UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Ozgun Demirag, associate professor in the project and supply chain management department at the Black School of Business at Penn State Behrend, and Susan Sanders, lead adviser in the College of Health and Human Development; have been selected to receive the 2021 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.
Demirag, who is also associate director of undergraduate programs and academic affairs at Penn State Behrend, has been an academic adviser since 2010. Demirag says student advising is one of the most fulfilling aspects of her career.
“I truly appreciate the opportunity to support our students and make a positive impact on their progress, not only during their academic studies and professional preparation but also in their personal lives,” Demirag said. “I am especially pleased to receive this nomination in a year that has presented unprecedented challenges in higher education, and I believe my holistic approach to advising that considers students’ academic and professional development in conjunction with personal well-being and growth has helped my students successfully navigate these challenges.”
Demirag said it’s important to stay on top of the latest policies and procedures and to keep detailed notes of interactions with her students. She advises students who are pursuing dual majors, minors and varied certificates in academic programs. Her job, she said, is to understand the complex requirements to make viable plans for her advisees.
Many of her students manage multiple responsibilities in school, work and personal life, so she’s highly flexible to meet their needs. She makes herself available at times best for them and puts effort into thorough and accurate responses to her students’ questions. Their time is valuable, she said, so she wants to make the most of these interactions.
For Demirag, student success means more than academic success. She empowers her students to make informed decisions about their education and career goals so that they can explore their options and attain their optimal outcomes, both inside and outside the classroom.
“I build multiple possible scenarios or pathways to achieving a student’s goals and provide a clear explanation of the pros and cons of different decisions. This approach enables the students to have plans that are robust and adaptable to change,” Demirag said. “The benefits of this approach extend beyond college education and help students learn how to gain resiliency in their future life plans.”
Students also praised Demirag for helping them get the most out of their college experience.
“Dr. Demirag wants me to get the most out of my education here at Behrend,” a nominator said. “She lets me know of any opportunities that I have and makes sure I am doing well in all of my classes. Having an adviser like her makes my experience at Penn State easier and makes me feel that coming to Behrend was my best choice.”
Sanders, who has worked in higher education for almost 25 years, said that no training module can prepare you for advising students because each student and scenario is unique. She said that’s what drives her to do great work. She’s inspired by her students’ unique stories.
Sanders said those stories include one student who spent years after a disastrous start to rebuild her grade-point average to a 2.0. That student sent her a note after her first 4.0 GPA semester in graduate school. Or the adult learner who returned to college at age 50 after losing a job in the manufacturing industry.
“As inspiring as these memories are, I also remember the students whose path appeared smooth and effortless but who also grew as students and have continued to contribute to their wider communities since graduation,” Sanders said. “Each story represents a student who has touched my life.”
Sanders said it’s important to be honest with students, even if it requires difficult conversations. Some of her advisees are struggling, and it’s her job to ask the tough questions in an effort to determine how students can find the right path forward. She said students value this candor and honesty.
“If I approach my work as an adviser with a true appreciation for students’ stories and in the context of a relationship built on trust and honesty, I can draw on many of the tools in an advising toolbox to meet the students where they are,” Sanders said. “In some cases, intrusive advising is called for.”
Sanders said students don’t often know the correct path to achieving their career goals, so it’s up to her to stay knowledgeable and current on University policies. She tries to guide students but not carry them to their destination. Her job, she said, is as much about listening as it is advising.
For Sanders, sometimes she finds out years later that her efforts are paying off.
“I recently received a note from a student who graduated in 2013 that said ‘You were there for it all! I have always appreciated the enduring support and advice that you provided me as I made that winding transition from college student to deciding what I really wanted to do with my life,’ ” Sanders said. “That note tells me that I’m doing something right!”