Celebrating excellence in academic advising

Every year, the Dean of Students recognizes exceptional work in the area of undergrad academic advising. Get to know the 2020 winners: pharmacology advisor Chantal Grignon and Russian studies professor Lyudmila Parts.

The Office of the Dean of Students, in tandem with the Enrolment and Student Affairs Advisory Committee (ESAAC) Subcommittee on Undergraduate Student Advising (SUSA), established the Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Academic Advising in January 2015. The award, presented annually to one administrator and one professor, aims to recognize “the integral and valuable contribution that academic advising makes to undergraduate student life at McGill.” This year’s winners are Chantal Grignon, the Undergraduate Pharmacology Program Advisor, and Lyudmila Parts, a professor in Russian Studies.

Chantal Grignon (left) and Prof. Lyudmila Parts are this year’s winners of the Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Academic Advising.

Students and colleagues said that Grignon and Parts exemplify what the award celebrates in its mission statement:  advisors’ “timely and accurate guidance to students, assisting them in making informed academic choices… (They) provide coherent information about university regulations and program requirements, and work, as appropriate, with other university services and resources.”

Both recipients were praised for their solicitousness and dedication above and beyond the call of duty.

Xingjian (Tom) Zhai wrote in his letter of support for Grignon’s nomination that “Chantal is more than an advisor to me. If my degree were a cake, then Chantal is the chef behind it.”

Grignon said in an interview that she is “really honoured and happy to receive this award.”

She began working in the Department of Pharmacology and Therapeutics in March of 2007, and worked alongside others to set up BSc. Major and Honours programs in Pharmacology. The Quebec Ministry of Education officially approved the program in August of 2009, a short time for such a certification.

“I’m so proud of that,” Grignon said. “In 2009, there were about 30 students in the program. In 2013, it had climbed to 380, and now hovers around 400, give or take. It’s one of the bigger Pharmacology programs in Canada.”

Zhai, who graduated in December with a BSc., noted that when he started his degree in 2017, “I was clueless (about) what ‘university credits’ meant… Chantal welcomed me in her office the day before the program orientation date, sat me down, and planned out every single course for this entire track.”

Grignon herself remembers the first time she met Zhai, whom she called “a wonderful student.”

“My God, he almost broke my hand when he shook it,” she said. “He’s a weight-trainer, he has four jobs, is a first-generation university student and works extraordinarily hard.”

Zhai said that “every semester, I met with her at least once to stay on track. Semester after semester, emails, sudden visits, even office calls during my most stressful moments. She always made herself available.”

Barbara F. Hales, James McGill Professor in Pharmacology and Undergraduate Program Director, said in her letter of recommendation that “Chantal is the heart of our undergraduate program and truly the key to its success! (She) provides outstanding support to all aspects of our program but the students are always first for her. She truly cares about each of our over 400 undergraduate students.”

Hales added in an email that “Chantal continues to be amazing. She is now doing a wonderful job ‘orienting’ and welcoming our new (first-year) students.”

Grignon returned the favour. “(Hales) is a wonderful colleague,” she said. “She’s took me under her wing when I was hired and taught me so much. She’s fair, hard-working, a great researcher and a great teacher.”

“She’s my go-to person.”

Hales added that “in addition to helping students with challenges, Chantal celebrates their successes. She attends their convocation ceremonies, takes group photos of the students afterwards, and then frames and mounts these in the hallway. (She) has many responsibilities beyond direct student advising. She facilitates numerous student-led initiatives. She helped them to set up the Pharmacology Integrated League of Students (PILS) and to find office space. She has worked with them to organize annual undergraduate research days (Pharmacology Undergraduate Research Expo or PURE), to showcase their research projects, and an annual Pharmacology Career Day, to provide them with the opportunity to interact with pharmacologists from industry, academia, government and a variety of other career choices. Chantal contributes significantly to the success of a number of other student initiatives, ranging, over the years, from ‘meet-and-greet faculty’ social activities to Trivia night.”

This year’s other winner, Prof. Lyudmila Parts, said that “obviously, I’m very happy and proud about the award. I see it more as an acknowledgment not so much of my own work, but of the Russian studies program as a whole.”

Her students were less modest on her behalf.

Katharine Morrill, a third-year student and candidate for an honours B.A. in Russian studies, wrote that upon meeting Prof. Parts “on my very first day of university in an elective course, I had no plans to continue in Russian literature. A year later, I registered for honours Russian studies, due in large part to the role she played in inspiring me and helping me concretize my plans and vision for the future.”

“Prof. Parts has, without doubt, been the single most influential figure in my development – both personal and academic – over the course of the past four years. I have not only taken most of my program courses with her, but have also relied on her for guidance of all sorts, including but not limited to my selection of courses, shaping my research, and my plans for internships, summer studies, and graduate work.”

Morrill added in an email: “There is, in my opinion, no one more deserving of recognition for their efforts in advising than Lyudmila Parts. While I cannot speak for others beyond my observation that she dedicates an impressive amount of time and effort to our program students, I can state with absolute confidence that much of who I have become is the direct result of her inspiration and guidance, and that the rest of my life will bear the influence of everything she did for me during my time at McGill.”

In her endorsement letter for the award, second-year Russian history and classics student Gabby Oddenino applauded Prof. Parts’ can-do and spirited attitude since the COVID-19 pandemic began. “She has been great at supporting us remotely and helping us overcome many challenges. When she adjusted the format of the class I took with her this semester [because of the COVID-19 pandemic], she sent us an extensive survey about our current situation and our current needs and barriers to learning so that she could make accommodations and minimize added stressors, which is something we all appreciated. As always, she has been more accommodating than most during this period and has, if anything, put extra effort into her role as a professor and our program advisor. She even arranged for the program librarian to help us locate resources online.”

Oddenino concluded: “I believe that the mark of an excellent professor is the ability to inspire and act as an advisor and mentor in class, not just when students need career or program-related advice. She does exactly that.”

Parts said that the Russian studies department is “very small. But it’s because we are a small program that we can be very close; we made a conscious decision to make it work to our advantage. Katharine and Gabby have been incredibly active in the Russian student society, organizing conversation hours, movie nights, Russian evenings. It’s a very close, homey atmosphere.”

Morrill added that Parts “helped me formulate my research into a paper I presented at a graduate conference in September 2019. I have been employed as her research assistant for two years, and often joke that working for her probably helps me more than it helps her, as this work granted me the opportunity to hone my translation, copy-editing and research skills under her supervision.”

“She is respected and well-loved by everyone, and I have had innumerable discussions with program students about how lucky we are to have an advisor who gives 110% to everyone at all times.”