Of all the areas of higher education one can choose, how do people end up in advising? And what is it anyway?
If we are lucky, each of us can tell a story about a personally transformative moment that occurred during a conversation with an adviser, an instructor, a TA, a dean or an older student who changed our lives. And often, one thing that makes these tales even more compelling is that the person we were talking to did not suspect that the conversation was pivotal for us. These stories tell of a moment when our lives were changed, even if our interlocutor had no idea that was the case. The president of one of the universities at which I have worked used to tell a story at the first-year adviser training (of faculty and administrators) about a brief conversation he had while in law school with a professor in whose class he was not faring well. Through something he said, the professor convinced him to stay rather than quit his program. The student then went on to become the president of one of the world’s foremost institutions of higher education. He credits that moment with providing him an “individual decisive moment.” Advising is essentially about creating opportunities for personal transformation, for those pivotal moments.
Advising is essentially about creating opportunities for personal transformation, for those pivotal moments.
In fact, I define advising as “offering a safe space in which students are able to imagine themselves as something different in the future, but still in accord with their true selves.” The fundamental building block of advising is the advising conversation. Good advising conversations provide students with sounding boards. Another way to put it is that advising creates a metaphorical space that allows, enables and even encourages students to explore themselves. Advising focuses first and foremost on opening up space to allow a student to explore themselves and their personal potential and possibilities. In that advising space, a student must feel comfortable enough to open up to try out ideas, to imagine a future in which they will play a role different from the ones they have played so far, but a role that encourages their true selves to blossom. This verbal exploration of potential futures is a way of identifying one’s essence, of defining the things that move you.
To create a safe, imaginative, and grounded space for the cultivation of productive advising relationships is not easy, quick or inexpensive. Creating and maintaining such systems takes time, energy, a willingness to experiment and an openness to assessing failure and success along the way. These systems must, in other words, be flexible and responsive, broad and deep. This is what we try to do as a group in the advising center I lead. With that as background, what follows is the nitty-gritty of my Monday.
I get up every morning at 6 a.m. to walk my dog for an hour and do some stretching. Given the speed with which I need react every day to new situations, trying to maintain at least a minimal level of physical well-being is enormously advantageous. I walk in Central Park or Riverside Park in every season and enjoy it immensely. On Mondays, I get to work around 8:30 a.m. and review the to-do list I created on Friday afternoon before I left for the weekend. (I probably work for several hours on a weekend day every other weekend.) Monday mornings are reserved for two things: strategic thinking, whether it be about staffing or budget or an initiative I’m participating in or driving; and for crisis management. Depending on what happened over the weekend, the morning might be completely waylaid to deal with crises. Luckily, this semester, there haven’t been many Monday mornings like that. This particular Monday, I am spending time on a project I call “Early Advising and Registration for Incoming Students.” The idea is that advisers would connect with every incoming student in June, soon after they had committed to the school. During a 45-minute conversation, the advisers, already having read the application, would learn more about the student, their hopes, their dreams, their backgrounds, their anxieties, and help prepare them to register in June for the fall term. There are many obstacles to this working, so I spend some time figuring out my next step in the proposal process.
In the course of the morning, several advisers stop by to talk about a student’s situation and bounce some ideas around about the best next step. In one case, on this particular Monday, we learn that a student who has already applied to medical school has been found responsible for cheating on an in-class exam, so the head of pre-professional advising and I discuss whom to contact both internally and externally since we are bound to report such violations. Another adviser stops by to say that she is going to reach out to residential life folks to schedule a hospital visit to see an advisee. A third adviser comes in to talk about the best way to connect an advisee with faculty in three departments he is interested in. A fourth pokes his head in to say that he is working with a faculty member to create a program for Friday for the whole staff on the new summer science research initiatives. The morning goes on like this — I bob and weave between conversations and thinking, writing, making phone calls, and answering emails.
On this Monday afternoon, I have reserved 90 minutes for advising. At 1 p.m., a delightful sophomore, let’s call her Samantha, comes in for a 30-minute conversation about her academic direction. She is feeling completely uninspired by economics and feels pulled mightily by her theater interests. This kind of a switch, from something students and their parents feel is practical to something that seems less practical but moves the student at her core is not unusual. Samantha and I talk about how she came to the realization that theater might be better for her, what the implications might be in terms of her future, what her parents might say, which faculty to connect with, how her summer plans would be changed, and what some likely post-college options could be. The 30-minute conversation turns into an hour. Luckily, no one had scheduled an appointment for 30 minutes after hers. Samantha leaves the advising meeting with a list of next steps, including connecting with the theater department faculty that day. We make a follow-up appointment for Thursday. In my final half hour of advising, I see three students for 10-minute appointments each for quick questions. One wants to check on the deadline for dropping a course in the spring term and wants to be sure he understands the full implications of the drop. Another needs to leave campus early on Friday for a football game and doesn’t know how to approach his instructor about it. A third comes in to circle back to me to let me know that the new adviser I had assigned her to was working out very well.
After every appointment, I quickly type the advising notes into our custom advising management system, grab some handouts that I had created last week, and run to a 3 p.m. senior staff meeting of the college where, when my turn comes, I update everyone on the “Early Advising” project and get some useful feedback and then also learn about salient issues and projects from my boss, the dean of the college, and from my peers in global programs, fellowships, career education, academic affairs, alumni affairs, development, finance, human resources, IT, judicial affairs, gender-based misconduct, and student affairs. I take copious notes and rush back to my office where I add the highlights to my leadership team meeting agenda, which takes place on Wednesday mornings. We use those meetings for three things: transmitting information from the schools to the advisers, bringing issues from the seven units of the advising center to the leadership team for discussion and action; and for discussing strategy and issues that affect the whole advising center.
Now it’s 4:30 p.m. About 75 emails have arrived since I started advising at 1 p.m., so I look them over. Recently, I have begun to call people back to discuss things when the required response is complex. So, I call the registrar to talk over a request for data he submitted to me. Then I call the head of counseling services to talk about a difficult student issue. I also received a somewhat cryptic message from the office of general counsel, so I call the lawyer back to talk over another intricate student issue. Finally, I call a parent who reported to me by email that his daughter not only did not like her college experience thus far, but also was ill and didn’t like her adviser. When I call him, it turns out that his need to talk is high, so I spend about 20 minutes listening to him while checking our advising notes to see what had transpired in the past with the adviser and the student. Once he has finished, I let him know as kindly and gently as possible that I will look into the situation and call him back the next day. I immediately find the adviser and get her sense of what is going on and she initiates a wellness check on the student. I then reach out to the head of parent programs to learn as much as I can about their interactions with the parent. Once I get a full picture, I then collaborate with the adviser and her supervisor to create the best plan forward. In a situation like this, I usually write a draft email back to the parent, cc’ing all the relevant parties, but save it in my drafts for review to be sent out the next day.
It’s now after 5 p.m., my time to clean up after the day, check in with some of my favorite colleagues, and see what awaits me the next day. It usually takes me until about 7 p.m. to feel like I have finished everything I need to. I take great pleasure in looking over my to-do list again at the end of the day to see what I can cross off as I’ve been adding things to it all day. I don’t leave until my desk is completely cleared off, my to-do items are in a folder designated for them, my phone messages have been cleared out, and the emails in my inbox number fewer than 50. Ready for Tuesday!