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Grad Students Gain an Ally in New Academic Counselor

February 5, 2020
Maria Nishanian will assist graduate students with academic support, time management skills, communication skills, and referrals to campus and community resources.
Maria Nishanian will assist graduate students with academic support, time management skills, communication skills, and referrals to campus and community resources.

Graduate students face a number of unique challenges as they embark on the life-changing journey of earning their master’s or Ph.D. Adjusting to graduate studies, achieving work-life balance and dealing with imposter syndrome are just a few.

At UC Merced, graduate students have a new ally in Maria Nishanian, who on Dec. 1 became the university’s first graduate academic counselor.

“As we grow our graduate enrollment, we continue to add new staff members to better support our students,” Vice Provost and Graduate Dean Marjorie Zatz said. “Maria’s important work as an academic counselor will allow us to anticipate problems graduate students are experiencing that may affect their academic progress and direct them to resources and options available to them.”

UC Merced is the fourth campus in the UC system to have such a position; UC Irvine was first. The graduate academic counselor model has also been adopted by Santa Barbara and Los Angeles.

In the new position, Nishanian will facilitate communication between mentors and mentees, provide graduate students, faculty and postdoctoral scholars with training on best practices for mentee-mentor relationships, and help with other issues common to graduate students, such as adjusting to graduate school. She will serve as a point of reference and resource for faculty and staff members who need help dealing with difficult student situations.

She also will help direct students to resources around campus, and she will work closely with related offices such as Counseling and Psychological Services, the Office of Ombuds, the graduate support staff in the schools, and the Basic Needs Hub.

“I will help students get through graduate studies with fewer obstacles,” Nishanian said. “If I can help students navigate the system and find the resources that will help them to complete their degrees and start their careers on the right foot, it will be rewarding to me.”

If I can help students navigate the system and find the resources that will help them to complete their degrees and start their careers on the right foot, it will be rewarding to me.

Maria Nishanian

Navigating through higher education is something Nishanian has tackled personally. She immigrated to the U.S. 20 years ago from the Middle East and found attending college as an international student had its own set of obstacles.

She persevered and earned a master’s degree in student affairs and college counseling and bachelor’s degree in liberal studies, both from Fresno State. She went to school to become a teacher, but after experiencing the highs and lows of higher education firsthand, she decided her passion was helping college students.

“I wanted to do what I love most — helping students and advocating for them,” Nishanian said. “It’s empowering to help them.”

Prior to joining UC Merced, she worked for three years as an undergraduate academic advisor in the Physics Department at UC Santa Cruz. As an undergraduate academic advisor, she said, her role often felt transactional. She sees her new role, working with graduate students, as more transformational.

“This position allows me to listen when students need to be heard,” she said. “I will help them develop effective communication skills and time-management strategies so they can balance work and academics and facilitate healthy relationships with faculty and students.”

Graduate students, postdocs and faculty members can reach Nishanian at 209-947-9358 or mnishanian@ucmerced.edu, or they can drop by her office (Student Services Building, Room 233) from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday.