Category Archives: General Education

The Value of Academic Mentoring

As we begin New Student Orientation (NSO) here at Penn State, I get the opportunity to see the advisers in our College of Health and Human Development work with our incoming students in selecting their first schedule of courses. This experience, heightened by the fact that my daughter will be heading for her own orientation in less than a month, has made me think about the huge value in the advising and mentoring provided through this relationship.

I like to use the term mentoring, because I think advising done well extends to that relationship. If a student invests in developing a strong relationship with faculty and professional advisers, they do become mentors. I believe too many students miss out on this opportunity.

I also want to share my thoughts on planning your courses in college.  I’ll emphasize that nothing I write replaces what a good session with one of our outstanding academic advisers provides.  Each student is unique and an adviser can provide much, much more than the generic overview I’ll share.

One thing I always tell students is to think about your college education in 4 boxes.  Your first box is what we call “General Education” at Penn State.  Its primary purpose is to build the foundational skills needed for college and life success and to explore and integrate–both your own interests and the array of human understanding.  At Penn State and elsewhere, some of the courses here are required, but the rest allow students to explore their diverse interests and different fields of study.  College affords students the time to dabble in a new area, and I encourage students to look for courses and professors that intrigue them, not just something that looks easy or fits their schedule. A mentor here can make great suggestions about the opportunities at a big university like Penn State.

The second box is your major.  These are the courses that will deepen your skills and knowledge in a particular area and prepare you for your first job or your future education. Within these fields there are often areas of specialization, so a student can work with a mentor to understand their fit with those subfields.

The third box is one I think is an afterthought for many students, but I think can be very important.  Whatever major a student chooses, I think they also need to think about how they will distinguish themselves from other students in the major.  What makes YOU different from every other Economics or Biobehavioral Health major? So, this box could be a minor or a second major or a deep study of 1 or more languages or research/study abroad experiences or any of many other ways of emphasizing other aspects that make you unique. A mentor can help a student sort through those many opportunities and find the right one.

The final box is also one that is forgotten.  I call it the fun box. Many majors do have a little room for electives, supporting courses, or other areas where a student has some freedom to choose. Take a class together with friends. Find an interesting course taught by a worldwide expert. Do a Spring Break service learning course. You’re young. Have a little fun (even as you learn!)

My final piece of advice is that building mentoring and advising relationships takes time. Students need to visit their faculty and professional advisers at least once every semester. They need to go visit each of their professors during office hours during the first month of each class and return, not just if they need help, but because they want the benefits of good advice (how do you find a mentor if you don’t talk with them? And your mentor does not have to be an adviser assigned to you!) My biggest disappointment as a faculty member is how few students take advantage of my advising time.

I want to wish our new students in Health and Human Development the best of luck as they plan their future. I want to thank our faculty and professional advisers for the outstanding work they do.  The value of academic mentoring is huge, and students who make the most of these personal relationships will find great success in college and beyond.

General Education Retreat: Day 1 Reflection

Penn State kicked off its next round of General Education change with a retreat of the full task force and subcommittees yesterday afternoon.  I thought it was a day of good discussion and, more importantly, listening.

As subcommittees met with students, faculty and staff in the Spring semester, it seemed evident that there were some significant concerns and questions about reform. At least some of that centered on the idea of themes. Some of it also centered on the question of whether the Task Force was truly listening to concerns and trying to be responsive. Ann Taylor’s excellent memo summarized the concerns and helped to focus attention on the topic.

As the discussion developed, it appeared to me that the idea that integration can and does happen in many ways–through themes, through individual interdisciplinary courses, through experiential learning opportunities, through integrative capstone courses, through research with faculty, through co-curricular programs, through learning communities–began to surface.

So, maybe the path forward is to discover a way to give students, faculty, and campuses the freedom to offer several different ways to develop integrative thinking, with themes an option among others. A creative approach like this–while certainly much more challenging to assess–might be just the unique Penn State approach needed. With campuses or colleges trying different approaches, we might just learn which ones work for different students, providing an evidence-based contribution to research on this topic.