• By: Grace Giesbrecht

In your corner: Academic Advisor Melanie Hotte on helping students handle university

Melanie Hotte enjoys helping people understand complicated systems—particularly, the often-difficult and rarely clear-cut world of university. 

Hotte is an academic advisor with St. Paul’s University, a small bilingual university in Ottawa. As the first face student see when looking for help, she finds solutions to problems and works to ensure that every student has equal access to resources and equal opportunity to succeed—a position that has become even more necessary during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“My main responsibility is to be there for students.” Hotte explains. “I am often the first point of contact for students when they have questions.” 

And questions abound. University is infamously tricky to navigate beyond the difficulty of the programs themselves. “It’s everything from the first questions that [students] have when they start their studies to helping them with graduation and advice on further studies,” she says. She also handles queries about scholarships, aid, course scheduling, and deferrals should a student require one. “All those options, I’m here to explain them.”

Some students, often those who’s parents have graduated university, have help from home or previous experience with such systems. They know which pathways are available to them, and they know what assistance they can get. Many others do not. “My job is to make sure everyone has access to the information [and] that everyone has equal chances of succeeding.” Hotte says, no matter their background or previous knowledge of the university system.

A social worker by trade, Hotte moved into advising at the postsecondary level several years ago at a Francophone school in Vancouver, B.C. She recognizes a theme between the two fields. Both are about helping people; both are about seeking equality and equal access to resources for everyone. 

Furthermore, the skills she used as a social worker have come in handy in her advising positions. “I am a very good listener,” she explains. “Students can feel welcome and comfortable talking to me, and that’s key to helping them.”

Listening and understanding the nuance of a student’s situation has always been important and, with the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic, has risen wildly in prominence. COVID-19 had a major impact on students at every school in many ways and St. Paul’s University is no exception. 

“In COVID, I saw the impact on my students,” Hotte says. “Some are single parents trying to study their own courses online while helping their kids with their studies….Some students are falling behind, losing scholarships, or losing reliable employment.” 

Just as prevalent are students who already work in healthcare or community services and are going to school concurrently. “These students had to take on more hours to answer the demands of COVID, and fell behind on school work in the process,” Hotte explains. Helping such students organize their studies around serving as a frontline worker has become a large part of her job in recent months.

Like her students, Hotte’s working situation has changed during the course of the pandemic. Now mostly virtual, she notes that a large element missing from her job is the spontaneous aspect. Though she can still provide the same technical advice through a computer screen, it is harder to provide the same listening ear or answer a quick question from a student passing by.

Even virtually, her favourite parts of her job remain so, and are sure to return in full force post-pandemic. 

“I really love… being at the end of an intervention or meeting with a student when the student is happy about their circumstance,” she says. “Sometimes, students will show up in my office and say ‘there’s no course to choose from. There’s no solution to my problem.’ Finding a solution for them is really rewarding. I feel like I’m in their corner, helping them.”


Photo: Via ustpaul.ca