Pandemic didn’t stop Bellisario College’s advising office from helping students

Jonathan F. McVerry
June 15, 2021

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa.— When a campus shutdown went from a few weeks to a month to unknown, the academic services office in the Donald P. Bellisario College of Communications was able to adapt thanks to the flexibility of its staff, the resilience of its students and the support system of the other departments.

Spring break of 2020 was coming to a close. Assistant dean for academic services Jamey Perry told members of the Bellisario College’s advising team to pack up their laptops and plan to work from home for a couple of weeks. The coronavirus pandemic had started to change schedules, but no one expected it to last long.

“Then April came around, and all of a sudden I was like ‘Hey, nobody's coming back,’” Perry said. “It was a double whammy for us, because we had students prepping for a normal fall semester and we were also helping students panicking about finishing the spring semester.”

The advising office has a unique placement at the center of the Bellisario College. Advisers work closely with students and faculty. They also collaborate with members from nearly every other academic department. Together, they assist in accomplishing the office’s mission to help students reach their academic goals.

When the pandemic hit, students were wrapping up their first years, graduating, starting an internship or learning abroad. They were all sent home. The advising mission stayed the same.  

That meant many Zoom meetings and phones calls sometimes late at night and early in the morning. There were some learning curves and hiccups with technology, but academic adviser BB Muré said patience and teamwork won the day.

“I think most students know what resources they have here,” she said. “Their professors, their librarian, academic advisers, career services, diversity and inclusion, the tech office ... we all supported each other. And when you were running out of steam, there was always someone there to take the baton and keep the momentum.”

After a quiet summer with most staff working from home, the advising team worked hard to provide a sense of normalcy for on-campus students in the fall. That meant keeping the lights on in 204 Carnegie Building should students need a place to go.  When students stopped by, there would be a brief, socially-distanced conversation in the lobby connecting students with recourses to access virtually. 

“Especially for freshmen,” lead adviser Mary Sergeant said. “Dean Marie Hardin really wanted somebody there for the freshmen coming in living in the dorms instead of a post-it note that said, ‘Sorry we’re out. Call this number.’”

“Our students are amazing. They are resilient folks. They just keep going.”

— BB Muré, Bellisario College academic adviser 

The advisers came up with weekly rotations to ensure at least one adviser was available during working hours. Working from home, the other advisers made themselves available virtually too. They assisted international students many time zones away and sometimes worked near 12-hour days assisting student-athletes with course requirements from their living rooms.

“Typically, students would just come running into the office, because they know we are there from 8 to 5,” Sergeant said. “I wanted them to feel as if they had something like that, so we had (virtual) meetings at all hours of the day and night.”

As spring 2021 approached, the advising office had solidified different processes. Students had adapted, too, as many were used to a college experience built around Zoom and other online software. Muré, Perry and Sergeant all saluted the resilience and flexibility of their students.

“Our students are amazing,” Muré said. “They are resilient folks. They just keep going.”

“We want to go above and beyond in trying to find ways to support, encourage and be positive for students,”

— Jamey Perry, Bellisario College assistant dean for academic services

Through each challenge, positives started to emerge. Some of those positives may become part of the normal routine when students, faculty and staff return in the fall.

“There were things I appreciated,” Muré said. “I always will prefer face-to-face meetings, but it’s nice to know students are just a call or email away. You can send them a note and say, “Can you hop on Zoom for a chat?’”

Perry said evening Zoom meetings may continue in some form in the future. It helps accommodate busy schedules and offers a level of convenience for students and staff.

“We want to go above and beyond in trying to find ways to support, encourage and be positive for students,” Perry said. “We want to make ourselves extremely available for them. Connecting virtually will be a part of that.”

An unexpected benefit materialized over the last year when former students needing a few credits to graduate started calling and signing up for classes. With more courses online, they were able to get the classes they needed to complete their degrees. The advisers were delighted to help these Penn Staters achieve their dream.

“We had adult students who weren’t able to graduate, and they took this opportunity because they could do Zoom in a class that was offered through University Park,” Sergeant said. “They took advantage of being able to be anywhere, and still get this done. So, when you talk about positives, that is a positive, and it’s phenomenal.”

Perry said he and his team learned something new every day over the past year and a half. He thinks the experience will help prepare them for “the next blindside.” He hopes today’s students will come back in a few years as alumni with some insight on what the advising office got right and how it could improve. 

“Only time will tell,” Perry said. “But I hope they tell us we hit it out of the park."

Last Updated June 15, 2021