A Change of Course

Author: Kerry Temple ’74

The freshmen entering Notre Dame next fall will form the first class since 1962 whose transition from high school into college will not happen through the University’s First Year of Studies (FYS), one of Notre Dame’s most auspicious academic traditions.


The year-long program, designed to help students adjust to the pressures of academic demands while living away from home, functioned as its own college, headed over the years by the likes of Emil T. Hofman, Eileen Kolman and Hugh Page as its dean. By assigning freshmen a uniform load of course requirements, FYS enabled students to get a strong foundation in a liberal education by studying broadly before declaring a major. That, coupled with the college’s personal approach to academic advising, has long been one of Notre Dame’s most touted attributes.


But times change, and a recent review of the University’s core curriculum led to the curtailment of this bridge-year academic structure. Students will now have more flexibility to spread their core courses over a four-year period rather than taking all required classes in their first year on campus. The change is intended to expand opportunities for students to sample courses or take advanced courses sooner. The curriculum will also focus less on providing introductions to specific disciplines but allow students to go deeper sooner into various fields of study.


Not to be lost in the institutional change, though, is the personal approach to academic advising. To make sure that happens, Provost Thomas Burish ’72 tapped Elly Brenner ’98, who has 15 years of academic advising and administrative experience in FYS, to lead a more centralized, University-wide advising service for all undergrads. 


Brenner, currently the program’s assistant dean for records and registration, says, “I think it sends a real message that the provost was willing to take the step in hiring someone from First Year into this role for advising. I think that the value we place on the time of discernment, on the transitional period into the academy is important. And I’m not willing to sacrifice that.”


The new plan, applied to the incoming class of 2023, is for a team of advisers to be embedded into the degree-granting colleges. These advisers will be located within the college offices, says Brenner, “so that they have more information flow with the departments, the professors, everyone over there, and yet still maintain their focus on the first-year experience.”


Brenner also hopes to maintain another strength of FYS — the opportunity for students to sample a spectrum of academic disciplines before making decisions about their major. “I think students today are inundated by information all the time. And we think we have to make decisions in a split second. But the reality, and the beauty of what we have here at Notre Dame, is that we want our students to come here, and take a minute, and decide. Breathe, right? For the first time in their lives they have a little bit of time to stop racing.”


Brenner, who continues to work with individual students, says the “best part” about what she does now” as an adviser is that she is “beholden to no one.” She explains: “A student walks into my office. I want them to end up where they belong. I don’t have an allegiance to one place over another. My allegiance is always to the student. Every single time. And if they’re being pressured by outside forces — family, their own perception of where their family wants them to go, or whatever it might be — as a first-year adviser I’ve always had the opportunity to say to them, ‘What is it you want? Where do your passions lie? And how do we piece something together to help you shape that?’ I don’t want to lose that.”


Students are different, of course. “We’ve got some students who are so talented and so set on what it is they’d like to do — they’re ready to go. Yeah, let’s get them into research, let’s get them working with professors. Those students are ready to launch. There are others,” she adds, “who have never taken an anthropology or philosophy course in their entire life. Having the opportunity to take those courses, I find very valuable.”


While her title doesn’t change until July, Brenner is beginning to formulate, map out and plan — determining which and how many academic advisers will go to each college and which staff members will move with her from the Coleman-Morse Center, the current home of FYS, into a renovated Bond Hall, the former home of the School of Architecture.


As she becomes responsible for all undergraduate academic advising, she envisions strengthening the relationships with other University groups that guide students — academic units as well as student affairs, rectors, athletics, the Career Center and the University Counseling Center. “My role won’t be just first-year anymore,” she says, “It’s going to be advising at the University as a whole. I want to elevate the visibility of the advising role and create a community, so there’s more of an opportunity for crosstalk, for common understanding of the student experience, and more consistent professional development.”


Kerry Temple is editor of this magazine.