Campus News

Ensuring a positive first experience for students

Ali Gerlach sits in front of Memorial Hall. (Photo by Dorothy Kozlowski/UGA)

Exploratory Center advisor Ali Gerlach helps guide students toward the future

As a double alum and proud Bulldog, Ali Gerlach works hard to make sure that incoming students have the same kind of great experience she had at the University of Georgia, even during a pandemic.

“I am a proud Double Dawg. I love the University of Georgia and I want students to love every minute they have here,” said Gerlach, lead intended journalism advisor at the Exploratory Center, where students with unspecified majors, intended-business and intended-journalism majors can seek advisement.

She’s taken extra care with this year’s crop of incoming students. “A lot of them missed out on proms and graduations, then on top of that, much of their experience of coming to college was going to be nontraditional. So it was especially heavy on my heart to make sure they had a positive first experience with the university,” said Gerlach, who helped plan and implement this year’s virtual orientation for the Exploratory Center, Grady College and Terry College.

Ali Gerlach in her office at Memorial Hall. (Photo by Dorothy Kozlowski/UGA)

Gerlach is a planner—she’s been that way since she was a child—so she fired up all of her powers of planning to make that positive experience happen. She created a project management system using the OneNote application to consolidate advising materials for the Exploratory Center advisors as well as all Terry College of Business and Grady School of Journalism and Mass Communication advisors so they could easily access information for students. To guide her colleagues through the new system, she reactivated her skills as a former high school teacher and an Apple tech phone support specialist. (Her colleagues were much nicer to work with than the callers to the Apple tech line, she reported.)

“Advising as a whole has had to shift,” said Gerlach. “Usually we’re meeting students in our offices and building those connections in a personal environment. Doing everything remotely kind of pushed all of us out of our comfort zones, but some really great things came from it.”

Ali Gerlach in her office at Memorial Hall. (Photo by Dorothy Kozlowski/UGA)

One surprise side effect was that students often felt more comfortable during their virtual advising appointments. “Some of the conversations that I had this summer were some of the most in-depth conversations I’ve ever had during an orientation,” she said.

And judging from the feedback she’s gotten from students, orientation was a success, despite … everything. “While we might not stick to this in the future, there are a lot of really good lessons learned about how we can still meet students where they are, even if it is remote.” She said they’ll probably keep the OneNote system as well as the ability for students to have virtual appointments.

Gerlach may have worked harder this year, but the goal was the same—making students feel welcome. “My entire team—everyone that I worked with this the summer, the Exploratory Center advisors, the Grady College advisors, the Terry college advisors—all of us had a heart for making sure these students had a good experience,” said Gerlach.  “That’s not special to a pandemic.”