How Smeal’s academic advisers helped students navigate the obstacles in a year like no other.
By Karen Gresh
Penn State Smeal undergraduates don’t make their way to graduation alone — especially in a year filled with uncertainty brought on by a global public health crisis. At critical times this past year and beyond, students found their paths smoothed by the counsel of an academic adviser.
“This team of dedicated professionals supports Smeal undergraduates throughout their journey in our college,” says Felisa Preciado Higgins, associate dean for undergraduate education. “Our advisers strive to engage, encourage, and empower students to articulate their educational goals, make good choices about their program of study, seek assistance when necessary, find appropriate campus resources, and participate in a wide range of curricular and cocurricular opportunities.”
In the simplest of terms, advisers help students avoid pitfalls and clarify goals. Here are a few stories of how their counsel and support made a positive impact during an extraordinarily challenging year:
Henry Pleszkoch & Karen Serago
Henry Pleszkoch is a sophomore at University Park now, but his path has been circuitous.
From a Towson, Md., Penn State family, Pleszkoch learned in the summer of 2020 that all his fall semester classes would be remote. “I realized that my first semester at Penn State would not be what I had always imagined,” he says.
“When I first met my adviser, Karen Serago, on Zoom, I was unsure of my plan. In the following weeks, I flooded her inbox with questions about my academic options.”
Eventually, Pleszkoch asked to defer admission to Spring 2021. Penn State Admissions approved his request and assigned him to University Park for that semester, but he asked to be changed to the World Campus so he could complete his coursework online. He not only completed that semester through World Campus but the summer session as well, all the while making progress toward Smeal’s entrance to major requirements.
“The execution of this plan required a lot of work on Karen’s part,” Pleszkoch says. “She helped me, through meetings and emails, determine which classes I should take to stay on track for Smeal. Without her, this past year would not have been possible.”
Serago described Pleszkoch’s journey this way: “Henry began his academic career with a deferral and a subsequent campus change that required collaboration from multiple Penn State offices. Everyone’s ability to remain agile and work together exemplifies the spirit of ‘We Are!’”
Alzberta Nei & Olivia Lewis
Even though she has logged seven internships with Deloitte and already has a job lined up after Commencement, there was a time when Smeal senior Alzberta Nei worried about graduating on time.
She was a student in the university’s Division of Undergraduate Studies in 2019 when she first met adviser Olivia Lewis.
“A friend recommended her to me,” she says. “She thought she would give me better insight into how to achieve my goals. She helped me and reassured me.”
Although Nei had a general idea of those goals, she hadn’t settled on a major. What’s more, she would be starting on the path to Smeal a semester later than the traditional student.
“Olivia helped get me on track,” she says. Together, the two chose the courses and resources that would position Nei to graduate next spring.
“Alzberta made working with her easy, because she asks good questions,” Lewis says. “Once Alzberta settled on Smeal, she spent a lot of time trying to get the most out of her academics and cocurricular activities. She was not afraid to ask if something didn’t seem right. Alzberta didn’t want simply to get a Smeal degree. Her goal has always been to explore areas of interest through her general education courses and electives.”
Nei is an executive team member of the campus’s National Association of Black Accountants, which has rebranded itself locally as the Organization for Black Business Students. It welcomes students from Smeal and other schools of the University.
Madison Ledwith & Evan Smith
With a major in Marketing and three Smeal minors, Smeal senior Madison Ledwith would already have a full schedule. Add to that hours of intercollegiate swimming practice and competition, which bring with them strict NCAA rules that student-athletes must follow in order to stay eligible to compete.
“Juggling the requirements of a rigorous Smeal degree and an NCAA Division I athletic program is not for the faint of heart,” says Evan Smith, her academic adviser. “From her first day on campus, Madison and I worked together to help her schedule courses not just for her major, but for her three Smeal minors.”
When the pandemic began, Ledwith went home to Chesterbrook to finish her sophomore year remotely. The fall semester, however, found her back in State College, where she was able to train and eventually to compete with her team.
Ledwith said Smith collaborates with her athletic adviser, Sarah Pergine, to make sure she meets both Smeal and NCAA requirements. “I would also attribute my ability to take three minors to Evan,” she said. “He laid out every course that I needed each semester, including summer, so that my course load was manageable with training.”
This careful planning has paid off. According to Smith, Ledwith “is on track to complete all Smeal academic requirements while recording the fifth-fastest 100 fly in Penn State Women’s Swimming and Diving history.”
Jian Sun & Susie Solo
A Smeal student from Tianjin, China, Jian Sun began his academic journey at Penn State Schuylkill. In the second semester of his sophomore year, he took BA197, Smeal’s online seminar in business, which not only helped cement his academic goals but also introduced him to a program designed to support students’ transition from a Penn State Commonwealth Campus to University Park.
Sun became president of that program, known as Assistance in Transition to University Park (AT UP), and all of last year, from his home in China, he attended and facilitated all meetings and organization business—often in what was to him the middle of the night. AT UP faculty adviser Dawn McGuire said she was “so impressed with his commitment to the organization and the Smeal community,” even though at that point he had not yet even visited campus nor met her.
Now a senior with three majors and three minors, Sun has been president or vice-president of four different clubs. “Since I have plenty of classes and extracurricular activities,” he said, “it really takes time and effort on the part of my advisers to help me choose the best options and arrange my classes.”
“He is always eager to volunteer, and I value his opinions and suggestions,” Sun’s academic adviser, Susie Solo, said. “Jian is very serious about his classes and organizations, yet he’s very happy and optimistic at each meeting. I wish I could clone him—he is that fine an example of a successful student.”
Smeal Student Success First
Here are a few additional examples of Smeal’s commitment to the academic and long-term success of its students.
Photos by Stephen Moyer