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By John Helsley
Haley Walton, like so many freshmen, was fixed firmly on a future of certainty when she arrived at Oklahoma State University.
“I was convinced I was going to be a doctor,” Walton said.
She’d major in entrepreneurship, knocking out the prerequisites for med school on the way to a degree in the Spears School of Business. The plan was solid, approved by her academic adviser, Marissa McIntyre, in the Chesapeake Energy Business Student Success Center (BSSC).
One lecture changed everything.
“I sat through my first class of chemistry,” Walton said, “and I kid you not, I whipped out my phone and emailed Marissa. I said something along the lines of, ‘SOS! I don’t like this. I really don’t want to do this for the rest of my life. I need help!!!’
“She responded and said, ‘Come into my office, and we will get it all figured out.’”
Fast-forward three years, and Walton is preparing for her senior year, still in Spears Business, scheduled to graduate in the spring with a degree in management, concentrating on nonprofits, with a minor in finance.
Still leaning on McIntyre and the BSSC, too.
Welcome to the new age of academic advisement, built on relationships and trust and even friendships, featuring students who stop in regularly for guidance or just to say hello.
Flipping a line from The Godfather, it is personal, and it’s business.
“When we’re talking about academic advisement, I think there’s a stigma that it’s all enrollment-based, that all we do is guide class schedules and degree programs,” said McIntyre, director of student academic services in the BSSC. “That’s definitely a part of academic advising, but I think it’s a small part. We’re very much focused on holistic student success.
“We’re seeing students come by on a more regular basis, just to check in or to chat with us. They know that we’re here to support them in whatever they need while they’re at OSU, and even after. We have students now that will email us a year after their graduation just to say, ‘Look at what I’m doing.’
“That’s part of our job, to help celebrate their successes.”
Not all that long ago, academic advisement was just that — basic advice, recommending and plotting classes in order to keep students on the path to completing their degrees.
“I remember a lot of times, I looked at a degree sheet, picked out classes for myself and registered for them,” said Vanessa Owens, an academic adviser in the BSSC.
The face of academic advising is changing, drastically in some places, with setups like the BSSC leading the way on OSU’s campus. Yes, the primary objective is to keep students on course in their degree quests. But what if a student requires real advising assistance, to talk through and accommodate changes in majors or to navigate obstacles that may be impeding their way to achieving personal and professional goals?
Young people face challenges inside and outside the classroom, and some can threaten an academic career. Offering real and meaningful help is good for both the student and school — fortifying the future of one, ensuring retention for the other.
Hugo Ortiz, a senior majoring in marketing and management, knows firsthand how life’s trials can get in the way. As a freshman, he struggled with illnesses that kept him away from OSU for eight months, leading to a catastrophic withdrawal from school and leaving Ortiz unsure that he’d ever return. His parents suggested he might be better back home, in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, at Northeastern State University.
Shannon Ramsey, his academic adviser in the BSSC, shepherded him back to Stillwater.
“After I got better, enough to communicate with my adviser again, Shannon helped me with the process of what I needed to do,” Ortiz said. “She went out of her way, probably above and beyond what another adviser would have done. And whenever I started the process to come back to school, she helped me out with that.
“She’s just been very helpful. I don’t think I’d be here at Oklahoma State if she didn’t help. I feel like she’s one of the people I owe a lot to whenever I graduate in December.”
For Walton, the need for help was immediate and sudden, as her best-made plans were shattered in that first chemistry class.
Fortunately, she had McIntyre to answer her distress signal.
“I walked over to her office immediately after that class and we basically dissected why I wanted to be in the medical field,” said Walton, who is from Edmond, Oklahoma. “We came to the conclusion that I really liked the thought of helping people. In the business school, they have an option under the management major where you can study nonprofit management. We talked about it, Marissa told me the ins and outs of it. And I said ‘Yep, that’s it.’”
‘Support and Serve’
McIntyre recalls her department’s oldschool days of advising. Eight to 10 years ago, with only six academic advisers in the second-largest school on campus, they did the best they could.
“We had very large advising loads, and we were very focused on the enrollment aspect of it,” she said. “Throughout time, and as all of education has grown, advising has also grown.”
The staff and the vision have expanded to what McIntyre now calls a mission to “support and serve.” And that could involve many things for a team that now numbers 19 when fully staffed.
One team in the BSSC is dedicated to recruiting prospective students, and others are charged with ushering current Cowboys and Cowgirls all along the way.
They seek out student successes and hear their problems. They encourage students to go beyond the classrooms and get involved in organizations, clubs and activities, enhancing their experiences and their ability to fit in and call OSU home.
“I definitely want to provide as much as I can for students,” Owens said. “Just being a personal cheerleader sometimes and letting them know they have potential and they’re going to do great things.
“I definitely have to wear different hats. I think there’s so many things going on behind the scenes. You never know if there’s a death in the family, or a student is dealing with something that can impact school. So just having that conversation.
“I often ask students what’s going on in their lives, because I am concerned and I do like to know if there’s anything I can help with. Or maybe if it’s outside what I do, such as counseling, I can walk them over and get help.
“I think it really helps students to know that they have someone in their corner.”
The Spears motto — “The Power of Personal” — is alive and thriving in the Chesapeake Energy Business Student Success Center.
The forging of relationships begins with prospective students, well before young men and women make the official move to campus.
“It starts early,” said Aaron Conkling, the BSSC’s coordinator for prospective students. “We meet with 16-, 17-, 18-year olds in high school to explain what to expect, what to look forward to with our resources.”
Conkling estimates he and the other advisers meet with 300 potential students every year to talk up OSU and lay the foundation for what the department has to offer.
“One cool part of meeting students that early, they have a friendly face that they’ve already met with,” Conkling said, “talked about their goals, their intentions, what they’re wanting out of college, what they expect out of college, their parents as well. It could be two very different things.
“But it is nice for them to come in for enrollment over the summer and have someone they already know.”
From that initial meeting, the best relationships grow.
Students are required to meet with their adviser at least once each semester. For the 2018 spring semester, the BSSC handled roughly 5,800 student appointments. Many students met more than once, as they are encouraged, and some check in weekly or bi-weekly. Some met the minimum.
On an average day, the advising team sees anywhere from 120 to 150 students in the BSSC.
“I think with a lot of students, they feel that nobody’s asking how they truly are,” Ortiz said. “With Shannon, I think her just asking, ‘How are you doing today? Are you enjoying your classes? How’s your semester?’ Those things go a long way.
“And after asking that, she implemented it into helping me with advice on class suggestions. That’s what kept me coming back.”
That’s proof that the Power of Personal is more than just a motto.
“The Chesapeake Energy BSSC is a great example of the Power of Personal,” said Ken Eastman, dean of Spears Business. “Our advisers do so much more than just help students with their class schedules. They are the main point of contact for many of our students and the advisers are a trusted source of advice and information.
“We are proud of the work they do and how dedicated they are to our students.”
As Walton enters her final stages at OSU, she appreciates the guidance and the help advisers have provided and continue to offer still.
“I’ve got a team cheering for me in the BSSC,” she said. “They’re wearing my jersey, and I, too, am wearing theirs.”
For the advisers, Conkling says, the relationships are real, too.
“I think a winning day is when I go home and I’m mentally exhausted in a good way, because I’ve talked to so many people and I’ve seen those ‘ah-hah’ moments, or the ‘I didn’t know I could do that,’ or ‘That makes me feel better,’ those type of conversations,” he said.
“It’s not just helping one person – that is amazing – but to go home feeling fulfilled like that, knowing who I’ve helped.”
Consider it a win-win situation.
The help doesn’t end with the BSSC. As students near graduation and anticipate their next steps, the Eastin Center for Career Readiness, situated in the same space, aids in the transition to the professional world. The Eastin Center assists students with career planning, professional skill development, résumé and interview guidance, and helping with the internship or job search.
“Our space, on the ground floor in the new Business Building, has been something that allows us to refer students back and forth to each other and to make sure that we’re setting them up for success,” McIntyre said.
Success can spread, too. It has for Walton, who acted on the prompts of advisers to engage in many activities and organizations, stretching her and turning her into a student advocate for the Power of Personal.
“The BSSC has impacted me in pushing me to my full potential,” Walton said. “And I’m so thankful they did, because now I can return the favor and impact the people around me. One of the ways I really have seen the continuation of an impact from the BSSC is my involvement with the Business Student Ambassadors organization. I get the chance to talk to incoming students about what makes Spears Business spectacular.
“And as cheesy as it sounds, it is the Power of Personal. It’s easy to be excited about something when it has had such an impact on you.”