By Sarah Stone
Take a cursory glance at Alyssa Jennings’ resume, and you can quickly identify her as a jack of all trades when it comes to higher education.
Jennings’ higher education experience not only ranges in institution – from NC State, to Duke University, to William Peace University – it also covers a wide breadth of roles and offices. Before becoming an academic advisor for first year students at the Wilson College of Textiles, she dipped her toes in a little bit of everything, from tutoring student-athletes to multicultural affairs to student housing.
Look more closely, however, and you’ll see two clear throughlines in Jennings’ journey: the first year experience and working closely with students.
This passion for the first year experience began with Jennings’ own first year of college as an interior design student at Appalachian State University. Her decision to join a living-learning community played a big role in a special introduction to college life.
“It ended up being a fantastic experience,” Jennings, who also teaches T101 to first year students, says. “We took certain first year classes together. We would eat together once a week, so it was really just a positive experience for me.”
Jennings’ first job in higher education continued the first-year focus. She served as an admissions counselor at William Peace University for two years.
“It was such a good first job,” she says. “It exposed me to so many different areas in higher education, and that’s when I realized I was more interested in the academic affairs side of higher education.”
She’s even taught English 101 at NC State, which is usually taken by first year students. The allure of teaching English at the university level is actually what first led this once-interior-design student to a career in higher education.
“It was my love of English and reading and just analyzing literature and the media that we consume that drew me to higher education,” she says. “I had peers in undergrad who I would help study for tests, and they said to me on more than one occasion, ‘You’re really good at communicating this content in a way that sticks and makes sense to us.’ I kind of put two and two together and thought, ‘Maybe I could teach at the college level.’”
Jennings says her mentors advised her to try out higher education as a career field before she pursued a graduate program.
“That’s why I got a job at William Peace University as an admissions counselor,” she explains.
After completing master’s programs in both English and higher education administration at NC State, Jennings decided she wanted to work with students directly. She specifically identified an interest in helping first year students, who she says are especially rewarding to work with.
“Being part of that discovery process of who they are and what they want for themselves is so rewarding, since up to this point everything’s been fairly laid out in a neat and cohesive way. And, yes, when you go to college, there’s some structure of course, but you’re legally an adult at this point, and this is the time where society basically says, ‘Figure it out,’” Jennings says. “Just seeing them go from this period of anxiety and being like, ‘Ah! I don’t know what I’m doing! Help!’ to, ‘I took this one class or spoke to this one instructor or joined this one student organization and it clicked’ feels amazing.”
She values her zig-zagging path to academic advisor because she believes it transformed her into a better resource for students in her current role.
“It has really enabled me to better understand the resources that students need to make use of as they transition from high school to college and explain things to them in a way that they can understand,” she says. “When they first arrive, they hear the title of all these different functional areas, but that really doesn’t mean anything to them. They don’t know who to contact. They don’t know the chain of command.”
Each day, she makes it a priority to ensure new students feel empowered in their educational journey and that they become comfortable advocating for themselves.
“In literally every email where I refer students to resources, I make sure to say, ‘If you have trouble connecting with them, let me know,’” she says. “Because sometimes people are busy and I’m really happy to just kind of knock on their door, figuratively speaking, and say, ‘Hey, just wanted to follow up about this student that reached out.’”
While the students at Wilson College study a diverse set of disciplines, Jennings says they can all be defined by their common ambition and drive. That quality and the college’s close-knit community make her feel as though “the stars aligned” to give her this opportunity.