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Student to student: Peer advising works

Is this the right major for me? How do I graduate in four years? How do I make sense of my degree plan? These are only a few questions students at UW-Eau Claire ask themselves as they try to navigate academic life. Now, thanks to the Peer Advising Program, they can get advice and help from students who have had the same questions. 

Senior Dylan Hildebrandt transferred to UW-Eau Claire from a university with a minimal advising program.

"I had little to no idea what it was like to meet with an adviser," said Hildebrandt, an organizational communication major from Manitowoc. "Once I knew what the culture was here at UW-Eau Claire – caring, generous and helpful – I set up an appointment to meet with a peer adviser before meeting with my faculty adviser, and I couldn't have made a better choice." 

In the meeting with the peer adviser, Hildebrandt was asked questions related to his interests, strengths, weaknesses and previously taken classes in order to get a degree plan that worked with his goals.

"My peer adviser was constantly digging for information and ultimately pointed me in the direction of the major I am graduating with in December," Hildebrandt said. "What the meeting with my peer adviser did was make me feel comfortable at UW-Eau Claire. It helped me acclimate to the university at a relaxed, yet productive rate. I felt that I mattered to this institution."

The department-based Peer Advising Program developed out of a Title III Strengthening Institutions Grant that the university received in 2010. This grant provided funds to develop and implement advising strategies to improve students' direction in academic career planning. The pilot program was coordinated through the Academic Advising Office by Jana Armstrong, the connected advising coordinator, and began in fall 2013 with the biology, psychology, and communication and journalism departments. The history department joined the program in fall 2014.

Students were recruited to serve as peer advisers within each department along with one faculty member recruited to supervise. Armstrong provided in-service training and support to the peer advisers and the faculty supervisors.

Senior Alexis Benjamin, an organizational communication major from Lake Elmo, Minnesota, and Junior Amanda Krueger, a history education and psychology major from Waukesha, are the peer advisers for the communication and journalism department.

"I think this program provides students with a stepping stone," Benjamin said. "Students trust us for factual information and come to us constantly for guidance, advice and support. It is extremely satisfying to directly see your influence on students within the department. I have learned that there is not one specific answer to any question. Because every student's situation or academic performance is so drastically different, no answers can be generalized. Academic advisers need to be flexible and adaptable. Two skills I have gained through being a CJ peer adviser." 

The Peer Advising Program is not intended to replace faculty advising;it is intended to supplement it, said Dr. Nicole Schultz, associate professor of communication and journalism.

"The peer advisers help prepare students for meeting with faculty," Schultz said. "When students come prepared with the basics, it enhances faculty-student advising appointments so we have time to discuss high-impact experiences such as immersion trips, study abroad and internships. I can do my best advising when students come prepared."

Students also may feel more at ease talking to a peer about academic concerns because they understand that as peer advisers we were once confused by the degree audits too, Krueger said. 

"This program is important because it gives advisees the foundation to know what questions to ask their faculty advisers and makes their time with them more meaningful," Kruger said. "I learned that I can be a great resource to students on campus because I have in-depth information about the assets we have here regarding academics. As a result of working as a peer adviser, I have learned to be more empathetic, and I have also learned that in order to really help students it is important to not only give them an answer to their questions, but to provide them with the tools and resources to answer questions for themselves. This job has provided numerous opportunities that I would never have had otherwise, and I am truly grateful for the experience."

The Peer Advising Program is a great asset and resource for students who may need some guidance in determining their course of action, Hildebrandt said.

"The advising program at this institution has been an absolute rock for me in my three semesters," Hildebrandt said. "The advisers have helped me pick my major, work my schedule to fit perfectly and been a huge relationship builder as I have made great connections with the faculty here on campus."

For more information about the Peer Advising Program, contact Jana Armstrong at schilmjr@uwec.edu or 715-836-3487.