Giving advice: Jack and Meryl Mann endow a pre-major advising fund in College of Arts and Sciences

"What's your major?"

It seems like a simple question, but ask a freshman or sophomore and you might get a list of choices or a nervous shrug. Jack and Meryl '81 Mann believe proper advising can help students decide their majors. In honor of Meryl Mann's 30th reunion, the New Jersey couple recently donated $100,000 to endow a pre-major advising fund in the Office of Admissions and Academic Advising at the College of Arts and Sciences.

"When we thought about the endowment, we wanted something that would touch students -- freshmen or sophomores -- in a way that would lessen their anxiety and help them transition from high school to college," explains Jack Mann.

"Given the size and scope of arts and sciences, there's a wealth of opportunities for students that they just don't know about, and it's stressful for them to ferret out what it is they might want to do," says Meryl Mann, an economics graduate from the college. She adds, "A liberal arts education is about exploring and having an open mind toward many areas, but after two years a student has to be ready to declare a major and have the proper prerequisites."

Advising facilitates this balance between exploration and direction. David DeVries, associate dean for undergraduate education and head of the advising office for the college, explains: "Advising is useful in that it helps students find courses that will fulfill college requirements and answer their intellectual curiosity." He adds, "We help students realize that any major in the liberal arts can lead to just about any field … and what's important is the quality of their undergraduate experience and the connections they make with faculty."

Trustee is committed to advising

One of the most generous and consistent champions of undergraduate advising is Trustee Emeritus Robert Paul '59, who believes that supporting advising is the "most significant thing we can do to help the university" and describes advising as "fundamental and important in the student's ultimate life."

He established the Robert A. and Donna Paul Advising Endowment, which provides for academic advising awards and support for advising programs in the College of Arts and Sciences, and he continues to strengthen the college's advising efforts through annual gifts.

For Paul, "what an adviser does is provide a dispassionate evaluation of alternatives, as a knowledgeable and interested person."

"It is not something that stops on day one," Paul explains. "If the adviser develops a relationship with the student, he ultimately becomes a friend."

For DeVries, strengthening faculty-student relationships is an essential component of effective advising. He underscores the importance of the Manns' gift and other contributions for general advising to increase faculty-student contact outside the classroom.

Among the advising office's efforts to disseminate information and foster faculty-student ties is a trial, pre-major advising program led jointly by Maria Davidis, senior assistant dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, and Carol Grumbach '78, J.D. '87, associate dean for New Student Programs and the Jack and Rilla Neafsey Director of the Carol Tatkon Center. Begun in October last year, and made possible by a gift from Mayo '71 and Elizabeth '73 Stuntz, this program has held informal presentations, panel discussions and dinners, where faculty members from different departments interact with undecided students from the college. These events have all taken place in the relaxed environment of the Carol Tatkon Center, and three more events are scheduled before the program concludes its trial run this year.

"Our whole emphasis is on how the liberal arts and sciences teach you how to think, analyze and write well, and how these skills can translate into any career," Davidis explains. She adds that continued support will allow the advising office to develop new ways to engage students outside the traditional office setting.

Grumbach points out how collaborative activities that go beyond in-office advising also benefit faculty members. She explains that faculty advisers get to interact with and learn from other faculty outside of their departments. She adds that innovative approaches to advising provide faculty with fresh models and emphasize the creativity and value of the advising role.

Arguably, no one appreciates the importance of advisers more than students. Allison Livingston '12, a senior at the college, entered Cornell as an undecided student. She declared a major in biological sciences last semester but switched to a major in biology and society in the summer after realizing what truly spoke to her interests. She is considering a career involving public policy and protection of the environment. "Advising is important to me because I didn't really know where I wanted to go, but talking to Maria Davidis and the staff of career services helped me shape which direction I wanted to go," she says.

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