Swiss Army Knives and Immaculate Vibes: A&M-Central Texas Academic Advisors Create a Culture of Student Successes

Karen Clos
May 15, 2024

A&M-Central Texas Academic Advisors: Top left: Melanie Mason (COBA), Top right: Timothy Gibson (CEHD), Middle row, left: Yvonne Imergoot (CAS), Middle row center: Robert Wells (CAS), Middle row, right: Jeffrey Barron (COBA), Bottom left: Patrice Taylor (COBA), Bottom center: Noemi SaDiablo (CEHED), Bottom right: Tyjai Stevenson (CAS)

On any given social media platform on any given day of the week, there are thousands of posts about everyday people who have become cynical about their work.

Maybe it is a trend – just one of those things that looks larger than it really is – like the objects seen from the side mirror of a car. Or maybe it is a shift in expectations expressed by a new generation. Maybe it is a little bit of both.

But to borrow a word common to the land of memes, the vibes were immaculate at Texas A&M University–Central Texas when eight academic advisors got together to describe the work they do to support the academic and degree goals of every undergraduate student on campus.

Yes. Calculating the ratio of undergraduate students to advisors might yield a number so sufficiently steep that a person might rightly wonder if the math is mathing – given that it suggests roughly 1700+ students are served by these same eight advisors.

So, let’s just acknowledge that these five women and three men are busy. Reliably busy. Every day consistently busy. Eight hours a day busy. Hard to imagine anyone out working them busy. And still, that’s not what they want to talk about: they want to talk about how much they love their jobs.

Tyjai Stevenson, 32, Killeen resident, Robert Wells, 53, Lampasas resident, and Yvonne Imergoot, 52, Kempner resident work in the College of Arts and Sciences. Jeff Barron, 44, Melanie Mason, and Patrice Taylor, 41, Killeen residents work in the College of Business Administration. Tim Gibson, 43 and Noemi SaDiablo, 44, Killeen residents work in the College of Education and Human Development.

Their roles are spelled out in a job description. In broad strokes, they explain to students how getting a degree works and all that entails from degree declaration to course selection to graduation application. They are there – standing in the gap between what their students know when they first come to them and what they need to know to finish their degree. And that, as it happens, is a lot.

The odd thing is that college and university academic advisors are sometimes overlooked despite all they do. That is until just a few weeks ago, when NACADA, a nationally recognized advising association, formally placed them and their work into the spotlight and celebrated Global Advising Week in the hopes that the importance of their work would be recognized.

Together, the A&M-Central Texas academic advisors have more than 50 years of experience in higher education, and they put that expertise to use with every student on their schedule. Every day. Every month. Of every year.

“Academic advisors are the Swiss Army knives of higher education,” Jeff Barron said, flashing a 1000-watt smile. “We meet our students where they are when they come to us. And because no two students are the same, we listen carefully to their goals and help them connect the dots.”

Borrowing that metaphor, it turns out that there are a lot of “dots” to connect. For example, advisors teach every single student they meet how a degree is selected, how courses fit into a sequence to graduate, what kind of support systems are offered, and how financial aid works. And everything else in between.

Because their relationships with their students keep growing as the students work their way through the semesters and toward graduation, the A&M–Central Texas advisors are used to administrative updates, after-hours calls, a pretty much endless stream of emails, drop in visits, and, they added, the best is when current or former students bump into them out in the community, and once recognized, they are greeted, sometimes hugged, and happily doused with the kinds of questions they can best answer when they have access to their computer screens, stored degree programs, and transcripts, rather than shopping carts, treadmills, or sports equipment.

“We get stopped all the time wherever it is that we might be – HEB, Academy Sports, or the gym,” said Yvonne Imergoot, adding that and for her and her colleagues in advising, it’s not an imposition when it happens, but rather, a happy occasion.

“I can’t say that I can do as great a job trying to advise in the aisles of the grocery store as I can with all of their information in front of me, but I can say that whenever and wherever a student reaches out to one of us, it’s a huge sign that we have created a strong bond.”

Advising, as it turns out, is as much of an art form as the other professions present in the university. Far from being a functionary role that affects enrollment or removes holds from a student’s record, advisors are coordinators, counselors, coaches, choreographers, career consultants, crisis managers, and colleagues for their students and for each other.

And not one person ever crosses the stage at commencement who hasn’t benefitted from their determination to make sure not one of their students falls to the wayside.

Melanie Mason, an advisor in the College of Business Administration, emphasized the importance of really taking the time to see the person they are working with – more than an appointment or a series of chores, but rather, as a whole person with a lot of the same hopes and dreams and concerns we all might be carrying.

In a recent interaction with a new student, she said, she offered reassurance when the student she was working with said that she wasn’t sure she belonged in college – especially since one of her two daughters had already graduated and one was just beginning. The student wondered, Mason said, if a woman in her 50s would fit in.

“I genuinely love people and try to motivate every student that I come in contact with,” she said. “That student couldn’t have known that a lot of our students are making new starts and the majority of them might have been away from college or university for a while. I wanted to be sure to encourage her so she could start knowing that she’d fit right in.”

And the new starts Mason speaks of aren’t just something advisors encourage. Turns out that more than a few of them practice what they preach, pursuing advanced degrees or having already earned them.

A few have even returned as A&M-Central Texas alumni, choosing to become advisors themselves and work side by side as colleagues with those who once advised them.

Robert Wells, an advisor to the university’s ROTC students, described advising as “nurturing labor,” saying that their work is more than a “one-time” appointment and more like a continuous sustained effort that sometimes results in more than 30 visits, 200+ emails, and a lot of questions and answers.

He remembers every single one of his interactions for a reason. One student, Cleveland Williams, Jr., met him years ago at the Education Center on Fort Cavazos to discuss his interest in the Army’s Green to Gold program, an opportunity for enlisted men and women to become candidates for commissioning.

“In a competitive program like that, there are a number of hoops to jump through, and there’s nothing easy or quick about any of them,” Wells explained. “Applicants must have the right number of college or university courses, U.S. citizenship, a good GT score, two years of service in the Army, and be the right age.”

“And while it wasn’t my job to discourage the cadet I was talking to when we met, I had to tell him he didn’t meet any of the qualifications, so I told him how to go about getting each one done. I wasn’t sure if I would see him or hear from him after that first meeting, but he took initiative on everything I told him, and he stayed in touch until he had everything completed.”

Former student and ROTC cadet, Cleveland Williams, Jr., the very one who Wells so earnestly and relentlessly prompted, says that he can’t begin to thank Wells enough. Because of him and all of the other A&M-Central Texas advisors, he said, he graduated this month and became a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army.

“Mr. Wells epitomizes the dedication and excellence that defines the advising program at A&M-Central Texas,” he wrote, adding, their professional relationship didn’t just start after their first meeting, but continued throughout his journey at the university.

And as he concluded, Williams said he was most grateful not just for what his advisor did for him in all of those meetings and emails. On his way to Virginia for post-commissioning training with the U.S. Army Signal Corps, he concluded by noting that it was more than what Wells did, or even how well he did it.

What meant the most to him was what also means the most to the A&M–Central Texas advisors: it was knowing that when it comes right down to it, advising is about equal and generous measures of both their knowledge and their conviction to see students succeed. Or, in other words, it’s about the immaculate vibes created and sustained by a team of eight advisors – otherwise thought of as the Swiss Army knives of higher education.

Virtual Advisor