Sarah Williams and Julie Ridgway are academic advisors for the Department of Biology. Together, they advise about 800 biology and pre-health students studying one of seven undergraduate concentrations or participating in a pre-health preparation program. Sarah and Julie discuss how they became advisors, what their day-to-day life is like and what they recommend to students as they navigate through the Ball State curriculum.
How did you become an academic advisor?
Julie: I have a bachelor’s in biology and a minor in chemistry from Indiana State University. I got my master’s at Eastern Michigan University in higher education and student affairs.
I was going to be in medical technology and really thought I was going to be in a lab setting, but then I realized that wasn’t really for me. I was a heavily involved student leader, and so I got pushed toward student affairs and higher education. I was a grad assistant in residence life, advising the residence hall’s association—the student organization. And then I went and worked at Miami University in Ohio. I was a residence director and I oversaw the pre-vet living-learning community for two years and the Louis Stokes living-learning community for a year.
I really liked talking with students as a hall director. We had to meet with our students one-on-one, so it’s very similar to this. That’s what led me to becoming an academic advisor.
Sarah: My bachelor’s degree is in biology from Northern Kentucky University. As an undergraduate student, I really became interested in birds and studying migratory birds. So I got my master’s degree in biology [from Ball State] studying migratory birds.
I decided to work in a laboratory setting. I had some experience working in a microbiology lab, and I did that for a while, but I got a job working in the library at Ball State as a cataloguing assistant. I kind of wanted to get back into something more biology related, then this job opened up as an advisor for biology students.
The reason I felt that I would like to be an advisor is that I didn’t feel like I had the guidance that I needed as an undergrad to find out where my strengths were within the field of biology. I just felt like I could use some of my experience both as an undergrad and as a graduate student, and that maybe I could help students navigate their career pathway a little better.
How do you view the role of academic advising within the university?
Julie: I see us as the starting point for all questions. Yes, we update their plans and we guide them on courses, but we’re here for a whole lot more than that too. We’re here to talk through issues with faculty or talk through difficulties with classes or personal life, and to find resources on campus. So I see us as kind of the guide to where they need to go—as a first stop—and then we can be the checkpoint.
“My goal is to have students feel like I care about them, because we do and we’re excited to be there for them. The best part of my day is student conversations.” — Julie Ridgway
We have student meetings throughout the day—it depends on when students schedule and how many we’ve got. We respond to emails, phone calls, update plans, respond to faculty questions, and then we have departmental committees if we choose to be on them.
They come in, we’ve got a little description of what they may want to talk about, but the meeting could go in any direction, and that’s okay—that’s what we’re here for. We want to hear everything that’s happening and try to help as much as possible.
Sarah: As advisors in the Department of Biology, we see, between the two of us, approximately 800 students. That includes not only biology majors, but also students who have a pre-health interest.
I focus more on what I call the “field biology” students just because that’s what my background is in, and I can speak a little more comfortably regarding environmental biology and ecology-related career interests. Julie sees more of the cellular and molecular biology students, and more of the pre-health students. But we are cross-trained to each be competent and knowledgeable with everything in biology.
Number one in my mind with what my job is as an advisor is to help a student graduate in a timely manner with the degree program that best fits their interests and strengths. Whether that means I am helping them through biology, or they come to me and they say “This isn’t working out. I don’t think I want to be a biology major.”
Then we serve as a resource…Let’s help you get into a degree program that you are happy with. I’ve gotten letters or emails from students that say, “I’m excited about coming to Ball State because you took the time to meet with me and explain your program.”
Why do you like being an academic advisor?
Julie: Our job is to be here for the students and to advocate for them and listen and be able to help offer solutions. That’s the best part of my day, is meeting with students. I love it when I have a full day of student meetings.
What keeps me here is knowing that we’re helping students navigate a time where they have really high highs and really low lows, and we’re here for both, and we get to hear about both. And we’re here when they graduate—and we’re really excited for them—but we’re also here for them when they have tough times.
Sarah: My favorite part of the job would be that I get to build relationships with the students, and that when I see them come in—either during summer orientation as a freshman or as a sophomore when they come into upper division advising—I really enjoy seeing how their interests evolve and how they go from more of a course-focused mindset to, by the time they’re a senior, this more outward-looking, forward-thinking mindset.
“I really like seeing that growth in students. I get to know them and watch this process unfold of them going from a student to a graduate and going out into their chosen career field.” — Sarah Williams
What are some of the challenges of being an academic advisor?
Sarah: As an advisor, you end up hearing a lot of stories from students and personal experiences from students that run the gamut of emotions. You’ll get a student that comes in and has gotten accepted for an internship, and those are wonderful stories…But in the next meeting, you can have some really sad situations. They can have loved ones who pass away.
All of these things affect a student’s ability to focus on their schoolwork…It’s hard to not internalize those things and feel the stress that they’re feeling, especially if you’re a person who knows these students and wants them to do well.
What would you recommend to students as they navigate their academic career at Ball State?
Julie: I see students be most successful when they’re asking questions because nobody knows what you need when you don’t ask for help.
“It’s really important to ask questions of your faculty and ask for that one-on-one time to get those answers, especially if you’re in virtual classes. Asking questions, working on time management and taking care of yourself is really important right now.” — Julie Ridgway
Sarah: I see students be successful—not only in their coursework but also in making the most out of their degree and making sure that the degree program they’re in and the classes they’re taking really plays to their strengths—the successful students that end up finishing their degree are happy with their degree and happy with the choices they made in their degree program. Those are the students who have used their resources—joined any clubs or free tutoring services, talked to their faculty. I think for students, have a balance between self-educating themselves on what’s available, but also checking in with their advisor.
That’s when I see students who are the most successful. They are self-reliant, but they know when to come and check in with an advisor and ask for help. I think knowing that balance of what you can do on your own to help yourself and what the university can do to help you, those are the students that are most successful.
Want to learn more about academic advising resources available at Ball State? Visit the advising website.