Plot Your Path
Think of the advisers at USC Dornsife as your personalized academic navigation system. They’re here to make sure you get from admitted to graduated while taking advantage of every opportunity along the way.By Michelle Salzman
January 10, 2012
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Sometimes it takes just one person’s support to set you on the right track.
As a USC Dornsife undergraduate, Shweta Namjoshi knew she wanted to become a physician. She took her time and underwent a lot of self-reflection, guided by her academic adviser Octavio Avila, to find the career path she desired. But all of that almost came crashing down when she earned a C in her honors chemistry class freshman year.
“All of my pre-med colleagues were very concerned for me,” recalled Namjoshi, a double major in biology and political science. “They said it would be very difficult to get into medical school with a low grade. I thought, ‘Great, I finally found my love, my passion — now I won’t be able to get there.’”
That winter break she remembers plunking down on her parent’s couch and crying for a week. “My mom remembered that I had mentioned Octavio once or twice so she actually called him over the holiday,” Namjoshi said. “She told him, ‘I don’t know what to do with my daughter. She’s a wreck.’”
Avila’s advice to her mother? “He said if I work hard and pursue what I love, I will surely be successful and get to the place I want to be, and that one C is no reflection on a person’s intelligence and competency,” Namjoshi said.
Reinvigorated, she set out to take on her pre-health coursework. Along the way, Namjoshi met regularly with Avila, who ensured that she took her required classes, helped her find volunteer and research experiences and assisted her with assembling her medical school application.
“Octavio was there every step of the way,” Namjoshi said.
Helping students to find their passions and then structuring their academic paths toward meaningful careers is what advisers do best, said Debra Bernstein, director of the USC Dornsife Office of Advising.
“We want to help students combine all of their interests into a package that will make their time at USC Dornsife fabulous, but also prepare them for what’s going to happen next,” she said.
“We talk to students about their courses and their requirements, but that’s easy to read about in the course catalogue. Advisers are here to help students make connections to experiences outside of the classroom: internships, research projects, study-abroad programs and service opportunities. Those experiences can help them make better decisions about their academics and their lives.”
It’s All About the Experience
Christine Sur, a senior majoring in environmental studies, credits her research experiences at USC Dornsife for doing just that.
As an undergraduate, Sur has participated in two Problems Without Passports courses — one in Belize and another in Guam and Palau — as well as study abroad programs in Australia and Fiji. In Belize, she studied possible environmental causes for the collapse of the Maya civilization. In Guam and Palau, she participated in scientific research dives examining biodiversity and coral reef health. In Australia and Fiji, she took environmental science courses, extending her scientific and research training.
She said each experience made her a stronger student and an independent thinker.
“Doing research as an undergraduate has driven my curiosity a lot and definitely motivated me to work harder so I can continue to do research in the future,” she said. Sur, whose research experiences were funded by SURF and SOAR stipends offered through USC Dornsife, is currently participating in an independent research project on Catalina Island studying sea grass in protected marine areas.
Sur is also working with a pre-graduate adviser in preparation for graduate school. Together, they are exploring potential institutions and programs, and fine-tuning her personal statement and résumé.
“It’s great to be able to check in with someone,” Sur said. “It makes me feel more confident in my application.”
A Student Support System
A big part of USC Dornsife advising is being a support system for students, said David Lichtenstein, a biological sciences adviser.
“Advisers are some of the only people on campus who students interact with on a regular basis other than teachers and instructors. We only have a vested interest in their success. We’re not evaluating them in any way so there’s no pressure,” he said.
Each student with a major in USC Dornsife is assigned an academic adviser who specializes in his/her area of study including special advising tracks for students pursuing pre-health, pre-law and pre-graduate paths. That goes for undecided students as well. The support that USC Dornsife advising offers can be different for every student, depending on their needs.
“A lot of students will come in and think they have a straightforward question about course planning but oftentimes the conversation turns into, ‘What am I interested in doing with my life?’” Lichtenstein said.
Consider Joselyn Alvarado, who entered USC Dornsife as an environmental studies major. After taking an introductory course in the field, she was uncertain about her decision and opted to change her major to undecided. She then met with her adviser to figure out a plan of action.
“I went in totally unsure of what I was going to do,” Alvarado said. “I had four ideas floating around in my head. I studied the course catalog. I spent so much time in that thing getting an idea of how many units I would need, if I could fit in another major or a minor.”
Her adviser encouraged her to explore her options while fulfilling her general requirements, which she said helped her use her units wisely. Alvarado finally declared her major in art history — a subject she’s been passionate about since high school — and added a minor in cinema. This Spring, she will study art history and film in Prague in a program offered through USC Dornsife Overseas Studies.
Her advice to undecided students: Reach out to your adviser and build a relationship with him or her as soon as possible. That’s beyond the mandatory meetings freshmen and sophomores must complete before they can register for classes each semester.
“I didn’t go in to speak with an adviser until I needed to register for Spring classes my freshman year, which is definitely not the best thing to do, especially as an undecided freshman,” Alvarado said. “You want to meet with them as much as you can.”
Building a rapport is a key part of the process for students, said Viannda Hawkins, an assistant director in the USC Dornsife Office of Advising.
“Knowing that they have someone who they can come and talk to or ask any question, no matter how crazy they think it might be, is important. And if we don’t know the answer, we’ll refer them to someone who can help,” she said.
Services, In Person and Online
In addition to offering personalized advice to students, the advising office hosts a number of events. Workshops cover the gamut of topics — from information on building a résumé to basics on entering the medical professions. Alumni and other speakers share their post-college professional experiences. For those interested in the pre-law track, each year USC Advising holds a Law School Fair featuring nearly 100 American Bar Association-accredited schools.
The best way to keep up with events and opportunities available to students is to visit the USC Dornsife Advising Hub. Bookmark the Web site and check back often.
The Hub compiles job listings, research opportunities, scholarships, courses, events, study abroad programs, student organizations and volunteer opportunities. Items are subcategorized by discipline, the site is searchable, and there’s even a special category for events featuring free food. Anyone can submit listings through the site.
Right on Track
So how did things turn out for Namjoshi who, as a freshman, aspired to be a doctor?
She is now a medical resident in pediatrics at UCLA. While attending medical school, she earned a master’s in public health. “The day I graduated from medical school I wrote Octavio a letter and thanked him for everything he’d done for me and my family,” she said.
Namjoshi, who graduated from USC Dornsife in May 2006, credits her adviser with making a huge difference in her life. “That’s really not an exaggeration,” she said. “Octavio was there from the very, very beginning to the very end.”