by Rob Taylor Jr.
Courier Staff Writer
It’s not like Kalani Palmer, Ph.D., ever expected to become an academic advisor in higher education, but she always knew that she enjoyed helping others.
Back in high school, at Schenley, she started a mentoring/tutoring program, which received formal training from Americorps on how to provide literacy support. Palmer’s group then traveled to Miller Elementary School in the Hill District to tutor students after school.
Even before the Schenley days, Palmer’s mother and grandmother got her involved in service-oriented programs like Urban Youth Action, which gave Palmer and her friends a budget to create community programming. “A friend and I created a budget, rented a bus, reserved spaced at the University of Pittsburgh, received donations, purchased snacks, made flyers and brought families from St. Clair Village, our home community, out to watch a movie,” Palmer recalled to the New Pittsburgh Courier in an exclusive interview, Jan. 28. “It seems so small, but I was only in middle school. I knew from then that I wanted to be of service and help others.”
Today, she is an academic advisor and associate professor in Human Development and Family Science and Program Coordinator for Family and Consumer Sciences Education at Indiana University of Pennsylvania.
And after more than 300 students whom she’s advised since becoming a faculty member in 2014, Palmer recently received a faculty award for excellence in advising from the National Academic Advising Association (NACADA), Region 2.
The awards were announced in mid-January. Region 2, which encompasses Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, New Jersey, Virginia and Washington, D.C., awarded 15 individuals total for “Excellence in Advising” this year, which included faculty members from universities such as Old Dominion, Temple, Virginia, Delaware and Maryland-College Park.
It’s a significant award to receive for any faculty member in the academic advising profession. A Courier data analysis found that Palmer was the first faculty advisor from Western Pennsylvania to receive the “Excellence in Advising” award from NACADA since 2013, when Christopher Kirchhof won the award as an advisor at the University of Pittsburgh.
Palmer, in a statement, called advising “the most meaningful part of my job. I tell my husband I have 100 children. I feel like their school mom. Some times I am just supportive and listen. Sometimes I have to be firm and push them. My goal is by the time the student is a senior, I’m listening to their plan for their future and offering the advice and support that they need.”
In 2019, Palmer was a member of the university’s Center for Teaching Excellence Advising Workgroup. The group conducted research on best practices in advising, created an updated faculty advising handbook, held a workshop on advising for existing faculty, and an orientation for new faculty about advising.
Palmer has served as chair of the Peer Mentoring Committee in the school’s Department of Human Development, and has been a peer mentoring coordinator. Incoming freshmen, students who have changed their major, and transfer students are matched up with juniors and seniors. When Palmer was chair, she provided training to the mentors, made the mentee-mentor matches, organized events, and collected data on how the program was faring.
As an associate professor, Palmer’s research focus centers around marginalized groups and parent involvement in supporting academic achievement. Palmer, according to her IUP bio, is an applied researcher and evaluator with experience in clinical settings and urban school districts, as well as nonprofit youth-and family-serving organizations.
When it comes to being an advisor, not everyone is cut out for it, especially in a professional role in an academic setting. By the time a person gets to college, they are most-likely legal adults, who can make their own decisions. Oftentimes, however, college is a world in itself, rooted in balancing time, finances, friendships, academics and future professional endeavors. Lots of college students find themselves searching for help.
That’s where the academic advisors come in.
Kalani Palmer, Ph.D.
Dalton State College, in Georgia, convened an extensive survey within its system, published in 2011, that revealed the six characteristics of good advisors: Student-oriented (an interest in and concern for students as individuals); Knowledgeable about the requirements and policies of the college/university; Skilled in counseling and interpersonal relationships (ability to listen, take directive and non-directive, demonstrate patience and tolerance); Available to students; Careful about details such as record-keeping, follow-through and follow-up, and; Positive about and committed to advisement.
Palmer told the Courier her best attributes to help her perform as an advisor are her flexibility, respect for all and willingness to learn. “I adjust my advising for each student and situation,” she said. “I know that a one-size-fits-all approach will not work for different people or even the same people at different moments. I am also respectful of the students I work with…by listening to them, being responsive and valuing their perspective.”
Palmer said a respectful environment helps students “feel safe” and thus, “strong relationships can form.”
And when it comes to a willingness to learn, “I reflect on my own practice and learn from mistakes. No one is perfect or knows everything.”
As previously mentioned, Palmer’s desire to be of service goes back to her childhood. Growing up in St. Clair Village, she told the Courier how her late grandmother, Elaine Abdullah, was the first welfare recipient to ever serve on the state Board of Public Welfare in Pennsylvania, and later became the vice president of the study commission that drafted Pittsburgh’s home rule charter.
“She was outspoken and active in her community,” Palmer told the Courier. “I observed firsthand everyday until she became ill what it meant to be of service.”
Abdullah passed away in 1990.
After Palmer graduated as a Schenley Spartan in 1998, she earned a Bachelor of Arts in Art/Art Education from Carlow College (now Carlow University), a Master of Science in Applied Developmental Psychology from the University of Pittsburgh, and a Doctor of Philosophy in Applied Developmental Psychology, also from Pitt.
Palmer said she never thought about pursuing a doctorate degree, until she met Eva Shivers, J.D., Ph.D. Shivers was the advisor assigned to Palmer while Palmer was in grad school. Palmer loved research (collecting and analyzing data and predicting outcomes), and it was Dr. Shivers who urged her to get a Ph.D. “I didn’t really know what a Ph.D. was or why anyone would want to get one,” Palmer told the Courier exclusively. “That may sound funny, but it wasn’t a part of my world growing up.”
Eventually, Palmer took her advisor up on the idea, and Shivers arranged an interview for Palmer with a committee at Pitt that awarded the K. Leroy Irvis fellowship to incoming doctoral students.
The late K. Leroy Irvis, a 1954 Pitt law school graduate, was a member of the Pa. State House, representing Pittsburgh, for 30 years. The highly competitive fellowships that bear his name are designed to recruit underrepresented minority graduate students to Pitt’s doctorate programs.
“I was offered the K. Leroy Irvis fellowship and from there, my life was changed forever,” Palmer said. “Every time I think about how that one person, just her recognizing my interest and skill, and encouraging me, made such a huge impact on my life, it makes me cry.”
Palmer will be formally recognized for her “Excellence in Advising” award from NACADA during a virtual conference in March. But in the present, and long after she’s bestowed with the award, she’ll continue to do all she can to make an impact on the lives of others.
“I ultimately decided to become a faculty member because I wanted to pursue research that could better my community,” Palmer told the Courier. “Once I became a faculty member, I realized that just by being visible and present, I was making a difference in the community through my impact on the lives of students. I still value the research, but working with students and supporting junior faculty is by far the most rewarding part of my job.”