A field guide to academic help
Advising expert—also an alum and recent Cal parent—shares her tips
By Cathy Cockrell
Roseanne Fong (Cathy Cockrell photo)
Fall 2012 | Academically, Berkeley is big and diverse, offering more than 100 undergraduate programs—everything from English, math, and film studies to materials science and engineering. For some students, this breadth is a candy shop of intellectual opportunity. To others, it can feel overwhelming: What classes should I take? How many units can I handle? How do I pick a major? Should I double major? How do I graduate on time?
Luckily, academic advisers—faculty, professional staff, even trained student peers—are everywhere to help. The Office of Undergraduate Advising in the College of Letters and Science, which is academic "home" to most undergrads, is a significant part of that network. We talked with the office's director, Roseanne Fong—an alum with nearly three decades' experience working with Berkeley students, and the mother of a recent Cal grad—for seasoned advice on getting academic guidance.
Where can undergrads go for academic advice?
In Letters and Science, our advising staff offers in-person, phone, and Skype appointments as well as drop-in advising in our offices in Evans Hall. L&S students are welcome to seek our assistance all the way to graduation, but especially in their first two years. We also offer a program in the residence halls, “Finding Your Way.” Students can just roll out of bed and meet with an adviser. In addition, there are a number of places on campus to get specialized academic advice—for example the Transfer, Re-entry, and Student Parent Center; the Athletic Study Center; and the Disabled Students’ Program.
What are the most common academic issues that students have?
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There’s a huge range. It could be, “I don’t know what to take, because I don’t know what I want to major in; I need some direction.” Others may be considering a double major and need to plan their schedule carefully. Transfer students may want to make sure that they’re going to graduate on time.
Or a student might be in academic difficulty and feeling anxious. Sometimes that student’s distress has a medical or family-related reason. We can support the student and refer him or her to the appropriate resources—perhaps tutoring or the student health center.
Undergrads typically spend their first two years exploring what to focus on academically, and declare a major by the start of junior year. We see students who are on campus several years and still need to declare a major. We require them to plan the remainder of their tenure here—helping to make sure that they graduate.
Do you see the current economic reality affecting students’ campus experience and what they’re choosing to study?
Na’ilah Suad Nasir, with student, serves as Resident Faculty in Unit 1. (Elena Zhukova photo)
I’ve observed that some students want a major that promises more job security—the motivation being financial, often, or cultural. We have students who are in majors they aren’t doing well in and don’t really enjoy, but it’s something that their parents are encouraging or forcing them to do. What many professors and staff advisers tell students is, “Do what you feel passionate about.” Students who feel passionate about a subject are likely to do better.
We’re also seeing more students who are overloading on units—especially out-of-state and international students, because of the cost of out-of-state fees and wanting to get through Berkeley quickly. Sometimes they’re taking a heavy load during the fall and spring semesters, and also going to Summer Sessions.
What would you tell parents who want their student to go into medicine, for instance, even if he or she is not very good at science and wants to study art?
That’s a hard one. Coming from a family in which the children were first-generation college students, I can relate to this student’s dilemma—and the parents’ dilemma, too. I had three older siblings who became engineers. Then along came me; what I felt passionate about was psychology. My mother, who was from China, understood that if you get an undergraduate degree in engineering you’re likely to get a good job. But she couldn’t understand studying psychology, or wanting to be a counselor or psychologist. Why would I want to ask someone very personal questions, when in the Chinese culture you don’t ask those types of questions?
At Berkeley more than 60 percent of incoming freshmen have one or both parents who were born outside the United States—and about 20 percent of our undergrads are international or out-of-state students. So there are going to be cultural differences around this.
“I encourage parents to really communicate with their student. Did you use the Student Learning Center? Did you study in groups? Did you seek help?”
What are you observing in terms of academic stress levels?
I see a larger number of students these days concerned about their grades. This comes up even at new-student orientation, from students and parents. I remember a parent at orientation asking a professor, “Which courses might guarantee an A or a B for my student?” The audience laughed—especially parents who also wanted to ask that question but didn’t. And I remember the professor answering that if your student is only interested in a grade and doesn’t feel passionately about learning—that’s a disservice to the university as well as to the student.
I caution students, especially in their first-year, to seek a balance. You’re here to take classes—don’t rely just on webcast classes; take advantage of the opportunity to interact with other students, and the professor or graduate- student instructor. And it’s important to become involved as well outside the classroom.
Do many parents request access to their student’s grades?
They do, but they find for the first time that a report card isn’t sent home. I often hear parents say, “I can’t believe I can’t see my student’s grades, when I’m the one who’s paying for her education!” But FERPA, the federal law on educational rights and privacy, forbids us to release that information.
Wearing my parent hat, I share with parents at orientation that my daughter went to Berkeley as an undergrad—and although I had access to her records, not once did I check her grades. I wanted to respect her privacy and for her not to feel pressure at the times when she was struggling. I encourage parents, though, to really communicate with their student. In my case, I asked those “Mom” questions: Did you use the Student Learning Center? Did you study in groups? Did you seek help?
What can parents expect when their student comes home for the first time?
I do hear from students that when they go home for the first time and encounter a curfew again, that takes a little getting used to. Or they find that their bedroom became the sewing room or guest room. My advice to parents is to do that gradually and communicate with your student about it, so there are no surprises.
But I’ve also heard students say that they had a really great conversation with their parents about something they learned in a class— that they were able to exchange ideas in a new way.
So expect your student to change. I’m not talking about the piercings or a new hair color—though that might be part of the college experience, too. But you’re likely to find that, “Gosh, my student is now an adult! We’re having adult conversations!” And that’s exciting and fun.
How do you help students who find it challenging to pick a major?
Every spring semester our office coordinates “Major Madness,” a 10-day event geared toward freshmen. L&S advisers participate as well as advisers who work in individual academic departments. We offer events on Sproul Plaza, presentations, guest speakers, and workshops in the residence halls. Faculty are invited to eat in the dining halls, so that students can ask them about different majors.
So a student might discover Scandinavian studies, for example, or other fields and departments they didn't know existed at Berkeley?
Yes, and I think the campus does a good job of introducing students to many of these lesser-known disciplines. One of the ways that’s done is that all undergrads are required to fulfill the Reading and Composition (R&C) requirement by the end of their fourth semester. They can fulfill part of this requirement by taking English 1A of course. But there’s also an R&C course in Scandinavian studies, and in rhetoric, in film, in Asian American studies, and so on.
You mentioned earlier that many students are overloading on units. What do you consider a heavy academic load?
For incoming freshman and transfer students, we recommend 13 to 15 units. As they acclimate, they can do 16 units or more. When I say “heavy load,” I’m talking about those who are taking 19, 20, 22 units. With those students, I would be concerned about two things: their ability to keep up academically, and whether they’re taking full advantage of what Berkeley has to offer. Are they getting involved in co-curricular activities, making friends, doing research, exploring the Bay Area? If they’re focused only on studying and grades, they’re not taking full advantage of their college experience.