Planning and consistent communication are Rimi Marwah’s tools of the trade.
Marwah, director of academic advising for the Greenspun College of Urban Affairs, usually describes an adviser’s job as an effort to “see the forest through the trees.” She and fellow advising staff constantly look for complications that could derail student progress.
When the global coronavirus pandemic struck, Marwah and the staff used that awareness and those tools to build a reliable, remote advising infrastructure for Urban Affairs students.
“Advisers play an utterly vital role in every student’s success. We’re there when they get here on day one,” she said, whether that's in person or online.
When UNLV courses shifted to remote status in March as a safety precaution, Marwah and her staff devised a template for remote advising. Luckily, the Urban Affairs advising center already had shifted its files online. Still, the staff expected to be gone just two weeks. As the weeks became months, student questions about grading options and the next academic year grew. The process was an adjustment for staff and students, who had to learn to interact with each other in novel ways.
Now, the group has finely tuned its remote infrastructure with a weekly 90-minute staff meeting and frequent virtual check-ins.
Prior to the pandemic, most advising in Urban Affairs was done through individual and face-to-face appointments. The office now coordinates with students through virtual meetings as well as by phone and email. The shift to virtual and telecommunications advising means advisers and some students, particularly incoming freshmen, have to establish the trust needed for in-depth, personal conversations remotely.
“Advising can be very prescriptive in that there are a certain number of classes you take, you take them in this sequence, and then you graduate with your degree,” Marwah said, “but advising is so much more than that. In those one-on-one conversations that advisers have with the student, they really get to dive into the student’s decision-making process, their experiences, their ability to navigate where they’re going (and) why.”
However, the widespread effects of the pandemic also mean advisers can relate to struggles students may face while taking online summer courses or preparing for the unprecedented experience of returning for the fall semester.
When the remote advising appointments develop into discussions of juggling workloads and family responsibilities or the uncertainties of the future, Urban Affairs students know they’re not alone.
“These are also the same stories as our advisers. Half of the staff has a child at home who is under the age of 1,” Marwah said. “Both students and advisers have been very flexible with each other, and there’s a large amount of empathy and understanding going both ways.”
While the staff is carrying out their usual duties as best as they can for existing students, they’re also performing a new task: advising an incoming class of students without in-person contact.
The incoming freshman class is partaking in a new, completely online student orientation led by the university’s admissions department.
While in the virtual orientation, students have the option to ask questions of advisers through a chat feature. They’re enrolled in the first semester of courses by advisers who take into consideration each student’s major and general education requirements. Students are then encouraged to follow up with a one-on-one appointment to address scheduling issues and questions.
“We are trying to reach out to each incoming student individually after they’ve attended new student orientation to say, ‘Hey! Now, let’s have a conversation about your schedule,’” Marwah said.
The process has taken getting used to, but it appears to be going well so far, she said.
Ultimately, Marwah wants every Urban Affairs student to feel able to seek help from the advisers when needed. “Especially in the Greenspun College of Urban Affairs — we’ve got a lot of people who are the first person in their family to come (to college),” she said, “so it’s really important for us to provide an atmosphere for them to feel comfortable.”
Marwah, who came to work at UNLV straight out of college in Kansas, didn’t expect her job at the university to turn into a lifelong career, but she’s glad it did.
In February, she was named Outstanding Advising Administrator by the office of the vice provost for undergraduate education and the leadership of the Academic Advising Council. The Urban Affairs Advising Center also won the newly created 2020 Excellence in Efficiency Award from the provost’s office for speedy responses to student inquiries as well as clear and accurate academic planning and recommendations to students.
Marwah’s mantra for leading the center, whether through this challenge or in calmer times, is simple. “Lead with empathy,” she said. “The staff are my priority so that students can be their priority.”
Advising tips for incoming freshmen
- Follow up with the advising center once your class schedule is set. Though students will be enrolled automatically in their first semester of classes by advising staff, it’s important to know how enrollment works, ensure classes fit students’ schedules and goals, and answer any questions early on in your college career. Advisers are available Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., except holidays.
- Don’t procrastinate. It’s easy to put things off — whether it’s meeting an adviser or writing that big paper for class. Procrastination can become a habit, so try to practice completing tasks early or on time in your first semester. Seek help early on if you’re struggling with any aspect of college life.
- Keep in touch. Advising isn’t just about holding a meeting and scheduling courses. Your adviser’s goal is to aid you in successfully completing your coursework at a pace appropriate for you. If your career goals or personal circumstances change, an adviser also can help to coordinate adjustments to your academic plan. If you’re feeling unsure about your classes or schooling a few weeks into your first semester, make an advising appointment to discuss your options and available resources.