By John Vito d’Antonio-Bertagnolli & Amy Ng
“I’m all about creating a comfortable relationship with the students, where they feel connected to somebody, and they feel that they can come talk to me whenever they want.” says Dr. Sarah Vandermark, PhD, Director and founder of the now two-year-old Advising Success Center (ASC). Despite the newness of the office, ASC has expanded its clientele from a mere 100 students its first year to nearly 2000 students this Fall semester, a growth indicative of the importance and quality of the services that ASC provides.
“We call ourselves the transitional office,” Vandermark states, “for any student in transition. Freshman are in transition, transfers are in transition, and students who need to change their major, no matter when that is, are in transition.” ASC is just the place for students “in transition”, as she calls them, and even some students who seek advice, assistance, and support during their time at NJIT.
Vandermark, a 1996 graduate of Wilkes University, involved herself in many extracurricular activities during her four years studying Psychology and Sociology. As a basketball player, member of Student Government, and orientation leader, Vandermark grew fond of the connections she made as an undergraduate. Though initially unaware of career prospects in higher education, she jumped on the opportunity to pursue an independent study her senior year, focusing on collegiate judicial affairs, residence life, and orientation. As her interest in higher education peaked, Vandermark pursued a Master’s degree in College Student Development and Counseling at Northeastern University, where she also served as the Residence Director for two years. Fondly recollecting her time there, Vandermark says “I had such a wonderful experience, and all my experiences were through connections, so I understood the importance of connecting, and I wanted to be a part of that for students from that point on.”
After working at a handful of schools, including Bay State College and Boston University, and tending bar and waitressing for a two-and-a-half year hiatus around 2000, Vandermark returned to higher education in 2002 at the Art Institutes of New York as a career advisor.
Vandermark landed in NJIT in 2004. By 2008, Vandermark realized that she wanted to implement some change at the University, recalling, “you’re just an advisor at a large STEM institute, and if you want to implement change, you have to have a doctorate.” So, she did just that. Working full-time at NJIT and pursuing her degree at Montclair State part-time, Vandermark completed her PhD in Counselor Education in five years, in early 2014, just as the Advising Success Center was getting on its feet for the first time.
When ASC opened two years ago, it relied heavily on Vandermark’s dissertation research. It was a small office, with only one other advisor, Grace Lopez. Now the office’s Associate Director, Lopez holds a Master’s in Community Counseling. Six other advisors, all holding Master’s degrees in related fields, currently work in the office, which recently expanded to the newly renovated Fenster 260. Still reliant on her dissertation, ASC’s success is due to Vandermark’s unique method of advisor-advisee linking. On her dissertation, she says that “all the advisors here teach freshman seminar. Each one is linked to a freshman seminar, and those students become their advisees. That’s what my whole dissertation was about: that you get to know your student by the 15th week, and if you were with Grace, or with me, you’d feel comfortable coming in and saying ‘I’m not doing well.’ You can have those hard conversations and feel comfortable with the advisor.”
Both Vandermark and ASC are busy this time of year. Between teaching a section of STS 210, the recent freshman class and an ever-increasing number of transfer students passing through her office, in addition to plenty of new initiatives and projects, Vandermark certainly has her plate full. Current projects on the ASC burner include expanding the peer mentor programs, the Peer Advisor Tutors (Pats) and Peer Advisor Liaisons (Pals), as well as a new probation program for freshmen who fall below a 2.0 GPA, recruitment programs at local community colleges, and a website for students seeking information about transferring credits to a degree program at NJIT, to be launched in January.
When asked to describe her office in one sentence, Vandermark had this to say: “That’s hard… I want to say something fun… Everybody here is friendly, so it’s kind of like, come in, we’re a warm office, if you have any questions that haven’t been answered, please come and see us, and we can help and steer you in the right direction.”
ASC is open Monday through Friday, from 8:30am to 4:30pm, and accepts walk-ins on Mondays through Thursdays from 10:00am to 12:00pm and 1:00pm to 3:00pm. Find out more information about the services provided by ASC on their website.