Jamie Caruso, the academic counselor for the BGS degree program at the UConn-Waterbury campus, began her career as an academic advisor at the Hugh Downs School of Human Communication at Arizona State University. She began working there in 1998, immediately after earning a Bachelor's degree in Sociology.
As soon as Caruso started advising students at Arizona State University, she knew she had discovered her passion. "I loved being able to guide students along and help them make the most of their academic careers," she said. “Arizona State was a big school, and I liked being able to help students navigate through the system and make that big university feel like a small community.”
While working as an advisor, Caruso returned to school and earned a M.Ed. in Elementary Education, with Certification, at Northern Arizona University in 2005. So she fully understands the challenges faced by adult students, who need to balance the demands of their career, family, and education.
"There are so many other factors to consider when you're an adult student making the decision to go back to school," she explained. "I did it for my graduate degree. I was married with a little child, and I was working full-time. It was a huge commitment. I give students a lot of credit for going back and getting it done. It's difficult and a lot of work, but it's also very rewarding."
In 2006, Caruso was promoted to Director of Academic Affairs at the Hugh Downs School of Human Communication, but also maintained her role as an advisor. As Director of Academic Affairs, she was responsible for scheduling classes, acting as a liaison to other University departments, revising/editing the School's section of the general catalog, and overseeing the internship program and the online override system.
Originally from Stamford, she returned home in 2007 because she wanted her son to attend school in Connecticut "My son was just finishing kindergarten, so it was a good time for us to make the move," she said.
In February 2009, she joined the UConn School of Business MBA Office as a staff assistant, providing support to the students, faculty, and staff. But she longed to return to a position as an advisor. She began working as a BGS counselor at the Stamford campus the following year and transferred to the UConn-Waterbury campus in September 2011.
"I wanted to go back to the advising role, which is what I really love," she said. "I was very familiar with the BGS program, which is a great program, and I wanted to be back in an advising capacity, where you're working one-on-one, helping students figure out what they want to do, really helping someone out – that's what I like the most."
Caruso loves all aspects of advising BGS students but when asked about the most rewarding aspect of her job is, she doesn't hesitate.
"Always, always, graduation," she said with a smile. "That's the best part. It's such a huge jump from working at a job for 25 years and then going back to school. Or being a stay-at-home mom for 15 years and then deciding it's your turn to go back and finish your degree. It's such a huge accomplishment. To be able to help them get there is very, very rewarding."
Listening is the key that helps advisor Patricia Harkins discover what each individual student needs to accomplish his or her goals. "I try to probe a lot to find what they're interested in -- what works well for them, what helps with their career plans," said Harkins, Assistant Director of Bachelor of General Studies (BGS) and Non Degree Programs. When she counsels adult students at the Storrs campus, discussions can cover anything that might make the pathway to graduation easier, from big issues like weighing course load priorities to mundane "nuts and bolts" matters like library resources or avoiding campus parking hassles.
Harkins assures all of her students that they can succeed. Lack of confidence can be a concern for BGS candidates coming into the program wondering if they can handle the competing demands of work, family, and education. "They haven't been in school for a long time, they're not confident of their abilities, they have no idea how to do library research, they've forgotten how to write a paper – the whole gamut of challenges you would expect an adult student might encounter," Harkins explained. She helps them work through these common worries practically, adding that she and her students stay closely in touch throughout the semester.
Harkins began her working career in banking, but a desire to teach persistently drew her away from the corporate world. "Probably the most crucial part of my background is the fact that I've been in school myself as a working adult almost nonstop for the last 15 or 16 years," she said, recalling the stress of working while pursuing UConn graduate degrees. The experience left her with a great deal of empathy for her BGS advisees. "I walked their walk for many, many years. So when they say they're struggling to get a paper written or they're tired and they don't want to go to class or it seems like it's going to take them forever to finish, I know exactly what they mean -- I used to think, 'I am never going to finish.'"
After doing administrative work for UConn's School of Business and Center for Continuing Studies, Harkins completed her studies in Adult Learning by working on a serendipitous project -- a BGS Transitions Course developed to facilitate a return to college by adult students. "The whole purpose of my dissertation was to help students to return to college. I taught that course, I did my research on that course, and that's also a really rewarding part of my job."
Apart from Harkins' work in the BGS program, she also counsels a select number of younger "traditional age" students who are attempting to resume their studies after dismissal from the University for academic reasons. Her charges are especially determined to succeed.
"In order for them to get back into the University, they have to come back as a non-degree student. That's their only choice," Harkins said. "I find that because they have done so poorly for so many semesters, they are really beaten down. They don't see a lot of hope, their GPA has really taken a hit, they're not sure what they should do, what to do, they don't know who to talk to. They don't even know how to go about getting back into the good academic graces of the University." To reverse the decline, Harkins and her advisees meet weekly to analyze study habits, set immediate goals, and dissect academic history to discover and eliminate what was not working in the past. "We triage things out and we say, what can we work on to make you a more successful student?" Harkins said. The answers frequently involve better planning, enlightening students about available tutoring resources, and identifying study habit problems before they can accumulate to damage a student's work. For students who are used to living on the academic edge, even completing course work in a timely manner can make a huge difference.
Harkins tries to keep her students focused and on track and feeling successful, so that they can reapply to the University and get readmitted. “It takes a lot of courage to come back and try again, so I try to support them in doing that as best I can,” she said.
Mentoring is also a rewarding part of Harkin's life off-campus. She is involved with the Big Sister program and annually volunteers to help a Hartford high school senior navigate the process of getting into college.
Despite everything she has taken on, Harkins still finds time to enjoy fitness-related activities like running and yoga. "I'm a basketball nut," she confessed. "I played on the UConn women's team in 1975 and '76 ... that was a lot of fun!"
After eight years as an academic advisor at UConn Stamford, Jennifer Testin now serves as the Assistant Director for Academic Advising for UConn Stamford. During her time at UConn Jennifer has worked very closely with her peers from all areas of advising across all campuses and is excited to join the Bachelor of General Studies advising team. “BGS is an amazing opportunity for students to finish what they started. It allows great flexibility and promotes student success. I’m really looking forward to working with students via this program.”
Jennifer holds a BA in Psychology from SUNY College at Buffalo and an MS is College Student Personnel Administration from Canisius College in Buffalo, NY. After spending 6 years working in Student Activities at St. John’s University in NYC, Jennifer joined the UConn family in 2012.
Johnny Banks didn’t have a traditional route to college as most undergraduate students do. No one in his family had attended college before and finances were bad. Johnny didn’t believe college was an option at the time, so he decided to pursue another path. After graduating high school, Johnny enlisted in the United States Marine Corps Reserve and later picked up a full-time job to support his family. Eventually, Johnny did attend college and earned a BA in an Individualized Major from Mitchell College.
Johnny joined the UConn family in 2016 as part of the UConn Undergraduate Admissions Office at the Storrs campus. He worked as a Transfer Admission Officer and first became aware of the BGS degree program while in this role. “The BGS program provides so much flexibility for students to earn their degree. This program builds hope for those students that didn’t believe earning a degree was feasible”.
Johnny now serves as an academic advisor at the UConn Avery Point campus. He works closely with BGS, Non-Degree, and ACES students.