By

Dominique Perkins

The National Academic Advising Association (NACADA) has awarded Serena Christianson for her outstanding accomplishments as an academic success advising coordinator in Arizona State University’s School of Life Sciences. 

Christianson is the fifth adviser from ASU to win this award from NACADA, which aims to “recognize outstanding advising throughout higher education” and applaud advisers for their efforts.

Christianson brings a wealth of experience to her role. In addition to her undergraduate studies in business administration and communication, she has an MBA with an emphasis in leadership and just graduated from Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College at ASU with a doctorate of education in leadership and innovation. For her dissertation, she reconfigured a career development course strategy to fit the unique needs of an online science degree program. 

Before coming to ASU, she was a program coordinator and assistant professor of business at Williston State College, North Dakota. 

“I left my teaching job because I wanted to gain further real-world experience to enhance my teaching ability, which led me to roles involving marketing, business development and entrepreneurship,” she said. 

Love of teaching and higher education prompted her to make a change, and she joined the School of Life Sciences advising team in 2017. 

“I am very fortunate to work in an environment where I’ve been trusted to expand our career and internship programming with very few barriers,” she said. “I think that speaks to the nature of science — being curious, experimenting and learning from past attempts, and continuing to move forward.” 

Jennifer Gibbs, assistant director of undergraduate advising for the school, praised Christianson's work.

“Serena Christianson is a fantastic academic adviser, instructor and colleague,” Gibbs said. “She consistently goes above and beyond for her advisees and is committed to developing our students as successful professionals in their field and as people.”

NACADA has over 12,000 members that represent higher education institutions across the world. Its annual Global Award Program awardees are nominated by their colleagues, and Christianson said that being able to read through the letters and recommendations of her students and peers has been a validating and humbling experience. 

“This award is a great recognition of what (the school) has done to expand options for our students and how the culture has shifted and is still shifting as a whole,” she said. 

“I will never forget in my interview, when Scot (Schoenborn, associate director of academic services) asked me if I thought that science students could only go to medical school or work in a lab with a science degree, and immediately I laughed and said ‘No! I’m not a scientist, but you cannot tell me those are the only two options,’ and he said, ‘Great, because we’re looking for someone to shatter that image.’

“My goal from day one has been to break that perception by being a change agent, and it hasn’t been a linear, smooth process,” she said. 

Among the school's advisers, Christianson became known as one who could handle even the most difficult student cases. 

“I am unafraid to have those hard conversations relating to finding the right major and career pathways because I truly believe there is a right fit for everyone and it’s our job as advisers to be able to have those conversations with students, a balance of tough love and motivation and inspiration,” she said. 

“I really see our role as one to anticipate the questions, spark inspiration, provide suggestions and being a sounding board for ideas along the way.”

Christianson has worked with both online and on-campus students, and she shared that she is constantly proud of the growth and hard work she witnesses in her student’s journeys. 

“I joke that our students are bleeding hearts, but they really are — no matter if it’s saving the environment, plants, animals or humans, our students have such big hearts and really want to make the world a better place,” she said. “From internships involving neuroscience therapy at a boxing club to working with top researchers at Harvard Medical School, I am so amazed at how our students are so committed to improving our world.” 

When asked what advice she would give to students to guide their academic journey, Christianson recommended adhering to the definition of success established by poet Maya Angelou: “Success is liking yourself, liking what you do and liking how you do it.”

“You don’t have to be passionate about it,” Christianson clarified, “because I realize that puts a lot of unnecessary pressure on you. I suggest pursuing activities that you enjoy but are also things you are good at, and if you don’t know what that means — keep exploring, keep trying, keep playing.

“In the end, you are the one who has this degree and this experience, so it’s up to you to determine what this experience entails, and there are a lot of avenues to explore, so why not challenge yourself and enjoy the ride while you’re at it?”

One way students can do that is to ask for help, leveraging their network of fellow students, teachers, friends and — of course — advisers. 

Written with assistance from ASU School of Life Sciences communications aide Hayden Cunningham.