Student Affairs Podcast — Episode 9: Maintain Momentum through the Whole Semester

You can now listen to Episode 9 of “Conversations with Student Affairs,” the podcast managed by the Student Affairs team at Penn State World Campus in collaboration with our many colleagues and partners across the University’s Student Affairs teams.

Title: Starting & Finishing the Semester Strong

Participating staff member: Andrea Buffone, Assistant Director for World Campus Academic Advising

Summary: Get tips for maintaining positive progress before, during, and at the end of the semester. We will share critical reasons for students to connect with their academic advisers and instructors and will also discuss the importance of planning and preparation.

Three interesting or helpful takeaways from this episode:

One way to finish the current semester strong is to have your next semester well-planned. Ending one semester while preparing to start another can be stressful, especially because some of the most important time periods can overlap. “The scheduling period to register for courses starts pretty early — many students are often surprised at how early you can register for courses for the next semester,” Andrea says. “Getting this done early will alleviate that stress way before you need to worry about final exams. The stronger you finish off any semester, the better prepared you will feel for the one that is starting next. This is a great time to reach out to your adviser, so they can help you plan for the next semester.”

Build strong connections with staff and faculty. Your academic adviser and instructors can be valuable resources and serve as an important support system. Among other things, your adviser can help with identifying, selecting, and registering for the courses you need, which can greatly alleviate a source of potential stress. Instructors can help you understand complicated topics, often serve as mentors, and may also be able to offer letters of recommendation if you need them in the future.

Understand how the syllabus can help you. The syllabus often gets a bad rap, but it can play a key role in helping students set up a successful semester. By studying the syllabus for each course at the start of the semester, you can be proactive in identifying any challenges you may anticipate — and you can plot out your schedule and deadlines far enough in advance to allow plenty of time to finish everything. This is also your opportunity to become familiar with the policies and expectations of the course and instructor.

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Podcast Transcript: Starting and Finishing the Semester Strong

JEN TOOF: Hello. Welcome to Conversations with Student Affairs. I’m your host, Jen Toof. Today, I’m joined by Andrea Buffone. Andrea, it’s great to have you here for this episode focused on preparing for and finishing the semester. Can you tell our listeners a little bit about yourself?

ANDREA BUFFONE: Sure. Thanks for having me. Glad to be here. So I’m Andrea. I am one of the assistant directors of the Academic Advising and Student Disability Services unit here at the World Campus. So I advise students. I also supervise a team of advisors that each team of us works with a different subset of a degree. So just depending on what students are majoring in, that’s how I advise them.

So I myself am a Penn State graduate. I graduated in 2011 with a general biology Bachelor of Science at University Park. So Penn State is very near and dear to me, and it’s great to have been a student. And then be able to come full circle and be able to help more students do the same thing that I was able to do so many years ago.

JEN TOOF: That’s awesome. That’s awesome, and for our listeners, I’m happy to share that I work very closely with Andrea in the advising team. As well as we also get to call each other friends, so it’s nice to be able to have you on this episode knowing that we connect inside and outside of work as well. So it makes it a little bit more fun

ANDREA BUFFONE: Yes, absolutely. Yes.

JEN TOOF: So, Andrea, we do an acknowledgment in each of our episodes, and we’ve done some land acknowledgments. We have done some acknowledgments in relation to our first responders. We’ve had a variety here. And so I think knowing that we’re focusing on preparing and finishing the semester strong, I want to talk a little bit about Student Disability Services.

And I’m going to share some information from our website for our listeners, and this information is directly from the website. So for our listeners and students, you can go to and click on Student Services. And so for students with disabilities, Penn State World Campus Student Disability services works with the Penn State Student Disability resources office to ensure that each student receives the support they need to be successful in their courses.

So if you have a disability-related need for reasonable academic adjustment, we would want you to contact our Student Disability services, and as part of requesting that academic adjustment, it’s going through the request and accommodation process. So you, as a student, if you want to go through the process, disclose your situation by completing the Student Disability Resource intake form. Or you can also submit it via their email to

And what’s good to know is common accommodations routinely approved for students include extension of time for tests, assistance technology, electronic textbooks, or books in alternative formats or adjustment of non-essential course requirements. And then conditions for which you might be eligible for accommodations as a student is a result — it’s a result of a variety of conditions and situations.

So students are often surprised to learn that their circumstances may meet the criteria. So another important piece is accommodations can’t be retroactive. So if we’re talking about starting the semester strong, and you’re a student who wants to go and request an accommodation, we would want you to take that step — already start to take that step for this next semester. And if you’re currently in the semester, certainly make that contact as soon as possible. Get the process going.

And if you’re finishing the semester strong, and you have an accommodation letter, and you haven’t used that accommodation, it might be a time period where maybe you only need to use that accommodation once or twice. And so maybe it’s not something that is needed all the time but maybe for when intermittent situations may happen unexpectedly. So, Andrea, in relation to that acknowledgment about our Student Disability services, do you have anything additional you’d like to add to what I shared for our listeners?

ANDREA BUFFONE: I would, yes. Not really anything additional, I would definitely just reinforce the idea of reaching out as soon as you’re able. Some of these things, just like anything that requires paperwork, it can take time to process. So you just want to get a head start on it, and we have a lovely team of Student Disability service reps with our unit, as the name suggests.

And they are wonderful to work with, so they’re here for you. That’s what they’re here for, so don’t hesitate to reach out.

JEN TOOF: Yes. So we’re going to go into our if you could segment. So this is basically an icebreaker where, Andrea, our listeners get to learn more about our guests. And so if you could relive any Penn State memory — so if you could, if you could relive it, what would it be?


JEN TOOF: That’s a tough one, right?

ANDREA BUFFONE: It is, yes. There’s so many good memories. I think two come to mind, and they’re related in the spirit of why they are fond to me. So, as I said, I was a University Park student. There’s quite a few students that go to University Park.

Some of the classes that I had were in huge lecture halls. I think the biggest class I had was 800-some plus students.

JEN TOOF: I’ve never been in a class that big of size.

ANDREA BUFFONE: Yes, yes. I loved it. I loved it, because it just — it gave that feeling that you’re just — there’s something bigger happening outside of you. It gave you that feeling of being very small. Not in any insignificant kind of way, but just it made you feel like it gave you contexts for feeling like you’re small in the grand scheme of things.

And so I loved that. Related, going to the hub. Between classes, I loved to just sit there and hear the hum of students going in and out. Studying, getting some coffee, of course. You can’t do college without coffee. I just loved it. Loved seeing everybody and hearing just — hearing the hum of life that is the college experience.

JEN TOOF: So for our listeners, they could be family members of students. They could be students who’ve never had an opportunity to come on to campus. How would you describe the hub, and what is that? The hub that creates that hum of life happening for college students?

ANDREA BUFFONE: Yes, that’s a good question. So the hub is the — it is like a student — just like a gathering place. There’s big, fluffy chairs. Well, there was the last time I was there, anyway. It’s like a Student Union center, I guess that’s what they call it on other colleges. But yes, it’s just a big building. There’s a lobby area with a bunch of, like I said, fluffy chairs. There’s different levels.

One of the floors is like the food area, so there was a Chick-Fil-A, Burger King.

JEN TOOF: All of the comfort foods that a college student wants.

ANDREA BUFFONE: Exactly, yes. Yes. Then there were not picnic tables, but just tables that you could sit and have your food. So it’s just liked a place where you could go between classes just to take a break, relax, down for a minute.

JEN TOOF: There’s a two-level bookstore, right?

ANDREA BUFFONE: Yes, there’s a bookstore there now. Yes. I guess the bookstore was always there, but now there’s also a little — a theater type of thing that they do — I don’t know really what they do now with it there, but there’s a theater there that they can use. They’ve put it on an addition since I’ve been there, but I always felt that that space was just very comforting.

Because no matter what major you were in, it didn’t matter what year you were at. Everybody went to the hub just to hang out. So it was like everybody was there. It just made you feel really part of the whole Penn State community.

JEN TOOF: That’s awesome. When I was at Beaver — so I was at the Beaver campus from ’13 to ’17 when I was working at reslife. And my students, whenever they went to State College from Western Pa, were like, got to go to the hub first. It’s first step.

It’s your student experience no matter what Penn State campus location you are, or whether you are an alum traveling out of state. There’s all those emotional connections that you can feel walking in there. But I used to have some of my students say, as soon as you walk in, and if you go in on the main level door, there’s the big grand open space. Which they said it feels like the High School Musical stairs.

So I haven’t seen High School Musical. I’ve just seen the pictures. But there’s the row of bench seating, and then there is stairs on each side. And so what students would always say, this is my High School Musical experience. It’s walking in there, and they have that emotional connection to that movie. And then walking into the hub and seeing it as well. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen the movie or ever felt that emotional connection, but I’ve heard that from students in the past as well.

ANDREA BUFFONE: Yes, I can’t say I’ve seen any of that franchise, but it was — the theater part was built after I was a student. I’m showing my age here, but I can see that being a really, really neat experience. It’s a sight to behold.

JEN TOOF: So let’s go into our on the corner segment. Or, actually, I’m getting so into our conversation, I’m forgetting to talk about our student affairs snapshot. So I’m going to go into our student affairs snapshot first before our next segment.

And so for this week’s student affairs snapshot, since we were talking about this starting, and preparing, and finishing strong, I want to acknowledge also the varying amount of joy and stress that many students feel on the roller coaster of a semester. And so when that semester starts, there’s that excitement of returning to school that summer may bring.

And then you have all the cozy fall feels that people feel, and this might include that excitement of everything pumpkin, and holiday, and football, and sports. And so with all of this everything pumpkin, holiday, football, and sports, this may add more stress and complex scheduling conflicts for making everything work and juggling many responsibilities at work and family.

And so final exams may also be surrounded by over a dozen holidays and religious observances as well. So the end of the spring semester brings out warm summer vacation excitement as well, and then if you’re taking classes during the summer, that summer semester, you’re most likely completing assignments in seven, 10, or 12 weeks, depending on the course schedule.

So for students, no matter the semester that you’re actively taking class, that joy and that stress is likely happening, or you likely feel it. It might be showing up in different ways for you. And so I do witness this on a regular basis year-round for students, so what I want you to know is we all see your strength. We all see your resilience at World Campus.

And so whether we’re in Academic Affairs, maybe we’re in student affairs or academic advising and student services, just we’re all here to support you. Andrea, do you have anything to add in regards to some of that stress that students might feel throughout the year?

ANDREA BUFFONE: Definitely. Yes, yes. We see it for sure in academic advising. We’re there with the students whenever they’re signing up for a semester, getting all pumped up and ready to go. Sometimes whenever you get into it, it can be stressful regardless of, like you said — regardless of which semester, there’s always something going on in life.

And especially for World Campus students. A lot of them are adults, so you’ve got other things going on besides school. You’ve got families, jobs, other obligations. So school isn’t necessarily the only thing that you’re doing with your time.

So things come up. You get maybe a little bummed out, for lack of a better term, that things aren’t just going the way that you hoped in your courses. But we really are here for you, and believe me when I say, we’ve heard it all. You’re not the only one who’s going through something.

Don’t feel bad about reaching out for help, I guess is what is my point. Just because you might feel like just depending on what it is that it’s not worth it. And it’s just you, and you just have to power through it. But we really have heard it all. So we’re here for you. Don’t ever feel bad about reaching out and just letting us know what’s going on.

So many resources that students don’t often know about. So it’s one of those things. You don’t know if you don’t know, so that’s what we’re here for. To help you figure out what you don’t know, so we can help out.

JEN TOOF: That’s a great segue now into the on the corner segment, where we’re discussing some of those intersecting topics. So, Andrea, let’s discuss that intersection of ending a semester while preparing to start the next semester. So finals are always likely bumping up against a busy time for a student no matter what the semester. Why is it important for a student to finish strong?

ANDREA BUFFONE: That is an excellent question. It can help to really, as I say, every ending is a new beginning. So the stronger you finish out any given semester, it can help you feel more prepared for what’s to come next. So if you’re just trying to get through one semester, maybe the best thing that you can do to help you feel better is to be well-prepared for the upcoming semester.

So to back up even before the end of a semester, the scheduling period for an upcoming semester starts pretty fairly early. Not a lot of students realize how early you can schedule for an upcoming semester. So one of the best things that you can do to even finish one semester strong is to —

Even partway through that semester before you even get to the end, make sure that you’re ready for the semester that comes after that. That way, it’s out of the way. You’re not trying to do your finals and everything all at once. Plus think about scheduling for the upcoming semester.

So scheduling early and on-time just to have that peace of mind that your next semester is good to go. So you can focus on what you have right there in front of you. That is very helpful.

And, again, we always say, reach out to your advisor. Have that advising appointment even if just to check in and say, hey. Here’s where I’m at right now. I’m just getting ready to start up.

We’re happy to help, always happy, especially whenever we can help you out early on rather than when it’s too late. Because our courses do fill up. Sometimes it can be tricky if you’ve already got the stress of a busy — ending a busy semester if you’re trying to schedule for the upcoming semester, and you see that courses that you were planning on taking filled up months ago. That can add extra stress.

JEN TOOF: Especially if you’re near graduation in a couple semesters, too.

ANDREA BUFFONE: Exactly. Exactly. And we always say we can sometimes ask for exceptions, but nothing is a guarantee in that world. So it’s always the better you can prepare, the more strong. That doesn’t make sense. The stronger you’ll end up end of semester.

JEN TOOF: So one of the questions that I was thinking about preparing for our conversation today was about what can students make for a priority? And so I really like the making a priority for a student to end well means that they are going to also hopefully start being in a better, successful place. And I think that scheduling component is so important.

And I think it’s like trying to think back in my brain, because I’m not usually part of the scheduling. But usually, at least early October, there’s notifications about scheduling, or the options start to become available for students. Are there any other priority items that you would add for a student to help make that be a more successful start of that next semester as they are finishing strong in that current semester?

ANDREA BUFFONE: Yes, definitely. So I would recommend, again, meeting with your advisor. Like you said, for a spring — so let’s say you’re in a fall semester, and you’re looking to — you’re in the thick of it for a fall semester. You might not necessarily be thinking about your spring schedule in October, but that really is when scheduling opens up for a spring semester.

So your mindset might not be in it, but your advisor certainly is. So if you want that extra help to say, I know the next semester’s coming. I’m not really sure what to do about it. Can you help me out? That’s one of the things that we do.

So we can help you make a new schedule just so you don’t even have to really worry too much about figuring it all out. We can get a kickstart to that process for you. Definitely another thing I would recommend for sure is always, always, always keeping a strong line of communication open with your instructors.

That’s paramount. If anything were to happen in any semester that you — hopefully nothing bad does happen. But if something challenging does come up, the more you’ve been in contact with your instructors throughout the semester, the more likely they are to be able to help you out. Because they’ve built a relationship with you. You’re not just some person who’s just chiming in out of nowhere that they’ve never talked to before.

It just helps to build that relationship. And even going forward post-graduation, if you’re looking for letters of recommendation, that kind of thing, the more connections that you’ve established, the better and always good.

Same with your advisor. Of course, keep that communication open. Communication is key. And, again, just never be afraid to ask. Like I said, we have so many resources that we’re talking to students about, and we find that, sometimes, they just don’t even know that something that they needed was something that we had a resource for. So it’s always just good to have that conversation.

JEN TOOF: Yes, and one person’s situation is not going to be the same for the next person. So the type of resource that might be available is better-suited for a referral to specific resources. And not to assume just because you know somebody had something similar, and they didn’t feel the same level of support doesn’t mean that you not reaching out as a student is also going to be the same result. Because the details matter for helping for a student.

ANDREA BUFFONE: Definitely. Yes.

JEN TOOF: So our next segment is our toolbox for success. And so Andrea, when I was thinking about this, I was thinking about, what does the beginning of the semester look like? And so looking at the beginning of that semester and also talking about the importance of the syllabus.

So you were talking about communication with the instructor, meeting with the advisor, as well as what does it also look like of forecasting what you know is in front of you? Are there periods of time for a student, where they know maybe mid-October, there’s an obligation that they have?

So how do they work that level of communication? As well as reviewing their syllabus for that syllabus is that contract between the student and the instructor for department policies? How do these things all come together for a successful start of the semester in relation to communication, working with their advisor, reviewing their syllabus, and identifying some of those high-stress areas that they can forecast in the semester?

ANDREA BUFFONE: Yes, that’s a great question. So I’d say starting out, like I said, in the — partway through the previous semester, make sure you meet with your advisor, get your schedule set up. When that semester does start, like you said, that syllabus is huge. Make sure you read that.

JEN TOOF: And it could be many pages long, too, but that time dedication is so important.

ANDREA BUFFONE: It really is, yes. The syllabus will tell you the types of assignments you have, the instructor’s grading scale, which may or may not be different from some instructors in classes that you’ve had in the past. So that is very important to look at just so you have an idea of what sorts of things are going to carry more weight for you.

If you’re a strong writer, and — or let’s say if you’re not such a strong writer, and you see that there’s a lot of writing assignments due in a particular week. Maybe try to plan to not have so many other things going on that week. And, of course, life happens, but the better you can get in the headspace of what you’ll be doing that semester, the more likely you’ll be able to plan that out.

I also do recommend using a planner for that kind of thing. It’s easy to look at the syllabus right at the beginning of the semester and be like, OK. This is what it is. But then, six weeks later, you’re realizing that you forgot about something. SO always keep it.

So it’s good to read the syllabus in full beginning of the semester, but always go back to it. Keep looking at it. Like I said, if you do just make sure if you find something that you’ve come up with partway through the semester — maybe you don’t think something is being graded fairly.

If the syllabus had clearly lined what that grading was going to be like, then that’s not something that we can really do much about. Because it said right there in the syllabus, this is the way it’s going to go. So it’s important to understand that front and back, and if you don’t, ask questions. Ask your instructor for follow-up and details.

If you do know you have something coming up in a semester, like maybe you have a surgery that is scheduled, make sure you tell your instructor about that as soon as you possibly can. Like I was saying before, the more that you talk to them, and the more they understand what you’ve got coming up if you know about it, the more likely they’re able to work with you. Maybe they’ll let you finish something early, or maybe they’ll give you an extension for something while you’re out.

But if you just pop up a week before and say, hey. I have a surgery next week. It’s a little more of a scramble, and that can be challenging.

JEN TOOF: Unless it was an emergency one. You only get a couple of days.

ANDREA BUFFONE: Yes, that’s true. That’s true. Hopefully that doesn’t happen for anyone, but we all know it does. But just the more you can be prepared and understand the deadlines. And like I said, things do come up, so it’s not that you can have everything planned out to a T. But the better you can be prepared, the better it’ll work out for you.

JEN TOOF: Yes, and I think it’s also fair for us to add and acknowledge that grading is under the purview of the instructor. And there is some discretion of whether or not they are granting exceptions per what they’ve outlined in the syllabus. Students should also be aware that sometimes that instructor is following department or college policies as well. And it might not be also just their purview, but what has been identified by the college or their department.

So if an instructor is saying, here’s the hardline, some instructors might — some instructors who are not in the same college or department might have a different policy or a different level of discretion for flexibility. So I think that’s important also for students to know, is just because you get this one answer from one instructor isn’t going to mean it’s going to be the same or different.

So just to have that greater understanding of why it’s really good to read the syllabus to find out about grading, and flexibility, and exceptions for where those allowances are. Because some instructors do allow for the two lowest grades to be dropped, or two zeros might be able to be dropped from the final course grade. And that’s because life can happen.

That allows that flexibility. If it’s a hardline in relation to policies, it might be a no. You can’t make up work. Or maybe you can only get 50% partial credit back, but there’s another policy that supports lowest grades being able not to be factored in to final grade based upon whatever the college or department has set up.

ANDREA BUFFONE: Exactly. Yes. Exactly like you said. The more you know about your each individual class, and what that instructor is and is not able or willing to do, the better you’re able to negotiate. If you know that you’re in a course where grades can be dropped, framing your question in a way that says, hey. I’ve got this thing. I think I’m probably going to drop this particular score. Does that sound good to you?

They’ll know that you read the syllabus a lot. They’ll know that you understand what you’re doing there, so that’s always very appreciated.

JEN TOOF: And so when we’re also talking about success — and based upon what you’ve shared, I think talking about the tuition schedule is really important here as well. So that first week of class, when it’s a traditional semester length — if it’s a dynamic dated course, which is less than the standard full semester, it’s going to be slightly different.

But for a standard semester that runs 16 weeks, that first week of classes, as a student, you’re always encouraged to read your syllabus then. Make informed decisions, because you can drop that course without impact to your transcript and without financial impact. And that is because it’s based upon the tuition schedule.

So as a student, again, in a regular-length scheduled semester, during that first week, you can get 100% of your money back. So you’re looking at that syllabus, and you’re like, oh my gosh. I have a work trip, or maybe I have three work trips. And it coincides with some assignments or exams that just are not allowed to be made up. There’s no flexibility there.

And you know those assignments can’t be flexible, and you’re not going to obtain the grade that you want. You may want to have that conversation with your instructor. Should I stay in the course? Have that conversation with your advisor. Should I stay in the course? So I think there’s some of that financial risk as well why it’s so important of looking at that syllabus to be successful in the semester.

ANDREA BUFFONE: For sure. Yes. And even if it’s just one day after that drop add period ends, then you’re down to the next level of owing some of that money.

JEN TOOF: Which is you’re still owing 25%, and you’re only getting 75% back. So that’s still a costly one-day decision that can be happening.

ANDREA BUFFONE: For sure. Yes. Like you said, if you do find yourself in that situation, and you’re thinking, maybe this isn’t the best course for this particular semester based on what I’ve got going on outside of school. Within that first week, it is the drop period, but it’s also the add period.

So if you reach out to your instructor and say, hey. I think this course, based on the syllabus, this isn’t going to work out for me so well. Is there something else I can take in place of this? That first week, we can help you see what we could maybe fit into your schedule in place of that. Easy peasy, no problem at all. As long as there are seats, of course.

JEN TOOF: Timing is everything on those decisions.

ANDREA BUFFONE: It is, yes. But like I said, like dropping a course and the tuition after that drop add period ends, adding courses can be a bit of a challenge. So if you do need to swap it out, you run into a whole host of issues past that. So if you can, always keep that.

Again, in the standard length semester. It’s that first week. Every semester has that drop add period. It’s not always the first week. Just depending on the length of the semester, whether it’s a 12-week or a seven-week. So maybe you’re only a few days. Just depending on if it’s a six-week course, it may just be a few days, but that time period does still exist. So I guess the message here is the earlier you can figure things out, the better.

JEN TOOF: Informed decisions are just important.

ANDREA BUFFONE: Absolutely, yes.

JEN TOOF: Well, Andrea, this has been so great chatting with you today and talking about all the work that we are usually doing on a regular basis between our two units. I like to give the final word out to our guest, that final thought. So as we’re talking about finishing strong and preparing to start this semester strong, what would you want our listeners to have as a final thought today?

ANDREA BUFFONE: Good question. So I would say just to put a plug-in for the advising office. I can say, I know each and every advisor that works here at the World Campus. In our unit, there’s 62 of us. Some of those are the disability specialists. Some of us are advisors. Some of us are office assistants that work closely with students.

But I know each and every one of them, and every single person that I work with genuinely wants to help students succeed. None of us are just here because we think this is just a paycheck. This is our calling, so to speak. So we want to help.

So many students reach out and say, hi. I know I’m bothering you, or I don’t want to be a pain. I know I’ve already asked you some questions. Don’t ever feel like you’re a pain. That’s what we do. That’s what we’re here for. We are here to help you through the good times and the bad times.

So never hesitate to ask. We’re happy to talk to you. We’re happy to work through good things. We want to hear about the good things, too. I should say that.

JEN TOOF: That adds an extra brightness to our day. I will say that.

ANDREA BUFFONE: It does. Yes. We’re not just here to help with the fires, but we want to hear about your successes. So let us know if something’s going particularly well. Shoot us an email. Let us know. We’re here to celebrate all that, and we’re here.

Like I said, nobody in my office, myself included, ever thinks, man. Here’s another student email, another student problem. It’s not like that at all. We’re here to help. We want to talk. We want to help.

Even if we’re not maybe the person who has the answer, we’re always willing to go and find who is for you. So it may be to point to a different office or a different person, policy, something along the lines. Sometimes we won’t have the answer right away, but we’re dedicated to helping you find it.

So your success is our success, and that’s really what we do want for our students. So never hesitate to reach out. We are here.

JEN TOOF: Awesome. And I love that you guys are here, and I think that’s a perfect moment to end on. Thank you so much, Andrea.

ANDREA BUFFONE: You’re welcome. Thanks for having me. It’s great to talk.