Attending freshman classes at any university should be an exciting first step for a student on a journey from high school and onwards toward their dream career. However, for students who may not have quite worked out what their dreams are yet, this transition can also bring a heightened level of anxiety and uncertainty. Even for students who have a clear picture of career goals, making the transition out of high school into an entirely new environment with new expectations, responsibilities and freedoms can feel a bit overwhelming. Other students may find themselves facing financial or other challenges that make that first year of college — and beyond — even trickier to navigate.
That’s where TROY’s team of academic advisors in the John W. Schmidt (JWS) Center for Student Success step in to help students do more than just dream about the future; they get students the resources and support they need to become dream achievers.
What Does an Academic Advisor Do?
It’s the job of each academic advisor at Troy University’s JWS Center for Student Success to reassure first-year students, help them settle into college life, advise them how to choose a major, and ultimately find academic success and a future career.
According to Jonathan Broyles, Assistant Dean of Student Success, the role of the academic advisor differs from one institution to the next and sometimes it differs across a specific institution.
“If you look at the job description for an academic advisor at ten different colleges or universities, you’re going to have ten different answers to that question,” says Broyles. “At the most basic level, the academic advisor will help students identify issues and trends and help them enroll in the right classes. But in the JWS Center, that is not our definition. We take a more holistic view.”
Broyles explains that the academic advisor’s role in the JWS Center is to build a solid relationship with a student that helps them throughout their academic careers.
“We have advisors who are so connected to their students they can help them clear those immediate hurdles they come across in their first year in college and then even potentially avoid those stumbling blocks three semesters down the road,” says Broyles.
Broyles draws on more than 13 years of experience working with TROY students, initially in the admissions office and then student services, before joining the JWS Center for Student Success. He’s also an alumnus of TROY, with a bachelor’s degree in social science and a master’s degree in post-secondary education social science. He is currently working on his Ph.D. in higher ed administration and educational leadership.
Looking back on his own experiences as a freshman at TROY, Broyles admits that he didn’t always clearly understand in which direction he should head. He cites his academic advisors as key influencers in his academic and career choices.
“I went to school at TROY thinking that I would be a music educator,” says Broyles. “I figured out through the help of my advisors that was not the right field for me. I had some interest in working with adult learners and also in the higher ed field. I really enjoyed psychology and sociology as my main points of study. Through this, I developed a love for working with students, helping them develop a growth mindset, and talking through different strategies that would help them develop coping skills.”
Making the Transition from High School to College
According to Broyles, many students have issues when making the transition from high school to college, and it’s the academic advisor’s job to make sure they feel safe and secure before looking at their educational options.
“There are the everyday familial issues that every student goes through, like a mom not being there to do the laundry,” says Broyles. “However, some of the students we advise are suffering from real emotional distress. Many have never been alone before, and they are dealing with separation anxiety. Others will be struggling with financial issues that may have a real impact on their food or housing security.”
Broyles explains that these issues cannot be dealt with in a prescriptive manner.
“It’s not enough to just give our students a list of classes and terms, and just check through like a doctor handing you your prescription and saying, ‘Take two a day and call me in a week,'” says Broyles. “We have adopted an appreciative type of advising where we address the individual student’s needs.”
TROY’s holistic academic advising strategy takes inspiration from the American psychologist Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.
“Maslow’s hierarchy of needs states that we have to be able to eat, sleep, breathe, etc.,” says Broyles. “As it relates to higher education, the theory is that if students are not eating, sleeping, and breathing well, they are definitely not going to be performing the best on the mid-term or their finals. Through their experience and knowledge and partnerships with other offices on campus, our academic advisors try to bridge the gap that exists between the student and the classroom.”
Dreams are Great, But What Should My College Major Be?
Simply selecting a major can be a significant source of anxiety for students. Broyles highlights TROY’s Pathfinder program for students who haven’t quite decided where they want to go in their future careers.
“The Pathfinder program is designed for students who are not sure about what they want to do when they graduate and are undecided about what major they want to go into,” says Broyles. “They take a class called TROY 1102, which is a major exploration class, where we talk through the academic programs, resources, and potential careers.” In the class, students select several different majors and are assigned time to research each option.
“We advise students in the TROY 1102 class to go and talk to somebody in those majors,” says Broyles. “They make an appointment with a faculty member in the selected majors, and they ask very specific questions. At the end of the program, hopefully, the student is ready to declare a major. If not, that’s OK because they can stay undecided in the Pathfinder program for a little longer, and we’ll support them throughout.”
Like many achievements, the Pathfinder program ends with a celebration and a party.
“At the end of their journey with us, they will have found their path, and so there’s a celebration that occurs,” says Broyles. “We hang a banner that says, ‘You’ve found your path.’ It’s kind of like the Wizard of Oz, going down the yellow brick road. You’ve found your path, and we want to celebrate that milestone.”
How do Academic Advisors Work with Students?
At TROY, the academic advising experience isn’t a one-and-done event; it’s about relationship building. “We advise all first-year students, and we keep them until they reach their 45th semester hour,” says Broyles. “After that, we transition them to their academic departments for a faculty advisor assignment. In the JWS Center, we also advise students who are placed into developmental math and/or English classes, unsure about their major, are seeking a bachelor’s degree in Interdisciplinary Studies or associate degree,” says Broyles.
Broyles explains that they would expect to see the average student about two to three times a semester.
“There are students who see us more, and there are students who see us less,” says Broyles. “What we’ve been trying to do in the center is to help students understand that true advising does not happen at the registration period. Registration does not equal advisement. Choosing classes does not equal advisement. True advising goes well beyond that.”
For Isabella Worley, who is working on her K-6 Elementary Education degree at TROY, the first-year advising experience proved that she made the right decision when she chose TROY. “When deciding on my college home, I knew I wanted to spend my four years somewhere that relationships could thrive, and involvement was encouraged. After touring TROY, I knew it was a place that I would feel comfortable calling home,” she says. “TROY’s First Year Advisement Program helped me navigate my freshman year with ease and excitement. My first-year advisor was phenomenal! She was super helpful, answered every question I came to her with, and whenever she did not know an answer, she found someone to help me who did.”
College advising goes well beyond the first year; the academic advisor team works with students to prepare them for life after freshman year.
“In addition to helping the incoming first-year students with their immediate needs, we’ll start talking about the transitions from freshman to sophomore, sophomore to junior, and junior to senior,” says Broyles. “We’ll show them what those transitions look like and how the different offices on campus can help.”
According to Broyles, it’s never too early to engage with various departments in the University. The team of academic advisors advises students that their college experiences should never be stagnant — and that these experiences have career value.
“Some students are very active, they get involved in things like the Student Government Association (SGA), but they do not always give themselves the credit they deserve and include these activities on their resume,” says Broyles. “Employers want to see evidence of this experience when graduates enter the workplace. This is the reason why we encourage our students to start engaging the various offices like career services even in their first year. The university experience should be a vibrant one. It should be a hands-on, living experience. We want our students to know about these things so that they are not caught unawares and are more prepared to make those transitions.”
Worley’s own great experience with college advising has continued beyond her freshman year. “My current advisor is absolutely amazing. She takes the time to answer my many questions and concerns, builds relationships with her advisees, and is so informed on everything I do not know yet. Planning my semesters has been swift and easy, to say the least. “
How to Work With Your Academic Advisor
Broyles advises that students should be as open and honest as possible to get the most out of their academic advising experience.
“We have an advising check sheet that we like to go through to make sure we’re meeting the student’s expectations,” says Broyles. “This can include some seemingly intrusive questions. For example, if a student is not emotionally well, we’re going to ask, ‘Are you connected with resources on campus?’ ‘How are you dealing with the transition to college?’ ‘Do you have issues relating to food or housing security?’”
Broyles reassures his students that there are very few problems that the advising team has not encountered before and that advisors have a tried and tested toolbox of solutions to most situations.
“We rarely see ‘new’ problems,” says Broyles. “I would hope that’s comforting to the students. It doesn’t matter what your issue is: If we don’t have a solution, we will work to create a solution for you, and we’re going to do that very quickly by working with other departments. For example, we don’t have anybody in financial aid in our building, but that’s OK. We’ll softly transition that student over to that department. We’ll call them and make the appointment and even walk the student down there if necessary.”
Broyles highlights how easy it is to connect with an academic advisor and encourages students to make regular appointments.
“Students can make an appointment with an academic advisor online,” says Broyles. “It’s a simple click of the button, select your date, put in your contact information, and you have an appointment with the first available advisor. It’s also possible to schedule an appointment with a specific advisor should the student wish to do so. The most important thing is not to be afraid to connect with us. The sooner you connect, the sooner we can help you navigate any hurdles that might be getting in the way of your education.”
A Culture of Caring
“In the JWS Center, we have a team of academic advisors dedicated to helping students be successful,” says Broyles. “The words ‘student success’ speak clearly. We try to do our very best to get that message out there to the students.”
This process starts from the moment students arrive on campus.
“We take our time to speak to each incoming group and let them know how important they are,” says Broyles. “This sets the tone for students and lets them know that they can connect with us at any time.”
Students need to realize that connecting with their academic advisors isn’t just about getting help when they have a problem — it’s about ensuring that their dreams come true and that they build their confidence and skills as future leaders and have the support to optimize their college success strategies.
“We are adamant that this is a center for making sure that you are successful,” says Broyles. “There is no stigma in coming to us for support. We want students to feel comfortable about walking into the building, picking up the phone, or dropping us an email and saying, ‘Hey, I really don’t have any idea about financial aid,’ or ‘I don’t know what to major in.’”
Broyles believes the culture of caring fostered by the academic advisor team is deep-rooted across TROY.
“We’re a big family here at TROY,” says Broyles. “This might sound like a cliché, but it’s very true. From the moment a student walks in for the first time, they just feel so welcome.”
The desire to help every student feel like they belong is something everyone on the faculty and support teams feels strongly about.
“Everyone here is so approachable,” says Broyles. “It’s very much that Southern hospitality thing. You meet the family, grab a glass of sweet tea, and sit on the porch a little while we have a conversation. You won’t find a more overall caring faculty and staff than at Troy University.”
TROY student, Worley, agrees. “I have built so many new relationships with professors and students alike in my career field that are consistently building me up and confirming my call to education.”
Worley, who will be graduating later this year, shares her own advice about navigating the transition to college life. “The transition in moving away from home, making new friends, and building a new routine is challenging and emotional, but it is going to be one of the best experiences of your life,” she says.
And, she adds, it’s important to remember that you are not going through the transition alone as a new freshman in college. “The other freshmen you meet are going through the same changes, so don’t be scared to reach out and make new friends! Find somewhere to get plugged in so you can serve and grow the community at Troy University.”
To learn more about how TROY’s academic advisors can help you make the transition from high school into college, how to choose a major, and guide you on your path toward your dream career, visit the Academic Advising page on our website.
Illustration by Madelyn Flanagan ©Troy University 2021