Having Coffee with Elly Brenner

Author: Kerry Temple ’74

Near the end of the conversation, Elly Brenner told a story that goes back to her days advising students in Notre Dame’s First Year of Studies. She was at church and a former student approached her.


HcwbrennerCourtesy photo

“He came up,” she recalls, “and he said, ‘Elly, I don’t know if you remember me.’ And it’s Joe. Of course, I remember Joe. He was a good student; there was nothing that would present itself as being at risk, right? But he had a complicated story, and we talked a lot. And he said, ‘Elly, I wouldn’t have stayed at Notre Dame if it weren’t for you. I would have left after freshman year.’ And that just makes you feel good.”


She is talking about the dissolution of First Year of Studies, where she worked for more than a decade, and her new role as assistant provost for academic advising.


For decades, University viewbooks and recruiting materials touted First Year of Studies (FYS) as a valuable bridge year, easing high school graduates into the rigors of university-level academics. It helped them adjust to the independence of life away from home. It gave them a menu of required courses. And it offered guidance, counseling and advising with professionals trained to help first-year students succeed in college.


“I don’t want to lose those connections,” she says of her new and expanded role. “Academic advisers are one of the pieces of the fabric that makes Notre Dame a family for those freshmen, and we need to continue that.”


The curtailment of FYS, which functioned as its own college with deans such as Emil T. Hofman, Eileen Kolman and Hugh Page, was a byproduct of a recent review of Notre Dame’s core curriculum. Students will now be allowed more flexibility to spread their core courses over a four-year period rather than taking their required classes all in their first year on campus. The change is intended to expand opportunities for a student 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. So Elly Brenner ’98, who has 15 years of experience in FYS, will lead more centralized, University-wide academic advising services for all undergrads. 


Brenner, who will continue until July as the assistant dean for records and registration in FYS, 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 2019, is for a team of advisers to be embedded into the degree-granting colleges. These advisers will be physically 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 major decisions. “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.”


The academic advising actually starts during the summer before students enroll. “We read all their files,” she explains. “In June we do file reading just like admissions does. We learn their stories, take notes, find out what makes the student — how do they present their best self? Then in July we actually build their schedules. We know a little bit about the human being behind the piece of paper when we’re doing that.”


And that will continue. “We hand schedule every student,” she says. “We make sure they’re in the right classes, and we make sure they have time for lunch.” Advisers then meet individually with students once school starts so they don’t wait to get acquainted until a problem arises — as has sometimes happened with students unaccustomed to getting a B. “I always tell my students, ‘This is our time to get to know each other because — should you get into a situation where you’re in crisis, that shouldn’t be your first time meeting me, right? I should know you in the good times, so that in bad times I understand you a little better.’”


Brenner, who has been both an administrator with FYS and an academic adviser to individual students, says the “best part” about her current role 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.”


There was a time, Brenner says, when students and parents were separated during orientation as the First Year team met with the incoming class for the first time. Not long ago, she continues, “We opened the doors to the parents, and they are now part of the sessions we have with student where we talk about what we do, how we do it and what our philosophy is. And I’ve found it very helpful.”


At that time, though, she tells the parents, “I will work with you. You can call me. We can have a conversation together. But I’m not going to take instruction from you. You’re the specialist in your child’s life. I’m the specialist in higher education at Notre Dame.”


She adds, “We’re both concerned with their well-being,” but the student is “a responsible adult who’s part of this also, who’s the main part of this. And I want the parents to know they are in good hands.”


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.”


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.”


Kerry Temple is editor of this magazine.