Clay Schwenn, an academic counselor at Undergraduate Advising and head of peer advising at UW, recently received a regional award for excellence in advising from the National Academic Advising Association and is nominated at the national level.
“There’s nothing else like it,” Schwenn said. “When people ask me what I do for a living, I tell them that I come to the most beautiful place in Seattle, the UW, and talk to great kids all day.”
Schwenn graduated in 1993 with a B.S. in psychology from the UW. He has been an adviser in the biology department and student athletics and a peer adviser after his senior year in the UW psych department. Schwenn’s history at the UW contributes to his ability to relate to students. He is genuinely enthusiastic about the UW in all of its aspects.
“I’m a hometown guy,” he said. “I graduated from here. I’ve worked jobs in many different UW services and departments. I think the UW is a great university.”
This kind of positive energy is infectiously inspiring, said Lauren Marriott, a peer adviser and UW graduate student in communications who works under Schwenn. Peer advisers — students who are trained to advise fellow students in all things UW — work with Schwenn to develop the skills necessary for the task.
“He’s just an awesome guy,” Marriott said. “I always felt as if he had my back, as if he would stand up for what my opinions and judgments were even though I am a student advising fellow students. And people make a point to come back and visit him, even if they’ve gotten into their departments, or even graduated.”
Schwenn’s dedication to peer advising includes bringing in speakers and lecturers to present to the peer advisers, educating them in the wide range of specialties and academic areas an adviser is required to understand and be familiar with. This type of dedication as well as nominations from past and present students is what has garnered him the accolades, Marriott said.
“He tends to be the person who pushes us to do the right thing and challenges himself and everyone to do the best they can,” Patsy Wosepka, director of Undergraduate Advising, said. “However, he would be the first to say he is not the main driver of this office.”
Schwenn is hasty to define his role as one of many excellent advisers at the UW.
“I appreciate the nomination and the award, but it seems a little incongruous at times, as advising is especially not one of those things you do by yourself,” Wosepka said. “It’s a collaboration between student and adviser — I can’t advise them if they don’t give me anything to work with. It’s the same for every adviser, and there are so many great advisers at UW — we have great advising and a great career center.”
Advisers at the Undergraduate Advising office in Mary Gates Hall undergo a relatively predictable schedule, Schwenn said, based on the academic year. Spring quarter is filled with students preparing and searching for applications of all kinds: internships, jobs, and departments. Students with schedules to plan and adjust based on academic performance in the first two-thirds of the year also flood the offices, although the numbers are dwarfed by the usual fall influx of freshmen.
“The first few weeks are pretty hectic, but then it settles down into long-term planning, where advisers have to sit back and ask questions that are more like an interview,” Schwenn said. “What are your long-term goals? What do you want to do with this degree? What’s your plan?”
Departmental advisers deal with the specific minutiae of graduation and assist students in tailoring their schedules to the major; general advisers such as Schwenn have a much broader task.
“Talking to students involves advising people about how to pull the pieces of their lives together and synthesize the whole into something that you’ll see as the end result of your time at UW, or your education, or degree,” Schwenn said. “Which professors and particular classes you take can really shape your whole time – I want to get kids together with faculty and classes that really resonate.”
The challenge of assisting as many students as possible while ensuring every student is outfitted with as ideal a schedule as possible is emphasized by budget cuts that have reduced advising positions while enrollment at UW has soared.
“I haven’t had to actually fire anyone, luckily,” Wosepka said. “Over the past four years, people have just decided to leave or obtained other jobs, and we just haven’t been able to fill their positions. I believe seven positions in total have been lost.”
Each adviser who leaves substantially increases the number of students that other advisers then fit into their schedules, leading to a constant stream of mainly freshmen and sophomores flowing in and out of Mary Gates.
“There’s not enough hours in the day to see everybody you’d like to see, and in the end, you only see the people that actually come in, even though there are plenty of students who don’t,” Schwenn said. “We get the freshmen and sophomores mainly because our role is to prepare students to get into their department, but juniors and seniors come in as well.”
However, even if advisers are hard-pressed for time, Schwenn makes every second count.
“I sometimes think of Clay as a big kid for his ability to relate to students and what is important to each person,” Wosepka said.
The National Student Exchange, a program that facilitates students studying at different American universities, which Schwenn coordinates, is an example.
“Dozens of students go to different universities, Tucson, Honolulu, and they love it there, but they come back, and time and again they say that UW has better advising than other colleges,” Schwenn said. “One-on-one, face-to-face advising is irreplaceable.”
Reach reporter Garrett Black at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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