About a year ago, a student came to College of Visual and Performing Arts professor Rodger Mack with a problem. The student was depressed and confessed it was affecting not only his personal life but his art. "I didn't know what to tell him," the studio arts professor says. "So I advised him to do something that would change his whole outlook. I told him to take dance classes." While Mack readily admits the advice was a stab in the dark, it did the trick. A year later, the student has come into his own. He is outgoing and animated, Mack says. "And his work is flying."
Mack isn't alone among faculty members who never hesitate to take on the sometimes daunting task of helping students cope with issues beyond the classroom. Instead of just advising students about academics, they become mentors, friends, and sometimes surrogate parents. They see talking about life matters as part of their job, whether they're helping a student choose a career or internship, or deal with more personal matters, such as alcoholism, drug abuse, rape, or mental illness. "All kinds of advising are as important as the roles we play as teachers," says School of Architecture professor Randall Korman. "That may sound overstated, but over the years I've come to appreciate that life advising is an essential part of the service and responsibility we owe students."
SU Health Services therapist Chris Cederquist, father of a 24-year-old son, agrees. "I really believe that for kids to make the transition from home to the world outside, they need a caring adult or two outside the family," he says.
Professors who take up this challenge often define education in a broader way than those who limit their contact with students to the classroom and once-a-semester advising sessions. Such professors know that what happens outside the classroom is often as important as what happens in it. "These are young people going through a life-changing experience," Korman points out. He believes that professors and other adults on campus serve as substitute families, and are responsible for providing support systems for students.
Rosaria Champagne, professor of English and women's studies in the College of Arts and Sciences, agrees that being there for students in a personal way is one of the most important parts of her job. "Most faculty members need their research and teaching to be excellent or they can't live with themselves," Champagne says. "I extend that same ethic to all my contacts with students. After all, this institution chose learning-centeredness as a core mission, a concept which suggests to me that we don't believe that research-centeredness necessarily trickles down to all students equitably."
Champagne spends between 20 and 30 percent of the time she's on campus meeting with students, "and much of it is not strictly on academic matters," she says. Sometimes a routine office appointment will turn into a several-hours-long conversation, ending with Champagne walking the student to Health Services or another campus service. "Rosaria realizes what many professors may overlook: Students have much more going on than homework, tests, and papers," says English and textual studies major Carter Miller '00. "I cannot count the number of times Rosaria has listened, really listened, as I sat in her office talking about life, and how it was not only affecting my schoolwork, but how it was affecting me."
Many faculty members who talk to students about life matters have personal reasons for putting in the extra effort. Some are parents who hope their own college-age children will have a place to turn when life seems overwhelming. Others are reacting to the advising they received as students, either good or bad. Champagne says sympathetic adults were essential to her own success in college. "There's no way I could have gotten through college if I hadn't had faculty members who were willing to recognize me as a human being," she says.
Nutrition professor Bradley Beran of the College for Human Development knows firsthand how important advice can be in a student's life. He saw an advisor only once when he was an undergraduate at a midwestern university, and the advice he received turned out to be wrong, resulting in Beran's having to make up a requirement. "I don't think anyone should have to go through what I did," he says.
Professors who spend time talking with students about personal matters certainly empathize with the often painful issues confronting students. But they also admit to another motive for helping students deal with their lives outside academicsstudents who are healthy and happy put more effort into their studies. "I don't think they can perform at their peak unless problems that occur outside the classroom are solved," Mack says. He also points out that since art is such a personal endeavor, understanding students' personalities helps him to be a better professor. "By getting to know them as individuals, I can get an idea of what courses and career options fit them more closely," he says.
Mack makes himself available to students as much as possible by leaving his office door open whenever he's there, and by visiting with them when he's working in the ComArt building studios. School of Information Studies professor Susan Bonzi goes a step further to ensure that students feel comfortable stopping by: In addition to leaving her door open, she stocks the office with soda and snacks. Students sometimes come in for a candy bar and end up staying to talk. And if they decide to hang out for a while, that's OK with Bonzi, who believes students sometimes just need to be around a supportive adult.