also work to come up with approaches that cater to each individual students’ unique needs, Fischer said.

However, after students declare a major, they will get a new departmental adviser corresponding to their major. Fischer said he’s also working to get students in touch with departmental advisers before they declare a major to help them learn about the opportunities within each department.

One of the main goals for advising center staff, Fischer said, is to help students explore their academic interests and who they are outside the classrooms.

It’s holistic in nature,” Fischer said. “It’s certainly not simply: ‘Here are the courses you need to take or you should take.’ It is asking students reflective questions like: Why do you think that this is the right path? Have you considered this as a potential option? And then helping students through that decision-making process. … So I think it’s really setting the foundation for students to be able to write their own story in a coherent and meaningful kind of way.”

Donovan Harrell is a writer for the University Times. Reach him at or 412-383-9905.