Changes to be expected for comprehensive Health Sciences Advising Center

In March, a forum was held between administration and students to discuss and clarify coming changes concerning Health Sciences Advising (HSA) on campus.

Under the proposed changes, HSA would serve as its own entity separate from any specific college, with its own program director still yet to be hired. The forum was one of many to come, held to inform and receive feedback from students concerning the decision-making and progress of the Health Advising Center.

The changes will be made through a collaborative effort between Student Affairs and the College of Biological Sciences (CBS), and Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs Adela de la Torre and Dean of CBS James E.K. Hildreth — two of the the main faculty members spearheading this cooperative process.

According to Hildreth, his position as Dean of CBS, where an estimated 60 percent of incoming students are pre-health, has made it a mission of his to create an independent Health Advising Center. This, along with the pre-health experience of de la Torre, director of the Center for Transnational Health at Davis, made a mutual “epiphany” to combine efforts.

“The basic premise is that CBS is partnering with the Vice Chancellor’s Office to pool our resources and provide what we hope will be an advanced pre-health advising [experience] … for not just CBS students but all the students on campus,” Hildreth said. “In the past, the pre-health advising unit was solely the responsibility of the vice chancellor and associate vice chancellor. I had intended as dean to add to my staff advisors whose whole focus was pre-health advising, but with the vice chancellor’s initiative we can now take the resources [we were] going to commit to hire a senior person to be the anchor [of HSA] plus add additional staff around that person to create a whole team whose job it will be to make sure our advising is the best it could be.”

However, when students and current HSA staff were informed of the changes in early March there was misinformation between administration and students.

HSA peer advisor and third-year biochemistry and molecular biology major Candace Matsunaga said that from the information presented, staff were under the impression HSA would be absorbed by the Biological Academic Success Center (BASC) and would lead to the loss of their jobs. This led them to create the “Save UCD Health Sciences Advising” petition, aimed at de la Torre, Hildreth and Chancellor Linda P.B. Katehi, which garnered an estimated 593 supporters online.

“We were given very vague information on what was happening and not given the complete details,” Matsunaga said. “So that led [HSA staff] to make this petition because we thought we were losing our jobs and that they were taking away a very important advising service on campus. It wasn’t until the petition had blown up and people had started talking more about it that they released more details on what was actually going [on]. I think the petition helped students get more informed and may have spurred [administration] to talk about what they were doing to students out loud.”

ASUCD senator and third-year computer science major Shehzad Lokhandwalla said he had heard concerns about the HSA changes from pre-health friends and started to reach out to administration about the issue.

“I first decided to talk to the students leading the campaign to save HSA, and then I decided to bring this issue to the administration [office of Vice Chancellor Student Affairs],” Lokhandwalla said in an email. “I learnt that there was a misunderstanding on the students’ end, and that the students didn’t fully understand the nature of the initiative. I and many other student leaders recommended the office of the vice chancellor to hold a forum to eliminate all sorts of misinformation among the students.”

Both Hildreth and de la Torre agree that the message could have been communicated more effectively and that it was not their intention to take away but add to student resources and opportunities in the health sciences.

“I didn’t mean to belittle the role of the peer advisors but … the whole basis of this advising is to help students be successful in getting into medical school or whatever school they want [and] they’re being advised by people who have never done it before, so by its very nature there’s a problem there,” Hildreth said. “We want to make sure peer advisors have a role but it might be slightly different than what they’ve been accustomed to … so we’re going to have some trained professionals who are experts in this who are going to be leading the efforts in training the peers. This is not to say that the people who have been doing this have done a bad job, we’re just saying we’re hoping to make it even better.”

Components of the proposed health advising center include an emphasis on freshmen exposure to faculty, advising and other academic resources as well as a broadened perception of the health sciences in terms of careers and an encouragement of diverse extracurricular activities critical for applying to professional schools.

According to de la Torre, there were many initiatives that acted as precursors for the change before Hildreth approached her for the merger, one of them being the pre-existing health service infrastructure of the UC Davis Pre-Health and Pre-Medical Professions National Conference that has been coordinated by pre-health student organizations for the past 11 years and boasts a base of 400 student volunteers.

Similarly, Associate Dean of CBS Susan Keen said the college had already developed integrated advising initiatives through their implementation of BASC along with a cohort program which divided the first year class of 2017 into groups named after the tree of life. A complementary course BIS 98 was also created as a one-unit seminar for first-years to take with their cohorts to develop research skills and relationships with faculty. All of these programs, along with a policy to make advising appointments mandatory for CBS students,  began this academic year.

“All these [initiatives] are ways to reach out to the freshmen, break down their isolation and bring them into both the community with each other and community with the scientists,” Keen said. “Hopefully at the end of this year they’ll have met a bunch of people, they’ll have an idea about research, what it’s like to be a scientist and I think they’ll have a good idea of where they belong in the system so they can start thinking about their own lives.”

However, according to Hildreth these changes were also to make sure students get the right information about pre-health professional schools as well as diversify career awareness in the health sciences due to the fact that medical schools are becoming more selective. Nationally, there are also far more pre-med students than seats in these schools.

“This real intense attention we are paying to freshmen as they come in [is] because there are some myths and the thinking people bring [to Davis] with them about medical school, what’s required and what they need to do, some of which is just totally wrong,” Hildreth said. “Your major is immaterial to being a medical school applicant as long as you do certain [requirements] … Medical schools are looking for students who are well-rounded. It’s required to be academically gifted but medicine requires you to be a humanist, a great communicator, you have to empathize with people and their problems. So we want students to understand that those things they have a passion for beyond the academics are very important to their development as an attractive candidate for pre-health, whatever [profession] it might be.”

Along with “myths” that may pervade student discourse, there is also a stigma advising can bring to students concerning their comfort in discussing their potential to attend professional schools.

According to an anonymous fourth-year biochemistry major and transfer student, she and many of her friends who are pre-health have not taken advantage of the resources at HSA due to their previous experiences.

“I have always wanted to go to advising but a lot of people told me not to go,” she said. “They always said that advisors bring students down. It’s already scary going up to somebody and saying, ‘Here are my grades, what do you think about my chances?’ The first month I was at Davis I was told not to go to them, so I just never went … I know they have peer advising but I feel I would be more intimidated by them because they’re also pre-med, [since] pre-meds in general are super competitive even though I try not to be that way. I think that the whole process is just scary.”

Hildreth, Keen and de la Torre all said that starting interactions between students and faculty as well as advising resources early in their college career may reduce intimidation or fear and allow more student involvement and outreach.

“The goal is to make [advising] more transparent and to allow for greater choices and opportunities earlier on,” de la Torre said. “One of the big issues across the campus is that if you ask a lot of students when they learned about certain opportunities generally most of them would say their junior or senior year … Some of the more professional development and major trajectory [components of advising] are not fully discussed [with incoming students].”

De la Torre further stated that before this partnership between CBS and Student Affairs there was an informal relationship between the two in terms of handling resources, thus the services depended heavy on staff who knew the information.

“By Student Affairs [coordinating with CBS] it creates a different type of relationship of expectations,” de la Torre said. “[Right now] when someone leaves, that relationship goes. I think that formalizing these relationships makes it institutionalized so that students always have those types of opportunities. The good news is now that we’re making more formal relationships with the medical school, and with CBS and Student Affairs we’re going to be able to do programs that in the long run will be sustainable and not dependent on any certain individual.”

According to de la Torre, there will be forums and surveys held to receive feedback from students and peer advisors concerning the new health advising center. One metric that Student Affairs will analyze the initial results of the change will be the acceptance rate of students to professional programs which is expected to be assessed in either 2015 or 2016.

Hildreth said the job description for this key faculty member is still being written and will likely be a national search since they will head the comprehensive health science services for undergraduates with funds sourced from both CBS and Student Affairs.

“Since this is a pivotal hire for all of this, this person is key to making the whole thing work,” Hildreth said. “They have to be a good communicator, they have to be able to interact with students effectively and also with other senior staff members on campus. It’s going to take a very special person to pull this off so we are very intentional on making sure we find the right person.”

SEAN GUERRA can be reached at features@theaggie.org.

Photo by Ciera Pasturel.

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