Dr. Kalani Palmer won the 2021 National Excellence in Advising Award from the National Academic Advising Association (NACADA) for her advising work done at IUP.

An associate professor has won an advising award for her work at IUP.

Dr. Kalani Palmer, human development and family science, as well as program coordinator for family and consumer sciences education, recently won the 2021 National Excellence in Advising award from the National Academic Advising Association (NACADA).

Palmer is part of an advising group at IUP through the Center for Teaching Excellence (CTE). For the past two years, she directed a study on how parent and adviser involvement affects student development. At the 2020 conference, she submitted and presented her research.

She was still looking for ways to be involved and do more, so she applied for the award. In addition to materials such as her advising philosophy, Dr. Jennifer Salaway submitted her nominating letter, and two former advisees of hers, Serena Howser and Bryant Pindar, wrote supporting letters.

Palmer was not always passionate in developmental psychology. In fact, her first degree was a bachelor’s in art education. Her son changed everything.

“I had my first child when I was an undergrad student, and he had some speech delays and difficulties with speech,” Palmer said. “That required speech therapy appointments that were not after school hours, and so it wasn't reasonable for me to be in a classroom from eight to three.

“I made adjustments professionally because of that, and because I was researching a lot to help support him, I became more interested in developmental psychology.”

Her son, Marcos Zegarra, is currently a junior at IUP majoring in physics. He was the student speaker at the groundbreaking ceremony for John J. and Char Kopchick Hall, the new science building, Sept. 23.

“Growing up with me and my mom wasn’t easy,” Zegarra said. “At one point in our lives, it was just the two of us living together. She would always push me to be better in school, and my mother always believed in me, even at times when I didn’t believe in myself.

“It is probably part of the reason why she won this award. I can hear her all of the time on Zoom communicating with her students and guiding them to the right path. I am very proud of my mother for winning this award, and she deserves it.”

For Palmer, the most rewarding part of advising is watching her students excel and become successful.

“I really enjoy watching students graduate; that is the best feeling,” she said. “I would say the second-best feeling is watching them professionally in their job because they'll come back or they'll email me or they’ll connect on Facebook or LinkedIn, and so I get to see all the things that they're doing; when they have their first baby, getting married, so it's exciting to see them finish.

“I would say the third thing that is most exciting is just building that relationship and getting to know them.”

For Palmer, starting out as an adviser had its obstacles.

“The hardest part was figuring out all of the curriculum changes,” Palmer said. “They might say one thing in the catalog, but really, you could do this other thing. Just as an adviser early on trying to figure out what are all the Plan B’s and C's and all the additional options was a big learning curve, figuring out all the ins and outs of how the university works.”

Fortunately, Palmer had strong support from other faculty members.

“Dr. Sarah Brown went over like ‘here's where you can find everything. Here's where you go when you have this question.’ Another person that was really supportive was our department chair Dr. Fredalene Bowers.”

“How they value students was made clear up front,” Palmer said. “We want to make sure we have that connection with them. And so that was like the baseline expectation. The faculty were supportive and kind and encouraging through the whole process.”

Aside from logistics, the emotional aspect of advising can sometimes be difficult.

“I think as an adviser, always trying to figure out when a situation requires more support and when a situation requires you to pull back a little bit is challenging,” Palmer said. “Every student is different, and you never know what's going on in their life at that moment. Maybe a trauma just occurred, and you don't know, but you can tell they're a little off, and they need more handholding than you would normally do.”

Palmer was also a human capital manager at Pittsburgh public schools, and she hired a third of all the district staff, including art teachers, the coaches, English as a second language teachers, facility operations workers, music teachers, school nurses, the school psychologist and Spanish teachers. She believes this experience gave her an advantage in advising.

“If you're a faculty member that hasn't worked in the field, it might be a little harder to think about what is needed outside of that,” Palmer said. “I think it does help me that I had a lot of jobs in the regular world before becoming a faculty member because I know what it looks like to apply and what employers are looking for; it's a very different job process when you're looking for a regular job and for faculty.”

At one point, she was in charge of 68 advisees. That does not include all her students, whom she guides from a mentoring role.

“If I do teaching and advising the way that I want to do it, it is time-intensive,” she said. “It means being available outside of office hours. It means putting more time into feedback on assignments. It means having a longer advising meeting or having more than one advising meeting in a semester.

“I think students don't want to be told what to do. They just want to be given enough information to make the best decision for them.”

Her passion for helping her students and advisees can be difficult to balance with her other responsibilities such as research and service commitments.

She recently just finished a project called Pathways to Accessible Credit-Bearing Training (PACT). She also received a federal grant for the Child Care Access Means Parents in School (CCAMPIS) program, where the campus helps students pay for childcare. She, and others in the department, provide mentoring and coaching to help them progress in school and juggle being both a parent and a student.

Palmer also worked on creating two certificates for people who are interested in working in early childhood but aren't ready yet to get a degree and is working on approval for students to receive Pell Grants.

Currently, she is helping to write a final report on those projects and is looking to reapply to the human development and family science department.

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