Mentor Advisor and professor of philosophy Gordon Bearn with a student.

Knowing how to pilot university life can be daunting for many undergraduate students, but centralized resources and support needed for academic success can be found in the College of Arts and Sciences’ Academic Advising Center.

Located on the fourth floor of Maginnes Hall, the mission of the Advising Center is to contribute to student success by empowering students to engage in thoughtful educational planning. The Center helps students make informed decisions to reach their academic goals and provides the support needed by pairing first-year students with faculty Mentor Advisors. Some 30 faculty members currently serve as advisors for incoming first-year students.

“What we wanted to do was different. It’s very complicated, what the students do when they come in here their first year,” says Jennifer Swann, the Center’s director for student success and professor biological sciences. “The College has so many programs available. Students can go from theatre to physics, so everyone cannot be taking the same courses in the first year. They have so many options and have different advising needs. There’s not a lot of Mentor Advisors in other colleges. When I was surveying advising models while developing the Center, I didn’t see it elsewhere. What I saw typically was students entering a first-year college and advised there until they declare a major.”

The Academic Advising Center was created in 2015 thanks, in part, to the financial support of Karen Schaufeld '83, '14P, '17P, a Lehigh Trustee and member of the College’s Dean’s Advisory Council.  All Mentor Advisors receive formal training and a comprehensive reference manual before being assigned students. Incoming first-year students are surveyed about their interests, then assigned an advisor whose academic interests parallel their own. They are then assigned a Mentor Advisor before they begin their first semester of classes. First-year students are expected to meet with their respective advisor prior to the start of classes, and advisors meet with students a minimum of twice a semester. 

“Advisors and students meet right before registration, and faculty typically meet with their students at least once during the semester to check in,” says Swann. “It’s a good way to head off academic issues before they arise, and all of our advisors are really good at doing that. They are really committed to meeting with students and making sure they know they are there as a good resource.”

Beyond faculty-student advising, the Center also connects first-year students with Peer Scholars. Scholars are third or fourth-year undergraduate students who provide academic how-to guidance, which includes navigating the registration process, using tutoring services, working with study abroad, and performing degree audits, among other things. 

“The Peer Scholars are handy to show first-year students how to do all of this,” says Beth Pelton, Manager of Undergraduate Programs. “Mentor Advisors don’t have access to the student portal or Banner (Lehigh’s integrated information system) to know how the actual registration mechanics work. The Peer Scholars are a good resource to show how to add or drop a course, how to use the registration PIN, and where to find the various undergraduate student forms.”

Beyond that, they hold office hours in the center for drop-in sessions with their respective cohorts. The Peer Scholars also help create and implement Advising Center events throughout the academic year.  Each Scholar is responsible for about 20first year students. They are volunteers whose majors span the disciplines within the college. They also monitor first-year students to handle academic issues or problems quickly.

“They’re a good source for knowing early when a student might be going off the rails, because students typically open up to peers more easily than their mentor-advisors, Pelton says. “They’re not getting credit for doing it, but they love the college and are passionate about the undergraduate experience.”

“I think that’s the beauty of the College of Arts and Sciences,” she adds. “Everybody is willing to pitch in.”