Play for each other: An interview with Denise Yee
Denise Yee has been at UC Berkeley for fourteen years, working as the Undergraduate Student Services Advisor and Course and Curriculum Advisor in the Statistics Department. She graduated from UC Santa Barbara with a BA in Asian American Studies and Mathematics, and from University of Maryland with an M.Ed. in Counseling and Personnel Services. Her expertise makes the undergraduate statistics program run smoothly and reassures and motivates students to pursue a career in statistics. Undergraduates describe Denise as “kind, genuine, and helpful,” “incredibly patient,” “very approachable, honest, and intelligent,” and someone who “puts in so much work every day to make the department a more welcoming, inclusive, and less intimidating place.” In this interview, Denise tells us about her job, career path and words of wisdom for students .
Amanda Glazer (AG): Could you start by telling us about your job and what your day-to-day looks like?
Denise Yee (DY): My official title is “Undergraduate Student Services Advisor and Course and Curriculum Officer.” My job encompasses working with our undergraduate students in statistics. I work with both declared majors and minors, and also students that may just be taking our courses and have related questions. That’s one part of my role. Then the other part is doing the scheduling and enrollment management for our courses. I work with faculty to schedule courses, help them manage enrollment, troubleshoot, and serve as a resource for them. I also refer them to other resources on campus when issues come up with students in their courses. That’s the snapshot of what I do.
In terms of working with the statistics majors and minors, there’s some administrative work that happens on the back end to get them declared and confirm that they’ve completed all of the major’s requirements so they can graduate. But before that, there’s the developmental part of seeing where they’re at, why they’re interested in statistics, helping them refine their goals, and asking them a lot of probing questions like “what got you interested in statistics? Do you have a particular career or post graduation goal in mind?” Then I try to connect them with resources that can help them make the most out of their time here.
AG: What are common concerns that come up with students?
DY: For pre-majors, it’s whether they can make it into the major, because we have pretty rigorous prerequisites. So, I reassure them that there are additional options in case it doesn’t work out the first time, and that they can still apply the following semester and make up any prerequisites that they didn’t satisfy.
That also ties into imposter syndrome which many students, particularly new students like incoming freshmen or transfer students, experience across campus. A lot of the time they are very successful prior to coming to Berkeley and sometimes they haven’t had to put as much time into their academics as is needed when they get here. They experience this stark difference in academic rigour and expectations. I reassure them that it’s very common that students experience imposter syndrome and have doubts about their own capabilities. I try to be a reassuring voice to them and say: “You can do it. It may take more time, energy and practice than you may have been used to, but you can do some self reflection and assess if there’s anything that might need to be changed or other resources that you haven’t accessed in the past like tutoring or office hours.”
Another thing is students in the major deciding what they should do after they graduate. But I think people, not even just college students, are always re-assessing what their calling is in life and what their interests are. The important thing is to reassure them that it’s perfectly normal not to know what you want to do exactly and encourage them to pay attention to all the experiences they are having -- whether it be in the classroom, a conversation they’re having with a friend or a family member, an internship or volunteer experience, or their reactions to the news. I tell students to pay attention to those feelings and the things that pique their interest and that can help them narrow down what they might want to go into.
AG: That’s great advice. I’ve definitely noticed there can be a lot of uncertainty and anxiety for students.
DY: I feel like in our department, and in the field of statistics, it’s really easy to tell students, “don’t worry, you’re going to get a job.” Data is being collected everywhere. There’s a reason why there’s this steep increase in the number of statistics majors. It’s because data is collected everywhere. Every industry, government, and organization has some sort of data that they want analyzed, so students shouldn’t be too worried about finding a job. Finding a job is still a process and can take an investment of time but students can rest assured that their statistics degree is going to give them a lot of opportunities.
AG: Absolutely. So, what is your favorite aspect of your job?
DY: I do like talking with undergrads. I identify as more of an introvert so when I have lots of appointments it can be draining, but at the same time it’s pretty rewarding and satisfying to be able to help students. Especially when they’re about to graduate or have graduated and have a dream job lined up or are ready to go onto their graduate program, that can be pretty satisfying. Then more on the course and curriculum side of things, scheduling isn’t always the most fun thing but I do appreciate being able to use a different set of skills in terms of problem solving. It is super satisfying when things line up together. When you’re thinking about scheduling, we take into consideration the preferences of the instructors, the timing of graduate courses, that sort of thing. We don’t want too many courses conflicting with each other if they're going to draw the same types of students. It’s nice when things are settled and faculty seem satisfied.
AG: Putting all the pieces together sounds really challenging.
DY: I think I’ve been doing it so long that I don’t get as worried about things and have gotten to know some of the preferences of our faculty so that’s been nice. Then with remote instruction, we’re not restricted so much by the physical classrooms, so we have a little more flexibility in terms of the times. Things are always changing, sometimes instructors’ assignments are swapped kind of last minute or it’s difficult to find a qualified GSI and we need to change a lab time to make it work, so we’re constantly making adjustments here and there. It is nice when things have kind of settled down.
AG: You’ve been with the Statistics department at Berkeley for a long time. What was it like when you first started? How has it been over the years?
DY: I think it’s me and Ryan who’ve been in the department the longest. I’ve been here since October 2006, so 14 years. When I came here my position was sort of new in that we originally had one student services advisor who advised PhDs, MAs and undergrads. This is when we had maybe 60 undergrads, 5-10 masters, and maybe about 30 PhD students. So, it was a lot smaller when I started. They siphoned off the undergrad part from that original student services position and then added the course and curriculum stuff that had been part of this other administrative position. I was replacing, at least in terms of the course and curriculum work, Pat Hardy, who had been in the department almost 40 years. So, I had some big shoes to fill.
Then also just trying to figure out how these two areas worked together. It took a little time to figure some things out. The staff size was I guess somewhat similar. I think we probably had about 8-10, but there were only two advisors. There was the grad advisor and then me.
We saw a huge growth shortly after I started in 2006. It was maybe 60-80 undergrads at a given time, and then within a few years it was like probably double that. A couple years ago we probably had over 400 students in the department major. Ultimately we were able to hire another advisor which was good. But for a while I kind of felt like I was treading water just trying to get the basics all taken care of. When the growth came as quickly as it did without the additional resources, not just staff, but also the faculty and GSI resources to be able to teach more and more courses, that kind of limited our ability to be able to serve all these students. So, we implemented these more rigorous prerequisites to help slow the growth. For a long time we were growing very quickly. We had a ton of double majors, probably over half of the students, which I think is totally natural because students saw how useful it was to have the tools and knowledge you learn in statistics.
AG: How did you decide to go into advising and higher education?
DY: I did my undergrad at UC Santa Barbara where I was a double major in Asian American Studies and Math. With math, I was on a teaching track, and I thought I might teach high school. I liked it, and I felt pretty confident in my mathematical abilities, but I sort of shifted gears a little bit after a math teaching internship over the summer between my junior and senior year. I shadowed a classroom with a credentialed teacher. This was summer school so it was two algebra classes. There was a credentialed teacher doing the majority of the work, but I felt really overwhelmed by the demands of being a teacher -- writing quizzes, correcting homeworks and projects, and all that. But I still really appreciated the purpose of education and public education in particular.
So, I came back home after graduating. I didn’t end up going into high school teaching. I got a job at Stanford in their advising center as a program assistant. It was mostly a lot of administrative work but in support of work that their central advising center provided. I supported some of the professional advisors that ran programs like the Freshman Advising Program and an expanded advising program which was several mentoring programs that connected different groups of undergraduate students with graduate students. So I got to see how it worked and I had some great mentorship from my immediate supervisor. I worked there for about four years, and then I decided I would go back to school to get a masters. It seemed like a lot of the advisors in the advising center had advanced degrees, and I felt like I needed that extra background and experience because Asian American studies and math didn’t give you a whole lot of experience with counseling and psychology.
I went to grad school at the University of Maryland and got a Master of Education in counseling and personnel services. I enjoyed my time working at Stanford, so I decided to further pursue working in higher education. As an undergrad, I don’t know that you really see that this is a career field. It was weird because I don’t know why I didn’t think it could be, because in my student organization involvement I was always working with counselors and student org advisors, but it just didn’t occur to me that you could do this as a profession. But once I got my program assistant job and then went to my grad program I was like, “oh this is a viable career path.” It merged my appreciation for education, and in particular higher education, and then an interpersonal aspect, the interactions you get with students and others, in a helping profession.
In terms of sticking with statistics, it’s been pretty good. I do appreciate our medium sized department where it’s intimate enough where I think I can confidently say all the faculty know me.
AG: Why did you choose to apply to the advising job at Stanford?
DY: It was in higher education and advising. As an undergrad, I was an Educational Opportunity Program peer counselor. When I initially applied, the particular program assistant position was to support this expanded advising program which was run through the undergraduate advising center. The program was Partners for Academic Excellence (PAE). It was a mentoring program that targeted support for different groups: student athletes, Black, Chicano / Latino, LGBTQ+ students. It was in line with some of my values in terms of supporting underrepresented groups. I liked the way the program was run.
AG: How have you seen things for women at Berkeley change?
DY: A lot of my inspiration comes from the women leaders that are around. Just looking at immediate supervisors, La Shana’s my current supervisor, and there’s Laura. Then having Sandrine as chair, and Deb and Bin as chairs in the past. Hearing Cathy Koshland’s name, Frances Hellman, Carol Christ and now Jennifer Chayes, along with countless other women in the advising community, it just seems like there’s more women. I don’t know if it’s true that there’s a lot more women in upper administration, but maybe it’s just that they’re more visible. At least recently, I know I have definitely acknowledged to Laura, La Shana and Sandrine how much I’ve appreciated, especially because of the pandemic and going remote, how our leadership has really advocated for us, for me, as a staff member. I’ve really appreciated that. They’re working to represent us and our concerns really well.
AG: Final words of advice or hopes for students at Berkeley?
DY: When we have in person orientations for the new transfer students, one thing I try to impress upon students is to really take advantage of the network of people and resources they have access to at Berkeley. To not just take courses here, which are great and a good way to get to know faculty, but to also take that extra step to actually get to know the faculty and not just put your head in your books.
It’s related to something I heard from the President and CEO of the San Francisco Giants, Larry Baer (also a Cal alum), who spoke at my sister’s commencement at San Francisco State in 2013. I was still at Berkeley, and the Giants had just won the World Series. Larry Baer talked about how the world’s most complex problems aren’t going to be solved by individuals. Akin to what the Giants were doing in terms of playing for each other, you’re going to have to work with other people, and the most complex problems will likely only be solved by working together. I try to impress this upon our new students: to get to know each other for that reason. Because you never know who’s going to be your next boss. The person next to you in class could create this huge company. You could be working with your groupmate, and you could just brainstorm some idea that you could actually pursue and make into a great thing and impact the world. I think data science is really founded on the principal that you’re bringing together experts and people from different disciplines to address issues in all different areas and it's very interconnected. I refer to Larry Baer multiple times in these transfer orientations and tell students, “play for each other!”
~ Amanda Glazer