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January 9, 2014

Econ lecturers form a winning advising team

“There are 500 students who come to us when they don’t know what to do,” says Wolfe.   “We try to get to know as many of them as we can,” says Wallace.

Advisers Jane Wallace, standing, and Kathryn Wolfe talk to junior economics major Margaret Mallonée.

For economics department lecturers Jane Wallace and Kathryn Wolfe, being advisers to more than 500 economics majors can feel like being the students’ parents at some of the toughest moments in life — and some of the best.

“There are 500 students who come to us when they don’t know what to do,” says Wolfe.

“We try to get to know as many of them as we can,” says Wallace.

Their job is to connect their charges with the right Pitt opportunities, and the best graduate schools and career paths after Pitt.

“I never thought I’d have a job like this, an interpersonal connection job,” Wolfe says.

The two veteran advisers in the Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences must be doing a good job as surrogate parents: They recently won the 2014 Ampco-Pittsburgh Prize for Excellence in Advising.

The $4,000 prize recognizes their work with the department’s 500+ majors across the past decade. The pair have received high marks from their own students, rating 4.7 out of 5 on the department’s internal survey, and ranking 2nd for satisfaction among economics students at 15 universities surveyed as part of the Student Experience at the Research University, a nationwide project.

Economics chair Jean-Francois Richard and associate chair for undergraduate studies Shirley Cassing, in nominating both advisers for the award, wrote that, “They treat our students with much personal attention, utmost respect, considerable patience and compassion in dealing with tough situations … All in all, they are exceptionally dedicated, competent and truly outstanding advisers.”

Wallace began teaching at Pitt in 2001 and has been advising since the beginning; Wolfe began teaching in 2002 and started advising students the next year. At the very least, each student must come to them for advice on class scheduling.

“The track is not very clear in economics,” says Wallace. After graduating, their advisees may teach high school, seek a government position, become a fashion merchandise planner or work as a data analyst for the CIA.

“We help them with their exploring,” says Wolfe, “connecting them to ways to get experience and explore their field. Pitt has so much to offer that one of our jobs is to know all the things that Pitt has out there. There are all these other things they can do to expand their degrees and explore their horizons,” such as trying out for internships, connecting with experienced alumni, applying for scholarships or other opportunities.

Of course, some students need more traditional help, including hints about how to develop core skills such as discipline. Sometimes, she says, helping certain students is simply a matter of telling them: “Let me make this clear — the reason you’re not doing well is: I hear you are not going to class.”

She credits the quality of the department’s faculty for easing the pair’s advising tasks: “We never get the students who come in to complain, ‘Why do I have to do this?’”


The two advisers pride themselves on being available every day to students, even though they teach multiple classes. Wallace teaches introductory courses in health economics and micro-economics, while Wolfe teaches game theory, public policy economics, economics in the media and a new course this spring on the digital economy. They will team teach for the first time this semester as well, tackling Intro to Econ for econ majors. They also supervise more than a dozen internships each.

Recalls Wolfe: “We were students many years ago. We remember —”

“— what it’s like when your adviser is only available two hours a week,” Wallace finishes. “The best thing about our partnership … we cooperate really well and we play on each other’s strengths. We tend to share projects rather than divide them.”

“It’s really important to do both teaching and advising,” says Wolfe. “We see what the students are going through each semester. It helps us keep our context and compassion.

“And advising helps us to teach. We’re much more aware of the over-arching goal of the whole educational experience: What do we want them to leave the University with? It’s not just, ‘Did I teach them this?’”


The pair gather continual data on students who need extra help and students who are excelling, since both categories benefit from extra attention. Sometimes the pair needs to deal with students’ personal problems as well. Reports Wallace: “We have had some students where we call their parents —”

“— or walk them to the counseling center,” Wolfe adds. “It’s not always easy for students to take the initiative to seek that help or they don’t know what is available.”

For more general advising, such as econ major events or scholarship announcements, the pair maintains a Facebook page and of course answers student emails: 11,500 a year by last count. LinkedIn helps them gather econ alumni success stories, giving current students visible paths toward specific careers.

“We like the students, that’s the crux of it,” says Wallace. “And we like watching them succeed.”

“The same way that you’re proud of what your kids accomplish,” Wolfe says. “And it’s not like we think we make them succeed. I think the students appreciate having someone so invested in their outcomes.”

They’ve watched as Pitt students have become more academically active and adventurous over the past decade, getting more involved in research projects in the department. But they don’t see the need for advising services shrinking any time soon.

“It’s a very personal service, so it can’t really change that much,” says Wallace.

“Every student who walks into the University will need advice,” says Wolfe. “It’s not like the University is going to give up advising … or we’ll be replaced by robots!”

—Marty Levine

Filed under: Feature,Volume 46 Issue 9

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