UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Renae McNair, assistant teaching professor of psychology at Penn State Scranton and Karen Sofranko, director of academic services and retention at Penn State Hazleton, have been selected to receive the 2022 Penn State Excellence in Advising Award.
The award, established by the former Undergraduate Student Government’s Academic Assembly and sponsored by each college, annually honors one full-time professional adviser and one full-time faculty member from any Penn State location who have at least two years of advising experience. Selection criteria are based on excellence in general advising, academic and career guidance, enthusiasm and assistance in decision making, and goal setting.
McNair said it’s important to know the academic, career and lifelong goals of her students. She gets to know her advisees on a personal level. She said advising goes beyond helping students navigate courses.
“I believe that advisors act as life guides for their students,” McNair said.
In addition to teaching and serving on the University Faculty Senate, McNair advises the department’s roughly 90 students. During the pandemic, McNair said, the time she spent with each student greatly increased.
“I had students who needed academic advising, but who also needed care and support,” McNair said. “The pandemic started and they were struggling with the news. There were many weeks that I spent 30 to 40 hours a week just meeting with and talking with my students. The students needed reassurance, they needed support and they needed hope.”
McNair said knowing her students well helps her be honest with them, especially when it comes to real conversations about their future. Once, she discussed alternative career paths for a student with a mid-level grade-point average who wanted to go to medical school. The student is now pursuing a master’s degree for an alternate career path.
Another time, she convinced a student who excelled academically to pursue her doctorate. The student was a first-generation student who couldn’t imagine herself earning an advanced degree.
“I encouraged her. I wanted her to feel empowered and understand what she was capable of. I wanted her to see herself,’ McNair said. “She completed the research project and earned a scholarship for graduate school. We kept in touch. She is currently finishing her masters and applying to Ph.D. programs.”
When her students leave college, McNair said, her job is often not over. They often continue to reach out, again seeking her advice.
“I tell those former students that it is OK to make changes,” McNair said. “Life is not one straight line, that beauty is found in the crooked path along the journey.”
Students praised the work McNair put into advising them and her dedication to learning about their lives.
“Dr. McNair takes her time helping students decide their classes, gives excellent advice when discussing career choices, and goes above and beyond to make sure we are thriving in the program,” a nominator said.
Sofranko said advising is so much more than knowing which courses students should take and how best to navigate their academic schedule.
“It’s about helping students make life changing decisions as well as fostering lifelong learning,” Sofranko said. “It is encouraging students to critically analyze information, which helps them identify and challenge their preconceived notions. It is guiding them along their pathway to success, however they define it. It is teaching. It is transformative. I do what I do because I love students and want to see them succeed.”
Sofranko says she tries to recognize the unique abilities of each student while helping them discover their personal and academic strengths. She’s an expert in knowing the resources, tools and emerging trends and can support students and their changing needs in the ever-evolving academic environment.
“It’s become even more critical to teach a person to fish,” Sofranko said. “It builds their confidence, while demonstrating their personal responsibility in the process.”
Sofranko wants to help students become a part of the exploration and decision-making process. She creates a safe environment where students explore their career ambitions while relying on her expertise for advice.
“I help students put the pieces of their puzzle together by analyzing what the student says, combined with their academic history, to develop a plan that will lead to academic success,” Sofranko said. “I ask students specific questions about their likes and dislikes, review their academic history, and discuss their dreams to paint an accurate picture. We work together to help them find their ‘why’ in the world.”
Students praised Sofranko for always making time for them and for knowing their best path forward.
“She has built and adjusted a schedule for my remaining semesters to give me assurance that I will be able to graduate on time with both my major and minor in mind,” a nominator said. “She is respectful and kind. She is phenomenal and has been a huge aspect of my college career.”