Caleb Thompson ’14 came to Harvard with an open mind. He left his home in the United Kingdom for a liberal arts education that would give him the freedom to explore the humanities: history, philosophy, literature, and more. When he arrived in Cambridge, however, he was overwhelmed by the thousands of classes offered to Harvard undergraduates. So he looked to his new freshman adviser for help sorting through the options.
“My adviser understood me,” Thompson said. “Within the first two or three times that we met, she understood what I might like to take and steered me to a poetry class given by Professor Helen Vendler, the most exceptional lecturer I’ve ever heard. Now I’m thinking of concentrating in English or in the classics.”
Harvard’s advising programs enable students like Thompson to get more from their undergraduate academic experience. Adela Penagos, now in her second year as associate dean of the Advising Programs Office (APO), said that encouraging students to think in terms of their long-term personal and intellectual development is at the heart of the College’s approach to advising.
“We don’t want students to think of their College goals in terms of ‘credentialing,’ ” she said. “We want them to develop their minds in ways that allow them to understand different aspects of knowledge. We also want students to understand how to use that knowledge to make a difference in society, and to make a contribution that they might not have been able to make before they got this education.”
The College’s advising structure provides support for students’ intellectual journeys throughout their Harvard careers. Freshman advisers and peer advising fellows help students with the transition to College life and get them thinking about what they want to learn. Sophomore advisers in the Houses help students to bring their studies into focus. Concentration and thesis advisers provide guidance to upperclass students as they plan and execute courses of study. Penagos said this structure enables each undergraduate to build a board of advisers that he or she can draw on regularly.
“We’re trying to make advising more of a continuum,” she said. “We want students to develop mentoring relationships with their advisers and with the faculty. There should always be more than one person for students to turn to when they have questions or need guidance.”
APO staff members say the relationships that freshmen form with their advisers are particularly important because they lay the foundation for a student’s intellectual trajectory at the College. Peer Advising Fellows — sophomores, juniors, or seniors trained by the APO and matched with freshmen — also play a critical role by providing a student perspective on academics and extracurriculars.
“First-year advisers have a pivotal role in assisting freshmen as they make the transition from high school to college,” said Suzy Conway, assistant dean of first-year advising. “Through ongoing conversations, they encourage freshmen to explore a variety of opportunities and help them to consider academic interests and extracurricular activities that will shape their educational experience. Peer Advising Fellows can provide additional viewpoints and perspectives that may challenge freshmen in ways that will facilitate their academic and student development and impact both career and life decisions.”
Freshman advising peaks each April with Advising Fortnight, two weeks of information sessions, panels, and open houses designed to help students learn about Harvard’s undergraduate concentrations. Every freshman must have at least one advising conversation during the Fortnight, and can fulfill the requirement by attending an event or visiting a concentration during office hours.
At the start of their second year at Harvard, students move into the Houses and work with sophomore advisers — as well as sophomore advising coordinators, House tutors, resident deans, and House masters — to become more fully immersed in the intellectual life of the College. Glenn R. Brody Magid, assistant dean of upper class and concentration advising, said sophomore advisers build on the mission of freshman advising by encouraging and assisting Harvard undergraduates in becoming lifelong, self-directed learners.
“Sophomore advisers assist students in asserting ownership over their own academic, career, and life plans — for instance, by developing networks with faculty and fellow students, and by seeking out research, study abroad, and other opportunities for academic enrichment,” Brody Magid said. “To do this, they continue advising students one-on-one even after students declare their concentrations. They also work with advising coordinators in the Houses to run academic programs of specific interest to sophomores.”
Midway through sophomore year, undergraduates choose a concentration and get a third layer of support. A concentration adviser helps to select courses and to develop a plan of study in line with each student’s interests. During junior year, many students also work closely with faculty thesis advisers. Penagos said positive experiences with their first- and second-year advisers lead to strong relationships with faculty in their concentrations.
“Students will encounter some of the most extraordinary minds in the world during their time at Harvard,” she said. “The advising relationships that they develop with first-year and sophomore advisers should help them to form the same kind of relationships with their concentration advisers and with the faculty.”
Kirk Fergus ’12, a social studies concentrator, said the relationship he had formed with his concentration adviser made it possible for him to reach out for help when he found himself drowning in schoolwork last year.
“I was taking two junior tutorials that I loved, a history course that was relevant for my senior thesis, and an advanced statistics course,” Fergus said. “After a few weeks, I knew that I was in for more than I had expected. I was never the type to lighten the load, and my embarrassment about asking for help kept me from reaching out. I met with my adviser and was able to communicate my concerns. She helped me through the process of deciding to take statistics pass/fail. I’m so grateful I had an opportunity to talk to a person I felt comfortable with. If I hadn’t made that call, I might have faced academic troubles down the road that could have been easily avoided.”
While freshman and sophomore advising is coordinated by the APO, each concentration handles its own advisers and coordinates programming that includes training, assessment, and communications. Penagos said she and her staff plan to work more closely with each concentration this year to coordinate programming and disseminate best practices.
“We’re going around to visit each concentration to understand their approach, discuss concerns, and see how we can work together to sharpen advising skills,” she said. “We’re right at the beginning of this process, and we’ll have more to say in the spring.”
Thompson said he still goes to his freshman adviser for guidance, but now also looks to his sophomore adviser as he thinks about which concentration to choose. He hasn’t decided what he’ll study, but says that, even when he does make that decision, he will continue to explore the humanities broadly, as his advisers have encouraged him to do.
“A liberal arts education turns you into a more interesting human being,” he said. “I came from the British school system, which emphasizes narrowing in on your chosen subject at an early stage. The idea that educated people should be literate and able to discuss and think about any subject is very important. It’s one of the main reasons I decided to come to Harvard.”