Carla Stewart is no stranger to accolades. In March 2018, Stewart was named “Outstanding Staff Member of the Year” at the CofC Excellence in Collegiate Education and Leadership Awards ceremony, and earlier this month, was recognized by the CofC First-Year Experience program for her outstanding service to first-year students.
Yet for Stewart, the Director of Student Support Services for the School of Professional Studies, these honors pale in comparison to what she considers her greatest reward: bearing witness to degree completion. Stewart joined the School of Professional Studies’ staff five-and-a-half years ago, shortly after moving to Charleston. She had held prior positions in advising and admissions at a community college, and knew that the role she was offered at the SPS would be a good fit. The SPS does not assign students to a faculty advisor, but rather employs a dedicated professional to personally engage with, and monitor students; guiding them through their academic journey. “We use a ‘high-touch’ advising model,” explains Stewart. “We help (students) successfully get though the program…we go over all aspects of a student’s life… home life, work life, school life, to make sure all of that is on point.”
Within this model, Stewart’s role can range from being a typical academic advisor, to being a listening ear, to being an advocate and cheerleader, to being a mother-hen. “I have many hats that I wear,” laughs Stewart, “it all depends on the student.” Stewart – and the SPS as a whole – take pride in offering such a personalized and student success-focused model, as Stewart notes, “(students) are not going to get this in any other department.” Despite her varied roles, and diverse student needs, Stewart does have a prescriptive plan that she follows each semester, as a component of the high-touch model. When a student first enrolls in the department, Stewart makes sure that they know how to access necessary tools, like MyCharleston and Zoom, and that they know how – and when – to complete essential tasks, such as taking placement tests, scheduling advising appointments, or registering for classes. “I help them to navigate the CofC,” explains Stewart.
Before SPS students – new or returning – may register for classes, they are required to meet with Stewart, to review their academic plan. This meeting is almost always face-to-face, with students being encouraged to discuss their goals, their timeline, whether the proposed academic plan is meeting their needs, and what alterations they think are necessary. Stewart works with each student individually, using “Degree Works” – a tool containing the student’s degree audit – and helps to plan each stage of the student’s program. While Stewart provides guidance in determining an appropriate academic plan, she insists on significant student input and commitment: “This is not Carla’s plan,” she affirms. “(Students) have to buy-in.” Once students meet with Stewart, and have been cleared to register for classes, they are not required to make an appointment again until the next semester. Though the majority only check-in with Stewart as required, some students need or want additional support – and Stewart maintains an open-door policy.
The average SPS student is 38 years of age, and has often faced multiple barriers in completing their education. As a result, explains Stewart, they may desire outside encouragement: “They weren’t successful the first time around, and they really want to make this a go. They want to have someone to hold their hand.” Stewart is happy to offer encouragement, guidance, and a shoulder to cry on – or serve as a sounding board: “I mostly listen, ask open-ended questions,” says Stewart, “I try not to give my opinion.” Noting that she does not hold counseling credentials, Stewart adds, “with years of experience, I can listen, and direct them that way. … I’m just that listening ear.” Stewart also directs students to outside resources, as appropriate – be it for personal or academic challenges – and ensures that student realize that she is invested in their success. “They know that if they are in the right, I’m going to advocate for them,” says Stewart, “I’m going to do anything I can to make things right for them.” It is perhaps this loyalty that has led Stewart to build lasting relationships with both current students and alumni. Whether a student checks-in regularly, or only once-per-semester, Stewart works to verify that each individual enrolled in the SPS is on-track academically. She regularly reviews student academic plans, and checks mid-term grades. If a student is struggling academically, Stewart reaches out to see what factors have led to the difficulty, referring them to outside resources if necessary.
Believing that one extra push can make a world of difference, Stewart emphasizes that she is there to listen and help – every step of the way – and encourages open and honest communication. “Regardless of what is going on in your life, if you are having any kind of issue, just communicate it,” she says. “Students can go into that shell, and don’t tell you what’s going on, and then they drop out.” Wanting to help students to resolve issues before they reach such a critical point, Stewart’s attitude is fiercely positive and supportive: “…communicate with someone who can guide (you), and help (you) to move forward. Don’t just quit! Let’s do what we can to help you get there!” Stewart characterizes her job overall as rewarding, but the greater reward is seeing a student’s academic journey to completion. “I see them when they are most vulnerable,” she says, “and then I see how the flower has blossomed…when they are in that final semester, all the sacrifices start to pay off.” Stewart regards fear as the greatest barrier to degree completion, and acknowledges that many prospective degree holders just need someone to get them past that hump, and help them to build the confidence they need in order to achieve their goals. Carla Stewart is honored to be that “someone,” and looks forward to helping prospective students to push past the fear, and take themselves to the next level.
For more information, visit our website, or contact the School of Professional Studies at 843.953.6684.