Somebody to Lean On

OSSA: Concordia’s Online Student Success Advisors include, from left, Allison Wolf, Jessica Valdes, Susie Pipkorn, and Gayle Frisque. No pictured: Heidi Tupper and Katy Klein.
OSSA: Concordia’s Online Student Success Advisors include, from left, Allison Wolf, Jessica Valdes, Susie Pipkorn, and Gayle Frisque. No pictured: Heidi Tupper and Katy Klein.
Editor's Note: This story first appeared in the spring 2017 issue of Concordian, the official magazine of Concordia University Wisconsin. View a PDF version of the magazine here.

Clifton Davis was in the midst of his online graduate counseling program through Concordia University Wisconsin when two of his cousins, who were more like brothers to him, unexpectedly passed away within months of each other.

The losses hit Davis hard. He recalls having trouble finding the focus he needed to be successful in his courses, and soon he was failing one of his classes.

Davis knew himself well enough to know that it was now or never where his degree was concerned. Determined to continue, he sought help in the form of one of Concordia’s Online Student Success Advisors (OSSAs), Allison Wolf.

Wolf and the five other women who make up Concordia’s OSSA staff are charged with being the spiritual, emotional, and practical support system for the more than 3,000 individuals throughout the world who are enrolled in online programs or courses through Cconcordia. They’re the ones who receive the calls from the at-times burdened, overwhelmed, frustrated, or just plain overbooked students in pursuit of their degrees.

As an OSSA team, we want students to feel a connection to the university and know that someone is always there for them

Allison Wolf, lead OSSA

“I think of myself as the go-to person for my students,” says Wolf, lead OSSA. “I want them to know they can count on me to walk with them through the program. As an OSSA team, we want students to feel a connection to the university and know that someone is always there for them.”

Play Video: Online Student Success Advisors (OSSA) are a huge part of what makes Concordia University students thrive in our online program. Our OSSAs act as a liaison, navigator, advocate and cheerleader. Each one finds joy in seeing their students succeed in education, and beyond.

Help Received

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Online learners experience an assortment of life experiences that sometimes present hurdles towards obtaining a degree. These students turned to their OSSAs for guidance when times got tough.

Clifton Davis

MS in counseling (’18)

Clifton Davis, from Madison, is on track to receive his master’s degree in counseling in 2018. He turned to Allison Wolf for guidance after two of his cousins passed away within months of each other, causing him to lose focus on his coursework.

“The opportunity to have an advisor like Allison to communicate with, that was tremendous. There’s no doubt it’s what I needed at that time.”

Cindy Kohler

MS in education administration (’16)

Cindy Kohler, who teaches at Brillion High School in Brillion, Wisconsin, completed her master’s in education administration in December 2016. Kohler turned to Gayle Frisque in 2015 when an unforeseen illness interrupted her schooling.

“Through her understanding of what was going on with me, Gayle went to great lengths to help me make sure I wasn’t penalized for the class. I appreciated that because I am a very motivated students, and I was worried about not being able to meet my first deadline. She helped me maintain my integrity as a student, and that was a big deal to me.”

Dave Nicpon

MS in nursing (’18)

Dave Nicpon, from Mount Pleasant, Wisconsin, will graduate in May with his Master of Science Nursing degree. He holds down a full-time job and cares for his elderly parents and two children – one of whom is autistic. He said of Susie Pipkorn:

“It’s nice to have lifelines. As busy as I’ve been with everything in my life, I’ll miss something that should have been on my radar, and I’ll send out a panic email to Susie and she’ll help me get it sorted out. Everyone needs a lifeline at different times in their life, and that’s how I look at Susie. She’s a real blessing to have. I can’t say enough good things about her.”

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The OSSAs are different from Concordia’s academic advisors, who guide students through course selection and the scheduling process. They do things like help learners navigate the online system, send reminders about essential paperwork to complete, look out for relevant financial aid opportunities, and act as an advocate.

OSSAs are an extra layer of support that few other universities offer, says Executive Director of Continuing and Distance Education Sarah Pecor.

“Other universities outsource this role to people who don’t really understand the goals of the university and who don’t really know the people these students are asked to interact with,” Pecor says. “Our OSSAs live and breathe Concordia’s mission every single day. They truly want students to be successful—not just academically but as individuals, and that starts with extending Christian love and care to each learner.”

The OSSA team makes a habit of doing just that.

Susie Pipkorn, for example, doesn’t hesitate to whip out a card and write a personal note of encouragement to a student when she sees that student’s name on Campus Pastor Steve Smith’s daily prayer list. She then adds the student to her own prayer list, which she started in 2015. That list now has more than 200 names on it.

Sometimes Pipkorn will pray for the list as a whole, and sometimes she’ll pick out individual names as the Holy Spirit moves her. As students call with general questions, they’ll often share personal struggles with their course, family concerns, or time management issues.

“These students are taking courses like, ‘advanced pathophysiology’ or ‘genetics, immunology & microbiology.’ They’re tough courses! So I’ll run a class list and send up a prayer, especially during exam times.”

Whether it’s a student battling cancer while trying to still keep on schedule with his coursework, a single parent juggling school and parenting responsibilities, or an overwhelmed bride-to-be wrestling with the decision to drop a class in the months leading up to her wedding, it’s not uncommon for students to divulge some of the most vulnerable details of their lives to their OSSAs.

“They’ll call us to vent or voice their struggles,” Wolf says. “We’ll listen to them, talk through solutions with them and help bring resolution. And sometimes that is followed up by a prayer for them, a note of encouragement, or just a check-in to see how they are doing. We really care about our students, and it’s rewarding to know we can help make this part of their life a little easier.”

Get connected with an OSSA of your own. Learn how you can enroll in one of Concordia’s Online programs at