Academic Advisors and Where to Find Them

I have to confess, when I took my first academic advising job, I had no real concept of what an advisor was supposed to do. I’d met my own exactly once; he laid out a rainbow of curriculum plans, I chose red, and we called it a day. But the job sounded interesting, and I wanted to work in higher ed, so I applied. It turns out I didn’t have much to worry about, because none of my coworkers knew what professional academic advisors did, either. Up to that point advising hadn’t been a big focus, so no one was really sure what to do with me. I spent my first year focusing largely on new student orientation-a valuable experience, but not much advising.

It’s ok if you’re in the same boat as my former coworkers. A lot of people on college campuses still don’t know exactly what advisors do. Fortunately, that’s changing. Academic advising as a profession has been around since the 1970’s, and it continues to grow and thrive. Advisors today are involved in scholarship, serve as campus leaders, and actively seek that much coveted place at the table in student success conversations.

Advising, described by Wes Habley as the “hub of the wheel” of student services, serves as a common thread connecting the multitude of student experiences (Nutt, 2003).

That means the advising role extends out to the whole campus community. In the spirit of advising as collaboration, I want to let you in on the secret life of advisors, and give you some hints on how we can help you do your job better.

First thing to know: advising is not registration. Just about anyone can show a student how to register for a class. Advising is about teaching students to effectively navigate the college environment in service to their academic, personal, and career goals. When I have a “registration” appointment with a student, I’m checking in on their progress, identifying and addressing barriers, listening for signs that the student needs additional resources, sometimes just letting the student vent, and then, finally, helping the student decide which classes to sign up for. By the time we’re done with all that, registration is almost an afterthought. Advisors have to be efficient, sure, but the student as a person always comes first. I’m not saying we don’t care about registration goals, but if a student expresses concerns about their active situation, we’re talking about that first.
Registration

How that helps you: We pay a LOT of attention to the state of the student body. We know who’s working too many hours, who’s pregnant, whose parents are just a little too involved, or who isn’t acting like themselves lately.

We also pay a lot of attention to you. We know which instructors are guilty of death by PowerPoint. We know which department never answers the phone, but will respond to an e-mail. We know who seems a little brusque at first, but is actually great. Students trust us, and they’re more likely to trust the people we tell them are cool-that’s you! But we can’t vouch for you if we don’t know you, so take advantage of that vast student knowledge under our hats. Ask us about individual students, or student behavior in general. We loooove to help, and when you treat us as the expert colleagues we are, we have a chance to learn more about you, too.

Next thing to know is that we want to be involved, but we’re kind of a shy bunch. My unscientific deduction is that about 2/3 of advisors are classic Myers-Briggs introverts (INTJ here). This may seem a bit counterintuitive in such a student-facing role, but the one-on-one, personal interaction that makes up the meat and potatoes of advising is what really gets us excited. We may not enjoy group sessions and orientations as much, and we’re often the ones trying to move things along when staff meetings start to creep past the scheduled end time. Between advising meetings, documentation, and other duties as assigned, we may look up and realize we haven’t left our desks all day.

How that helps you: Two things typically keep advisors from jumping in: they tend to stay close to the office, and they’re busy. I’d bet there’s at least one advisor on campus that would gladly be on your committee/task force/planning team, but they won’t think to come to you.

Make the first move. Since we do seem to run in packs, reaching out to one advisor could open up a whole new pool of collaborators for you. If you’re lucky enough to have an extroverted advisor or two on campus, they make great allies for getting others engaged as well. Busy is harder to navigate, but still manageable. Chat with an advisor and find out when peak advising seasons are on your campus. Some are intuitive (like right around registration deadlines) and some are less so (yes, I’m here in the summer, and yes, I have plenty to do). We’re much more open to jumping in on projects and activities during slower times of year. We’re frequently willing to lend our skills in other ways, too, like being the point person for a new technology or sharing documents we’ve created.

Office Meeting That brings us to my final tip: advisors are full of hidden talents. Because so much of our work is done behind the scenes, faculty and other staff may not realize that an expert advisor knows a little bit of everything. From admissions to graduation, if a student needs it, we know something about it. We also spend quite a bit of time taking on opportunities to develop as professionals. Advisors do a great job of telling each other what we’re up to, but we often neglect to make our work known on our own campuses. I have one colleague who’s an experienced grant writer. I know another who can turn almost any kind of technology into an advising tool. I really like data, so I learned how to navigate several types of reporting software very early in my current role. We’re naturally curious and actively seek out chances to grow.

How that helps you: Now that you’ve started getting to know your friendly neighborhood academic advisor, you’re better positioned to use our skills to your advantage.

My advising friends and I are always glad to share our non-advising skills for the good of the cause. For day-to-day issues, we usually have a general idea of what you’re talking about, and may have useful suggestions, resources, or information. For example, if you ask an advisor why you’re having attendance issues at your workshops, you may find out that you’ve been scheduling them at the same time as a class that’s only available to your target group once a year. Advisors are uniquely positioned to see the constellation of student preferences, campus peculiarities, and curriculum all in one place.

Every campus’ advising program has its own special flavor, but better partnerships always start the same way: talk to us. Academic advisors may not be the loudest voice in the room, but we have a lot to contribute. Find out what we do, and what we can do. We want to collaborate with you. Get to know your advisors to find out how they fit into the context of your work. Advisors’ chief interest is student success, and I’m guessing that’s something you can relate to.

References:

Nutt, Charlie L. (2003). Academic advising and student retention and persistence from the NACADA Clearinghouse of Academic Advising Resources Web site. http://www.nacada.ksu.edu/tabid/3318/articleType/ArticleView/articleId/636/article.aspx