Advising more than 3,800 students is a challenge for any advisor. But when they come from every major, bring varied backgrounds, and try to take in as many opportunities as possible before graduation, the task can be a daunting one. But Brenda Barlow, director of honors advising, is definitely up to the task. “There is this perception that CHC students are all the same, or need less support,” said Barlow. “And it’s just the opposite—this is a diverse group of students and disciplines, and they need that one-on-one interaction to figure out how they will do it all.”
Coming from a background in nonprofit management and youth development, Barlow joined Commonwealth Honors College in 2012. “It seems unusual to come from a nonprofit to advising, but it’s been so valuable.” As executive director of the Railroad Street Youth Project, Barlow supported at-risk teenagers of the Berkshires with projects promoting responsibility, self-worth, and inter-generational communication. She oversaw program evaluation and supervised staff to make sure that programming responded to the needs of the community, and to help young people find their passion. In taking those interests and experiences to Commonwealth Honors College, Barlow hoped to facilitate and empower honors students with similar potential.
As director of advising, she has a great team that reaches out and advises students. Barlow and her staff work to engage students in their educational planning process, whether that means understanding the honors curriculum or generating conversations about careers or life goals. With three full-time professional advisors, three graduate advisors, two faculty advisors, a receptionist, and nine peer advisors on staff, Barlow said "we’re here to help students reach their potential, get them excited about the honors curriculum, and expand their view on what an honors education means.”
As the director, her position involves looking at the big picture of advising, emphasizing a holistic approach to advising, and making sure that CHC students get the individual support needed to reach their potential. “My job is to monitor the student population as a whole and help them be successful at each step of their college career.” Barlow works with students, faculty, and administrators to understand CHC’s intended learning outcomes and incorporate them into the advising plan. Doing so helps students feel confident about the honors requirements in the context of their whole education and establishes the relationships necessary to succeed in those outcomes, she explained.
The key part of the advising team’s success is a weekly meeting. “It’s the most important part of my job," she said of the meeting. "I make sure everyone sits down to talk about policy changes and procedural issues, and discuss the questions that students have.” She also takes the entire team on a yearly summer retreat for team-building and bonding with each other. Even though an advisor’s role emphasizes one-on-one interactions, the retreat helps Barlow and her team strengthen interpersonal skills, develop better communication, and promote problem-solving skills—all parts of the job in working with students.
In terms of getting to the “nuts and bolts” of advising questions, every member of the advising team is well-prepared to answer questions and serve as a conduit to other opportunities. While all of the advisors can cover questions about the honors community and curriculum, some advisors have more extensive backgrounds in areas such as STEM, study abroad, or humanities that might be applicable to students with related interests. Students can find the advising interests of each advisor on the CHC website, but they can also talk to any advisor and be directed to someone who best fits their needs.
Barlow is especially excited about having peer advisors, whom she sees as integral to the advising process. “My peer advisors are great for getting and giving a student’s perspective, and can provide personal examples of how the honors curriculum has influenced their opportunities.” In the office, peer advisors talk to students during walk-in hours or when the office is busy to address basic questions and work out any issues before sitting down with a professional advisor.
Using this great team to facilitate students is another challenge altogether. “We’re always trying to find new ways of reaching out to students,” said Barlow. Most successfully, she has collaborated with Melissa Woglom (director of student programming) and Alex Deschamps (associate dean) as well as Residential Life and Residence Education staff to get into the residential communities and host onsite workshops for students. She has also planned and facilitated information sessions and group advising sessions to begin to foster this one-on-one connection. Advising serves as one of many resources for students on campus, and Barlow and her team want to make sure students are taking advantage of those resources and have effective results. Barlow takes special interest in first-generation, transfer students, and community-college students. “For them, especially, the adjustment to university means learning a whole new language of academia in addition to exploring the campus and navigating friendships. We know these students have the capability to be successful, and as advisors, we want to help them reach their potential.” For Barlow, finding new ways to keep in touch and establish strong relationships with students early on in their college careers is key to student and college success.
Barlow sees a bright future moving forward with the advising office, and hopes to work with other offices in CHC to build on the progress from recent years.