When a friend called Neha Rawal in 1996 and told her to apply for a job at UCI, she had no idea it would lead to a decades-long career in student affairs. After graduating from California State University, Fullerton with a B.A. in business administration and management, Rawal joined the Donald Bren School of Information and Computer Sciences (ICS), quickly becoming a full-time faculty assistant. But when the Student Affairs Office needed support, she stepped in and stepped up, later becoming an instructional support manager and then an academic counselor. In 2012, she was named associate director of student affairs — a title she held until 2021, when the office was split to support undergraduate and graduate students separately. Now, as director of undergraduate student affairs, Rawal says there’s never a dull moment, with her team supporting the diverse needs of roughly 3,500 students. “You come to work with your catcher’s mitt and don’t know what ball is going to come your way,” she says. “Just be ready to catch it!”
What first brought you to UCI in 1996?
I was basically a management major — business administration is what it was called — and I was double-majoring in French. But after my fifth year I was so burned out. I was two courses away from a double major, but I said “I’m cashing in my chips.” So, students, don’t do what I did! Just stick it out and get that second degree.
But a really good friend of mine was a grad student here in ICS at the time, and she was close friends with the department chair’s office assistant, who told her there was a job available. She was like, “Oh, I have a friend who’d be perfect for this!” So she called me up and asked for my resume. I got an interview and literally the next week, I had a job offer.
What made you then go into academic counseling?
It was a very unorthodox start, but I think it’s also indicative of how UCI works when it comes to growth opportunities. When I first started, I was a 50/50 appointment, so I was 50% an external affairs assistant and 50% a faculty assistant. After a couple months, I was asked to choose one or the other, and I chose faculty assistant.
About a year after being in that role, funding for one of my faculty ended at the same time as the new assistant chair was dealing with a huge departure from the Student Affairs Office. The director left for the Registrar’s Office and two counselors went on medical leave, so it was literally a 100% departure. They asked me to work in that office and watch the front desk, and I had no choice but to learn what was in the catalog to provide answers. There was one [part-time] peer advisor, so he and I basically advised all 600+ students until we could hire a new director. Then the new director asked if I would serve as the instructional support manager, because there was a strong need at the time.
So that’s how I fell into this role — by need. I feel like the fates were conspiring to get me here. I always wanted to be in education but I assumed that role would be as a teacher, because no one knows about higher ed or other administrative positions in education. The only thing people see is teaching, so I always assumed that I’d wind up going back and getting my teaching credential. So it was serendipity. I found my niche without realizing it existed!
How has it been navigating through the pandemic?
For me, I was going back to my roots of being alone in the Student Affairs Office and having to figure out what the best solution was through trial and error. No one could have expected what we were going to go through back in March 2020. We all thought, “Okay, just a week or two and we’ll be done.” Everybody had that mentality.
So for the two-plus years now that we’ve been dealing with this, I’ve done more mental health advising than anything else, more problem solving than anything else, and I never realized how transactional we’ve become given the large number of students we support: “You need this? Here’s what you do. Next student.”
But necessity is the mother of invention, so when instruction and student services moved online, we introduced a chat feature. Advising is a very high contact service, so we had to figure out how to maintain that connection! Chat was something we had already been considering, but it just became a crucial need at the time, and it’s been wonderful. ICS majors really took to it because it’s an easy mode of communication for them. Email is also still very popular with our students. Even over summer, we’re still getting an average of 70 emails a day. So I don’t think we’ll ever go back to the way things were. We haven’t yet settled on the new normal, but we’ve recognized that the chat option is a really important feature.
I feel like the pandemic allowed us to break free of parameters and really step out of the box. Online advising has been successful, and chat works for quick questions. We populated responses for a chat bot for after-hours questions. We’re not seeing students coming into our office as much because they’re able to get ahold of us in their dorm room or wherever they need to. Right now, we’re finding that the students are about 50% online and 50% in person. I think students have always had a need for variety in how they connect with us, but we were never able to offer that variety until now.
And what do you think are students’ greatest needs right now?
I think they need their college experience to be more transformational. We are still too transactional. When you’re a student coming to campus and you need help with classes, asking “should I take this or that?” is not the same thing as saying, “I have so many different interests that I don’t know how to find the right pathway for me.” That’s a conversation, and having that conversation with a student comes with experience. Counselors with greater experience can look at a student and realize they need to dig deeper to find out what’s really going on, because students aren’t going to immediately say, “I’m lost.”
There are times when everything else we try fails, and the only way I’ve been to get a student to recognize the academic difficulties they’re facing is to have a really honest conversation about what is headed their way if nothing improves. That’s usually a last ditch effort to identify what’s pulling the student down — whether it’s working full time while taking on a full load, or having a major that’s not a good fit. We will do what we can in order for them to realize they can rise to the challenge. Sometimes they want to stick with their original path no matter how hard it gets without really realizing there’s a much more interesting pathway for them. I just want to help them!
And how is your new role as Director of Undergraduate Student Affairs?
It’s bittersweet. Having worked with the grad folks for so long, we were a great team. When you develop that kind of partnership and have coworkers you enjoy working with every day, it can also be hard to let go. But the exciting part was the fact that it was a new chapter! It allowed us to start looking at things in a different way, and as a new [undergraduate-only] team, we were able to figure out what works best for us. I’m so proud of the team that we have. It’s such a great group of people who care so much about students.
And they make work fun. We’ve been doing different things to keep the team’s synergy going such as having a “cereal off” going on in the Student Affairs office or a campuswide scavenger hunt. If you stop by, you may see about a dozen different boxes of cereal. Because one day when we were all trash-talking about what’s the best cereal ever, we decided to put it to the test. (The top votes went to Honey Nut Cheerios, followed by Cinnamon Toast Crunch!) We just approach things with humor and fun! What’s the point in coming to work if you can’t really enjoy the people you’re with?
So what do you like best about working at UCI?
The students — they keep me really young. And we get to see students in different modes, because in the fall they’re all rested and excited to come back. Winter — they just want to get to spring break. And by spring, everybody is ready to jump into their summer plans or graduate. Administratively, each quarter has its own deadlines and processes. Spring quarter for us, on the advising side, is brutal since multiple deadlines and population needs converge from admissions to graduation. For the enrollment management/instructional support side, fall is actually the busiest quarter. There’s always a different energy each quarter and never a dull day! You come to work with your catcher’s mitt and don’t know what ball is going to come your way! Just be ready to catch it.
And what do you like to do in your spare time?
I rescued and adopted my dog Lola six years ago. She had been mistreated and was completely malnourished when we found each other, but she’s been a labor of love. We love going for walks and to the park.
I’ve also been doing ceramics for years, and before Lola I spent a lot of time going to the ceramics studio and playing with mud, which is a lot of fun! I also love to knit and still have way too many books to read, so I’m always trying to find some time to read. And I make sure I get out and see something in nature that just makes me appreciate the moment that I’m in.
Plus, my best friend recently moved to Irvine so, for the first time in our adult lives, we live in the same town. We’re trying to keep each other out of trouble; hanging out with your best friend in the same town is a joy like no other.
And I come from a very huge family — my immediate family was only four of us, but the entire extended family is all in southern California now. So when I recently turned 50 and celebrated with just close friends and family, there were over 70 people! We’re a large group, and we love to get together and have good food.
Finally, what’s the one thing you want all ICS students to know about Student Affairs?
I think the hardest thing for students to realize is that we serve a population of well over 3,500, and there are six of us in advising at one time, so the student-counselor ratio is not ideal. However, the goal for all of us is to make sure that everybody gets help. For some students, all they need is a quick 10-minute conversation. For other students, we might end up meeting with them once a week for a while, depending on their needs.
But I want everyone to know that you don’t have to go through it alone. It’s always worth asking a question — it doesn’t hurt. My favorite thing to tell students is to try at least once. You’ve got nothing to lose but everything to gain. By asking a question, you might find that you get an answer you did not realize even existed. And you might find someone who’s going to be your biggest cheerleader!
— Shani Murray