When journalism professor Mike Spear learned that he had won this year’s Advising Excellence Award from the Academic Advising Resource Center (AARC), he says he was shocked. “I don’t know how you choose; there are so many people who are doing a great job of advising students,” he says.
But what seems to come naturally to Spear is extraordinary in the eyes of his advising colleagues. “Mike has been a significant contributor to the advising program, most often working quietly and behind the scenes for students,” says Libby Gruner, director of the AARC. “Mike’s care for his students is legendary in our office; he drops by to make sure we have followed through on his concerns, calls and emails to follow up, and generally makes sure that we are doing our jobs so that he can do his. We are all made better by his commitment to his students.”
For Spear, even after 33 years of teaching and advising at Richmond, his thoughts are always on his students. “From the beginning, I’ve been impressed with how motivated Richmond’s students are,” he says. “My goal is to find the best ways to help students. Any way that I can help them, I’m willing to do it.”
He tries to steer students down a path that will make them happy, rather than one that simply appears profitable. “Large numbers of students choose business to get a job. If you choose it because you love it, that’s great, but if you choose it because it’s safe, you’ll be miserable,” Spear says.
“If a student doesn’t know what they want to do, I recommend they choose an interdisciplinary major, take classes across the spectrum, and get the best professor in each subject they are studying,” he says. “You may find out what you’re really passionate about, but at the very least, by exposing yourself to wonderful teachers, you’ll get something out of it.”
Along with trying to guide his students academically, Spear looks out for their personal well-being. “I wish we had some sort of decompression chamber for students,” he says, “because they are filled with anxiety.” Most of them have been pushed by their parents, or are self-motivated to cover all the bases needed to get into college, but they feel like they have to keep up that level of activity once they arrive. “I tell them, ‘you’re here now, you don’t have to do all those things,’ but it’s hard for them to stop.”
While his dedication to his students may appear exhausting, Spear says it fuels him. “What do I get from my students? I get energy! It’s fun to work with them and help them figure out what they want to do,” he says. “I like to see that they’ve learned something, either in the classroom from me, or from our advising conversations.”
No matter what path they choose, Spear tries to guide students so they don’t have any regrets. “I don’t want them to be 25 or 30 and wish they had done something different,” he says. “These four years, they have the benefit of the ideas of a bunch of smart people. At no other time in their life will they have that.”