When the Academic Advising Resource Center chose Tracy Cassalia for its Advising Excellence Award, they noted her work with challenging advising cases — students who struggle with choosing a major or career direction and, as a result, aren’t always excited about their coursework.

“She is tough herself, yet kind and caring,” the committee wrote when announcing Cassalia as this year’s recipient. “She has helped inspire so many students to new pursuits across schools and programs.”

Cassalia said she loves the challenge of working with students who come to her office with a blank slate.

“We can explore a whole array of opportunities,” she said. “I get them to ask, ‘What else is out there for me? What do I like? If I could envision my career, where would I see myself?’”

Then she helps them reverse engineer a path forward, looking for classes and skill building that serve an end goal.

Sometimes that means letting go of preconceived notions and expectations, and narrow visions of success. Cassalia said some students come in believing business, law, and medicine are the only ways to find fulfilling careers. When they struggle in foundational courses, they’re left feeling directionless. She helps them realize their talents and interests in other areas, and opens up a full spectrum of majors, minors, and potential career paths.

“I think it’s exciting when they find what they’re passionate about and realize they can create a whole career around what they’re interested in,” she said.

But advising isn’t just about the tough cases. Some students come in with long-range plans and Cassalia makes sure they know the necessary steps to get there.

For others, she stresses out-of-the-classroom opportunities — like study abroad, Greek life, sport clubs, and community engagement — as critical to the full college experience.

“Yes, they’re here academically, but there’s this whole other piece of their development that’s going to come from co-curricular opportunities, whether it’s a Roadmap program, or a living-learning community, or student organizations, or research,” she said. “It’s getting them to think that college is not just about school work. It’s all part of one big experience.”