There are some memories of their first year at UCLA that engineering students do not forget: the first caffeine and sports drink-fueled all-nighter, the first unabashed chant of “Cs get degrees!,” the first time they get lost in South Campus, and so on. Their first faculty advising meeting, however, does not usually make the list.
UCLA’s Henry Samueli School of Engineering and Applied Science assigns each undergraduate engineering student a faculty adviser from their department, who they must meet at least once a year to avoid having a hold slapped on their records. These meetings are meant as an opportunity for students to build a relationship with faculty members, and, in theory, are a great resource for students who have questions that academic counselors may not be able to answer.
In reality, however, these yearly meetings can seem like nothing more than a formal requirement that does not have any bearing on students’ academic or professional success. A good number of engineering students make an appointment with their advisers, walk in, exchange niceties and perfunctory conversation about the world of engineering and leave, knowing that their requirement has been fulfilled for the year.
Although the faculty adviser meetings are relatively uncomplicated and far from being a hassle for students, the program needs to provide more tangible benefits. Adviser meetings should be more than annual blink-and-you’ll-miss-it occurrences, HSSEAS needs to better use student feedback about the advising program to ensure faculty members give meaningful advice to students and provide them with useful resources.
Richard Wesel, professor and associate dean of academic and student affairs of the engineering school, said HSSEAS started the faculty advising program eight years ago and used feedback from faculty members and student focus groups to structure the advising process. He suggested students use the meetings to ask for advice about internship and research opportunities, and develop a relationship with their faculty adviser, should they need a recommendation letter in the future.
Wesel added many of his advisees secure internships when he personally sends out their resumes to companies. But that’s not the case with all faculty advisers. Although the program requires all faculty members, including the chairs and deans, to be available for three hours every quarter to meet with students, not every faculty adviser is as forthcoming with advice.
For example, Candice Zhang, a second-year computer science student, said her faculty adviser did not provide any specific resources or information when she asked him about graduate schools and research opportunities. She added she was discouraged from asking him further questions after he told her and other undergraduate advisees that he did not care if they did not want his advice.
“I personally wanted help from my adviser, but I did not want to ask him any more questions because he seemed really tired and all his answers were very general,” Zhang said.
These are notable concerns, given students seek out faculty advisers to hear about their career and engineering experiences. For instance, Aashita Patwari, a second-year computer science student, said she goes into her faculty adviser meetings seeking advice drawn from her adviser’s personal experience in the industry.
It’s easy to think HSSEAS would be cognizant of these shortcomings, but between fall 2016 and summer 2017, only 25 percent of students responded to a survey emailed to students who had fulfilled the advising requirement for that year.
However, since 62.7 percent of students said they had received good advice, the faculty advising program definitely has the potential to help students. HSSEAS can better gauge the effectiveness of the program by updating the existing survey to include a section asking students for the specific topics and resources they wish to discuss with advisers. The school could also incentivize more students to complete the survey, for example, by offering extra credit to the students who complete it, an idea Wesel endorsed.
The school of engineering can then use this student feedback to understand what Bruins want out of their advising sessions and require faculty members to ensure their advisees get the most out of their time. The school of engineering can review survey results with faculty at the end of each quarter, and help them set clear advising goals so they can better provide specific resources to students who ask for help.
And there’s evidence that this kind of structure could work. Milos Ercegovac, a distinguished computer science professor, said he encourages his advisees to come to meetings prepared with specific questions so he can help them with advice drawn from his own experience and knowledge about careers and graduate schools. He added he prepares for advising meetings by checking out his advisees on the roster to gauge their academic progress. Other advisers can follow Ercegovac’s example and prepare for meetings by familiarizing themselves with their advisees and the resources they might be seeking.
Of course, it may seem that students who are dissatisfied with their faculty adviser can easily pick a different adviser, which is an option available to students. However, there are more than 3,000 students enrolled in the school of engineering, and some faculty members have as many as 30 advisees. Finding an adviser who is helpful and in the same department can be a tedious process for students.
Largely unhelpful faculty advising meetings may seem like a niche problem, but a resource that is available and mandatory for all undergraduate engineering students needs to be more than just a bureaucratic formality.
Otherwise, the program is little more than a wasted opportunity for students and a waste of time for faculty members.