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Moving The Needle On Student Success: One Relationship At A Time

Julie Thometz Julie Thometz Carlos Ortiz Carlos Ortiz

Student success can be hard to pin down. What makes one student successful may not necessarily move the needle with another. But one thing academic institutions across the globe can agree on is the critical role a good academic advisor plays. In fact, research shows that only 32.9 percent of students attending two-year institutions graduated in three years (Knapp, Kelly-Reid and Ginder 2012). In addition, the study says advising is one of the top three reasons why students succeed and graduate. Students who never met with an advisor had a 71 percent chance of persisting, whereas students that reported seeing an advisor “often” have a 93 percent chance of persisting. And with a national shortage of qualified workers amidst rapidly retiring Boomers, it’s important to have a steady influx of graduates. 

That’s where PC excels: Putting their frontline workers – their academic advisors - front and center for their students. 

Dr. Julie Givans Voller, Interim Dean of Student Affairs at Phoenix College, is passionate about the subject. “Historically, advising has been seen as simply registering students for classes and that’s the end. But that’s the smallest piece. A good advisor creates a relationship with students and helps them in so many ways. They help the student understand why you take certain classes, as well as when and how it helps you in life. They help them apply what they’re learning to their career, and if that career is even the right fit for thm. Perhaps most importantly, advisors talk to our students about barriers to their education, like, do they have enough to eat, have transportation and access to the internet? Advisors are a connector to resources and to the community. They help students find tutoring and even offer coaching on how to have a conversation about a grade with faculty. The advisor is the student's go-to person to navigate the waters of college.”

Make no mistake, those can be choppy waters, indeed. Since many PC students are first-generation college students, they may not have the family support that understands how to navigate academia. But an advisor has ‘been there and done that’ and knows it all. It can be a daunting world full of new vocabulary and policies. Academic Advisors stand in that gap for students. 

Recently, two of PC’s advisors not only stood in that gap, but they were also recognized internationally for outstanding advising. That’s no small feat – especially considering they were the only two individuals from a community college. NACADA, a global organization that sets rigorous standards for academic advising ethics and practices, awarded Julie Thometz of Phoenix College with “Outstanding Advising in a Primary Role.” Another award winner, Carlos Ortiz, received a Certificate of Merit in Academic Advising. 

“I love working with students over the course of their program, both as their academic success partner and cheerleader, to help them build potential, reach for their dreams and achieve their goals,” says Thometz. “It is exciting to watch them grow from ‘new student orientation’ through to graduation when I get to be the first person to congratulate them on all their hard work. I know what it is like to feel lost and undecided, and with good advising, students feel like they can and will be successful.”

Ortiz was originally in a counseling and social work role after he graduated. He had worked with students through a federal student support service program called TRIO. “I missed working with students and I wanted to give back,” says Ortiz, a first-generation college student himself. “I love helping first-generation/low-income students get the right information, support systems and make the right decisions about classes and careers. Phoenix College is in an urban setting, so we get a diverse population of students. I love it. You never know who is coming through that door and how you can help change a life.”

Thometz and Ortiz both know what other colleges are just now catching on to: Good academic advising can make or break a student’s college career, which in turn impacts the greater community and economy. Consider this: If 90 percent of current college freshmen persisted in obtaining a degree, an additional 3.8 million graduates would hit the workforce by the end of 2020, which is enough to meet the current labor market’s needs in this decade!

“I did not have a good experience with advising as I was going through college,” Thometz remembers. “My experiences at the community college were the worst too. It was not easy to transfer to the university and I didn't feel like I was given any support. It wasn't until I was working on an advanced degree that I realized Academic Advising was a profession, with dedicated professionals doing the job. It was at that point I knew I wanted to be an advisor to help students like myself, who are starting at the community college.”

Ortiz’s personal advising experience was just as dismal. “Until I was about to transfer from community college, I didn't have guidance, I was just randomly picking classes and it took longer to graduate,” he remembers. “Finally, I went to a counselor – not an advisor - who helped me pick classes. When I got to the university, I was part of a first-generation program which was a little better, but not as good as what we are doing right now at PC. Even at the grad school level, my advisor was horrible. He was more interested in his own research and publications vs. helping me and making sure I was on the right track. That’s what motivates me to be better in my role now.”

In fact, Ortiz sometimes has to apologize for his excitement and “data dumping” on students with all the info they need. But the students love it and know he’s building the solid foundational relationship they need. Students keep coming back for more – they know Ortiz will walk them through it and not leave them hanging. That’s what helps about being a social worker too – Ortiz knows first-hand that students need more than just class-scheduling help – they need guidance, reassurance and resources. Passion even drives him to advise young men in the Maricopa Male Empowerment Network program to do workshops, to keep the students on track and make sound decisions. 

The goal at PC is to make significant strides to improve advising, and awards like these demonstrate that improvement. It’s not the first award for PC advising. In the past, PC had a traditional advising model where an advisor was a generalist and needed to know an unbelievable amount of information about every program the college offered. Now, PC has created advisors for Field of Interest (FOI) such as STEM, healthcare, computer information systems, technology, culture and society, behavioral science, etc. – so now advising has been aligned to focus on an FOI. This allows advisors to now be experts in that area of advising – furthering a student’s success.

Thometz knows there is always room to grow, especially as the world changes and evolves. “I see the changes that we have made already have impacted our students’ abilities to succeed. I want to continue to foster the suite of support that students now have in their field of interest, so they can imagine their advisors, student affairs staff and faculty as a long line of people cheering them along.”

Ortiz loves the technology and new direction PC is going. He wants to help keep pushing the effort forward. “Less paper, more flexibility, better ways to notify students – those are all the ways I’d like to see us keep moving and pushing innovation. I want to meet students where they are, where they need me. If that meets a laptop in the Student Union, I’ll do it!” 

These awards (plus the two global awards PC academic advisors won in 2018 and a slew of other regional awards) demonstrate the strength of the college’s academic advising team, commitment to high-quality academic advising for students, and commitment to professional development for advisors. “We know advising makes a difference for students, and I think these awards demonstrate that our academic advisors rank among the best in the world. Our students deserve the best, and that’s what we strive to provide for them,” says Dr. Voller. 

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