Dawn Geronimo Terkla Interview

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Dawn Geronimo Terkla is the Associate Provost of Institutional Research, Assessment, and Evaluation at Tufts University.
Interview by Dave Fiore
eAIR: Please describe your role as an academic advisor.
I am assigned to a group of students from the School of Arts and Sciences. I am their pre-major academic advisor, which means that I advise freshmen and sophomores before they declare their majors. My role is quite varied. I help students become oriented to the institution; I guide them in terms of course selection; I provide counsel with regard to foundation and distribution requirements; I talk with them about the importance of possibly studying abroad. If students are having issues with particular matters, I try to help them troubleshoot or point them in the direction of someone at the university who may be able to help them.
I take a group of freshmen every other year, and I keep that group of students for two years. The size of the group ranges from 8 to 16. From time to time, students will keep me as a second advisor, so they will come back and see me during their junior and senior years. Even some of the students for whom I am not officially their academic advisor will still come back to see me and have conversations.
eAIR: How does your role as an academic advisor fit with and inform your role in IR?
I have been advising since 1988. It allows me to keep my thumb on the pulse of the undergraduate student body in a way that I am not able to do by just looking at statistics or survey data. Having my own little group of students to hear things from is good. It puts a face on the surveys and the data. I keep volunteering because I love doing it.
My advising experience has also been very valuable because over the years I have sat on numerous student-life related committees.  When a retention task force was created, I was able to bring to the table experiences I had heard from some of my advisees, and it made some real differences in our policy work. For example, we learned that it was really difficult for first-generation and scholarship students to attend summer school because there was no financial aid available. That policy has been changed. It was really difficult for a lot of Pell Grant recipients to study abroad because it is expensive; there were no supplemental funds, and students cannot rely on work study when abroad. Our learning affected how we look at aid packages for students who study abroad. Real-life experiences influence new policies at the university.
When students lend their voices to the issues, it allows me to explore them more deeply.
I also learn about specific classes through my advising work. My office does studies of the academic advising function, but students talk about courses that are really good, ones that are not good, and issues they have with various campus services. Those things do not always show up on surveys, or if they do, they may simply reflect dissatisfaction. When students lend their voices to the issues, it allows me to explore them more deeply.
eAIR: What would you like individuals in academic advising to know about IR?
There is some very good information available through IR that is helpful to academic advisors. For example, data collected on the graduating senior survey can be useful when students are considering future majors, especially if they ask, “Will I be able to get a job with this major?” or “Will I be able to go to graduate school?” Academic advisors can use IR data to share updates about the plans of recent graduates from specific majors.
The biggest problem we have in IR right now is making the data look accessible to people so that they will use it. People are no longer reading reports. Sending out reports in electronic formats, such as PDFs, does not necessarily help; it just gives them another report in a different medium. We are working really hard to try to figure out how we present data and provide it in a way that people will remember that they have it and that they will use it. People are dealing with so much information overload that it is impossible for them to retain it all. 
Working with students makes you know why you come to work every day.
eAIR: In turn, what would you like individuals in IR to know about academic advising?
Academic advising is an incredibly positive experience. It is really important for institutional researchers to know about the constituents we work with on campus. Working with students makes you know why you come to work every day. It is really important for people to know who they are studying. Social science researchers should be in the field, exploring it. Part of our field work is getting to know students, faculty, and their issues. For me, academic advising is like doing actual applied field research. Given whatever opportunities exist on a particular campus, IR professionals should try to be involved with student populations.
eAIR: What do you value most about the opportunity to work with students?
It keeps me young…the students tell me all of the new terms so that I am not a fuddy-duddy. It makes me keep current with social networking technology as well.
eAIR: In light of your myriad roles at Tufts, what do you do to help alleviate stress?
I walk every morning. I take ballroom dance lessons with my husband through the adult education program at our local high school; we have been doing it for more than 10 years.
eAIR: Do you have other comments, reflections, or insights?
I think institutional research is fabulous. I would not have been doing it for the last 27 years if I did not feel that way. When people are creative, and you volunteer to do stuff, at least at my institution, you are allowed to do it. Even in the 1980s, when administrators did not typically advise students, I expressed that I would really like to be an advisor and somebody said “okay, fine, sure, we’ll let you try it.” When you volunteer for things, most times people do not tell you no.