Student Services is welcoming space for students
Editor’s note: This story is reprinted from the April issue of GCU Magazine. To read the digital version of the magazine, click here.
By Lana Sweeten-Shults
Britney Waxman knew exactly what major to declare when she arrived at Grand Canyon University in the fall as a sophomore transfer student from Scottsdale. She knew exactly what direction to take … right?
“Absolutely not!” the Applied Management business major countered. “I had NO idea what to do.”
But her Student Services counselor (SSC), Kylie Whetsel, did.
“Kylie, honestly, gave me that direction – her ability of, ‘This is what you have to do.’ … I put so much trust in her; she ALWAYS comes through. She ALWAYS has my back.”
When Waxman made the dean’s list, “she made sure to give me a call the other day to say, ‘Congratulations! You did this!’ Even if it was just a call, it meant so much to me.”
That support goes beyond the once-a-semester required meetings with Whetsel. Waxman has leaned on her several times this year, whenever she was unsure of herself or needed a friendly face.
That’s exactly how Shelbie Knuckles felt about her Student Services counselor. B.J. Hendricks was that anchor for her.
“He helped me graduate a semester early” by suggesting the option of summer classes, said Knuckles, who graduated with a business degree from GCU in 2014 and a master’s in business management in 2017. “The best part was seeing B.J. at my graduation. I was so excited to introduce him to my family!”
Hendricks made such an impression on Knuckles that she returned to GCU to become an SSC herself.
“I knew I wanted to be an SSC because of my counselor and how much he helped me,” she said. “I saw how involved they were with students and helped you get to graduation. Here’s the person I went to with all my questions.”
She wanted to do the same – be that champion – for GCU’s students.
Plenty of room now
Student Services manager Tim Jones was the campus’ sole financial advisor when he arrived at GCU more than a decade ago. He shared a trailer with the University’s one academic advisor.
It’s a far cry from what the burgeoning department is now.
These days, SSCs make their home in the new Student Advising Services Building, a campus showcase space with a modern, circle-themed design motif evident in the spacious reception area, an abundance of windows to let in the Arizona sunlight, glass-walled conference rooms and vibrant furniture.
The welcoming space, designed to move the campus’ bevy of students through the department as efficiently as possible, reflect the pivotal role SSCs have come to play in serving students.
Once registered, each of the University’s on-campus students is assigned a counselor who specializes in that student’s chosen field of study.
The department has grown to include more than 50 SSCs, many of them recent GCU graduates who are more familiar with the campus than anyone else. They advise as many as 430 students each.
In February alone, SSCs filled 242 appointments per day, said Jones.
“It’s a lot (of students) per person, but we like having that specific person to go to that knows your story, knows what you’re going through, knows your family and can register that relationship in that way,” Jones said.
He doesn’t remember developing the same kind of relationship with his college advisors.
“It was kind of like a teller, where there were barricades: ‘Are you paying or what are you here for?’” Jones said. “Ours is quite a bit different from that.”
Because of the relationships SSCs develop with students, “We end up being kind of a Swiss Army knife of everything,” he said. “If something’s wrong, they’re going to call their SSC,” even if it’s minor.
“It’s like an ask-me-anything kind of thing,” said SSC Sara Nelson. “A lot of students are looking for someone to go to. They don’t have their family close by, so … if they’re struggling in life or if they want to figure out their career or their major and how to get there, they come to see us.”
Jones said SSCs get calls from students frantically worried after realizing they don’t want to be a doctor or didn’t pass a required course: “Whatever it may be, part of our role is to say, ‘I got this. WE got this. We’re going to get an answer.’”
Another unique aspect of the job: The University changed the role of SSCs a few years ago so that they serve as both financial and academic counselors, which isn’t true of other universities.
Not only are they adept at advising students on choosing a major or what courses they might need to take; they are experts in scholarships and loans, too.
On the academic side, SSCs communicate regularly with the colleges in which they specialize to keep up to date with changes in degree requirements and more. They also must pass assessments.
On the financial side, Knuckles explains to students how their often confusing college loans work: “It’s sitting down with them and talking to them about it. They’ll say, ‘Oh, my parents will take care of it.’ I’ll say, ‘No, you need to know this.’”
What Knuckles knows is that being an SSC is a career she might never have considered if not for her relationship with her SSC, whom she now works with on a family-like team. She’s the one these days congratulating the graduating students she has served.
“Really, it’s just the relationship you can build with students and that they remember something you did to help them. … I feel that I’m serving a purpose here.”
A champion for those students.
GCU senior writer Lana Sweeten-Shults can be reached at [email protected] or at 602-639-7901.
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