Culture of Support

Listening, guiding, solving problems all in a day’s work for Brandman academic advisors

September 12, 2016


Cem Burnham and Karyn Lawrence are academic advisors at the Walnut Creek campus of Brandman University.

Cem Burnham and Karyn Lawrence are academic advisors at the Walnut Creek campus of Brandman University.

That academic advisors advise students about their academic programs is obvious. And at many colleges and universities, that’s exactly where a description of what they do would end.

That’s not the case at Brandman.

“Many of our students, who often come back after time away or after a bad experience at another school, may not realize how much support they need or they may not even know what’s available,” said Don Scott, director of Advising and Retention Services for the university.

“We don’t necessarily solve all the problems but we represent a critical and consistent touch point to empower them to access the right resources. It’s knowing how to make that connection that’s meaningful and that will help support them.”

Opening their eyes to options

Ask Cem Burnham, an academic advisor at the Walnut Creek campus, to give an example and it doesn’t even take a full second for him to come up with one.

“I usually work with undergraduate veteran students,” said Burnham. He’s discovered that those students often gravitate to degrees in areas they’ve already had some experience with through the military. He sees it as his job to help them explore options.

The mission of academic advising is to “guide, support, mentor and engage students effectively so they can accurately plan their educational experience and be inspired and self-powered to achieve their academic, career and life goals.”


“I remember one who thought he should study criminal justice. But what we discovered is he really wanted to become a teacher. So the first step was to complete a bachelor’s and then go on to get a credential. I try to connect them to their bigger goals. We expand on what they already know but also look to see what else is out there in the world for them,” said Burnham.

“We try to educate them about all the options. There’s nothing wrong with staying with their first option. But we’ve learned that once you have that conversation, they might want to take their lives in another direction.”

Working toward solutions

Academic advisors conference

Academic advisors from all campuses met in Irvine during the summer to learn about the university’s latest advances and course offerings.

Karyn Lawrence, also an academic advisor at the Walnut Creek campus, sees herself as a problem-solver. “I can’t express communication enough,” she said. Lawrence encourages her advisees, mostly students in the School of Education, to talk to her if they find themselves struggling.

“Sometimes students are having difficulties and they’re shy about it. But most times we can help them out and come up with a plan to resolve the issue,” she said. Sometimes that’s just reminding them about other resources such as the Online Writing and Math Center or the Office of Accessible Education. Sometimes that’s adjusting their course schedule so they have the time to also prepare for the various exams they need to take.

“Other times what they plan to do just isn’t feasible,” said Lawrence, particularly if they’re facing personal issues that can make it difficult to carry multiple courses in one session.

Because they are campus-based, the academic advisors can also stop by classrooms to offer reminders and make announcements. “That’s a benefit. We’re here to support them and to encourage them to reach out with questions.”

Personal experience

Both Lawrence and Burnham have seen academic advising from the other side.

“I went to a school that had 40,000+ students. I probably saw my academic advisor once in four years,” she said.

Burnham, while he has not served in the military directly, did grow up a “military brat,” who moved all over the place. “I know some of the bases they (his advisees) have been to. I understand the services they need. They’re not traditional transfer students.” He makes sure he knows what the military terms mean that sprinkle their conversations and keeps the Veterans Resources book handy.

He also thinks that students who may have attended larger universities might not realize the extent to which academic advising can assist them. “We’re so personalized. We stay with them from point “A” all the way through. When they want to quit, we remind them of the bigger picture. We have that extra involvement that they’re not expecting. We’re very committed, and they get a sense of that.”

“Sometimes they tell us they’re surprised we remember their names. I say I remember all my students because that’s just the way it is here,” said Burnham.

Faculty support

Lawrence said in the School of Education they have a dual advising model with students assigned to both an academic advisor and a faculty member, adding that the faculty support is really important for answering career-specific and curriculum questions.

Lawrence, who has a master’s in mental health counseling, became interested in working in higher education when she did an internship in a college counseling center where counselors did both mental health counseling and academic advising. She liked the less clinical approach and opted for academic advising when she moved to California from Wisconsin three years ago, but finds those counseling skills come in handy, particularly with adult students.

“They go through a lot of things. Medical issues, parents passing away or caring for elderly parents or young children. So there is often emotional stress. We support them through all of it.”

Scott sees his primary responsibility as setting a course for the global advising team at all of the campuses while providing support to each advisor and the campus directors.

“Our advisors take a very developmental approach in their work with students. We meet the student where they are and with what they need. We try not to make assumptions about what that might be.”

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