It’s not often that someone goes to the trouble to frame Post-it notes. Last year I got a package in the mail from one of my recent advisees. She was an outstanding student with ambitious goals, and when she came to me for academic advising a few years ago, she was trying to pack quite a bit into her final few semesters. It seemed that every time I talked to her, she wanted to add more layers to her degree.
We went back to the drawing board more than once, but we finally figured out a strategy where she could graduate on time with the credits she wanted. One of our advising sessions got so complicated that I ended up listing seven hoops she needed to jump through to customize her degree. I scribbled the steps on two orange Post-it notes.
When she graduated, I gave her a card that someone had given me back when I finished college. The cartoon on the front showed a booth set up next to the graduation platform. A sign on the booth read, “Last chance to change your major.” She is now teaching English out west, and last year she found my notes, framed them, and sent them to me with a new yellow Post-it square which read, “To the best academic adviser — Thank you for believing in me.” I keep it in my office to remind me that advising matters.
But I have to respectfully decline the “Best Academic Adviser” title. That belongs to the man who taught so many of us how to do it — Harold Alexander, who died last week at age 68. When I first joined the Harding faculty in 2003, I was assigned to help advise undeclared majors. These students weren’t quite sure what direction they wanted to take in college, and now some of them had been placed in the hands of someone who had no idea what to tell them. I was afraid it was a recipe for disaster.
Thankfully, Harold showed me what to do. He was over halfway through a 20-year career with the Academic Advising Center and was a master at his job. Harold knew just exactly how to reassure nervous freshmen, especially those who had not yet declared a major. He helped them get started at the university and figure out a schedule. He listened intently and gave gentle, sensible guidance. I was impressed at how much he wanted students to succeed, and it was obvious that he cared. A lot.
He taught me that advising takes time and patience, and that the best sessions often go far beyond talking about classes and credits. He showed me with his relaxed manner and warm smile how to put people at ease. He helped mentor this future mentor. Whenever I am able to do the right thing as an adviser, it’s because he did the right thing for much longer.
It all came so naturally to Harold. Quiet leadership had been his talent from a young age, when he served as captain of his 1964 high school basketball team and led them to a record 42-0 season. At Harding he continued that success, receiving an award for Outstanding Athlete. After college he coached basketball and served as a high school counselor for over two decades.
When he came to Harding in 1991, Harold created the Academic Advising Center and years later helped develop the Early Alert system, where faculty can reach out early in the semester to students who may be having difficulty. His work has made a tremendous difference in the lives of so many. It has single-handedly improved retention at Harding, but even more than that, it has enabled the faculty to better live out our mission to serve students.
As a deacon and elder, home-Bible-study host and counselor, husband to Jenene for 47 years, father of three and grandfather of six, Harold Alexander practiced humble leadership all his life. He was talented with his hands and could fix almost anything, from a broken car or appliance to a derailed degree plan. The wise guidance he gave to his family, his students and his colleagues made us all better. But he was not someone who liked the spotlight. He didn’t seek attention as a flamboyant teacher or out-front leader. An undeclared hero to undeclared majors, he chose to make a quiet difference, one heart — and one schedule — at a time.