Students discuss advising, orientation programs with Chancellor Dirks

Alejandra Gonzales Ramirez/Staff

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At a forum Thursday evening, UC Berkeley students addressed Chancellor Nicholas Dirks with concerns and suggestions about advising services, opportunities to interact with faculty and orientation programs.

The forum, which took place in University House, was organized by the administration and the Order of the Golden Bear — a fellowship of UC Berkeley students, faculty and alumni founded in 1900 — who invited about 50 members of the order and other UC Berkeley students to get a diverse representation of the student body. Dirks, joined by Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost Claude Steele and Vice Provost for Teaching, Learning, Academic Planning and Facilities Cathy Koshland, received students’ input on a range of issues concerning undergraduate education.

“This, we thought, would be the first of many opportunities to bring together a group of exemplary students,” Dirks told the attendees. “This is an opportunity for us to have an open, broad conversation about a range of issues that you would like us to know about.”

The lack of valuable advising on campus was a central concern of the attendees. Several students noted that there are many resources available to students, but much of the information is standardized and not personalized.

Claire Watanabe, a UC Berkeley junior, suggested a system in which every student is assigned a “Cal advisor” who would make personalized suggestions and check up on the student throughout the student’s entire experience at UC Berkeley.

Dirks echoed the suggestion of several students to expand Berkeley Connect, an academic program that links undergraduate students with graduate students within their major. Berkeley Connect is currently offered in 10 academic departments, including English, history and mathematics.

“One of the things that Berkeley Connect has shown us is that graduate students can play a really important role in providing access to a whole variety of things,” Dirks said. “What we would love to do is build Berkeley Connect into not only all the different majors and colleges, but also into the first year, because I think there is a way in which that experience can immediately begin to open things up.”

Additionally, students drew attention to weaknesses of orientation programs — particularly Cal Student Orientation for incoming students — that they found overwhelming and rushed.

In response to these concerns, Koshland agreed there was room for improvement in the orientation programs but noted that various changes have already been made.

“This summer, CalSO will have a much greater emphasis on academic advising with actual advisors,” Koshland said. “The fire hose of information you all got at CalSO is not going to happen.”

During the CalSO orientation this year, there will be more time for individual conversation with advisors, and the welcome-week programs will be spread out over three weeks, Koshland said.

The attendees also called for more opportunities to build relationships with the faculty.

“One really important aspect that I think is lacking a lot in the educational experience here is direct interaction in small classroom settings with professors in disciplines outside of what you intend to study at Cal,” said Rishi Ahuja, a UC Berkeley junior and student advocate-elect.

Ahuja pointed to the freshman and sophomore seminars as good opportunities for students to engage with professors at an early stage in students’ college careers. He suggested encouraging an increased number of younger faculty members to consider teaching these seminars and serving as mentors to students.

The scope of the American Cultures requirement should also be expanded, the attendees said, to prevent students from taking AC classes as “filler” classes toward the end of their college experiences. UC Berkeley senior Shannon Thomas said the campuswide requirement not only introduced students to new aspects of American culture but also created “a sense of Berkeley culture” on campus.

“If we had more opportunities to create cross-community engagement and integrated that into the AC requirement, we would provide a much more integrated and actually diverse campus, rather than just having the aura of diversity with the reality of self-segregation,” Thomas said.

The forum was part of Dirks’ ongoing efforts — including nine fireside chats — to learn about important campus issues from UC Berkeley students’ perspectives.

Thomas said she appreciated Dirks’ receptiveness and openness toward the students’ opinions and input.

“So far, the fireside chats and his unique ability to reach out to students on campus based on pressing issues have been really demonstrative of his willingness to engage with students,” Thomas said. “I hope he continues that process beyond his first year.”


Somin Park is a news editor. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter @_sominpark.