Lisa Peck, Advising Adult Learners Commission Past Chair
As advisors, we wear many hats when we work with adult learners. Not only do we act as human steering mechanisms, directing students to important offices and services on campus, but also advisors tend to serve as confidantes. Sometimes, advisors substitute for the shoulder, or the ear, that the adult learner cannot seem to find anywhere else on campus. Giczkowski and Allen (as quoted by Marques, 2005) noted that “academic advisors should be aware of the special desires and concerns that adult students have when they re-enter college” (p. 5). Marques (2005) further pointed out “adult learners seek a peer relationship of encouragement and care, good advice and – most of all – decent and devoted representation in handling their academic issues…” (p. 6). While academic advisors can, and do, provide guidance and the occasional shoulder, advisors cannot serve as a substitute for the camaraderie and support that comes from a fellow student, someone who is in the trenches. Often friends and family try to be supportive, but because they are not living the adult learner life, they have difficulty empathizing. So, what is the solution to providing the support that adult learners seek?
Peer mentoring and adult learner support groups are ideal solutions to the need for collegial relationships; however, getting adult learners together in one place to support and encourage each other can be a “Catch-22” situation. These students say they want peer support, but rarely do they have time to fit another regularly scheduled commitment into their busy lives. Occasionally, these students come together accidentally and discover the camaraderie that they have been looking for, but didn’t think they had time to create.
This past summer, I received an email from a recent graduate illustrating just how important peer support is for the adult student population – even if the support comes in the form of a silent presence. Jay, a music professional who began college at the traditional age (but who majored in “extracurricular activities” the first time around), was finishing his B.A. in Theater Arts - with a perfect 4.0! In his early fifties, Jay was already a success in his field, so he didn’t need the degree, but he wanted the degree. During his final semester, he commandeered a spot in the university library as his “office,” five days a week, sitting in the same seat at the same work station. The following excerpt from his email illustrates the critical importance of peer support:
Directly in front of me (in the library) sat a woman, an adult learner. She too, was in the same seat, at the same times, every day. We shared very little conversation. We worked side by side, cranking out schoolwork, drinking coffee, eating breakfast or lunch, while working away furiously. Day after day, we sat together, barely communicating, but feeling each other's presence. It was comforting to know I was not alone. In almost every class I took, I was much older than my classmates, and while I was comfortable, there was a disconnect. Seeing that woman in the library every day and saying 'Good Morning,' or just glancing at each other and smiling with a knowing look, was enough to let us know that we had some spiritual support and understanding. On days when I arrived and she wasn't there, I survived, but I missed her. We never really shared any thoughts about our common experience, but we didn't have to. We both understood, and somehow I felt less alone. It helped (Jay Stollman, personal communication, June 4, 2009).
So, what can we do as “human steering mechanisms” to direct adult learners towards each other? How can we help them connect with one another more often, without overwhelming an already packed schedule?
One answer may be to orchestrate chance encounters. At our university, once each month the adult student organization called the Older Wiser Learners (O.W.L.s) holds a “Table Talk” session in the student cafeteria. Students in search of a cup of coffee or a quick bite to eat have an opportunity to stop by and casually chat with other adult learners on campus. Although the traffic is not heavy, these “Table Talk” sessions do attract attention and conversation among adult students.
Also, the formation of an adult learner honor society has provided an opportunity for our adult students to meet and share stories at the annual induction ceremony. In April, we held our third annual Alpha Sigma Lambda induction. Again, busy schedules meant that only half of the new members were able to attend the ceremony, but the ones who did attend remarked upon the connection in the room. As is often the case at traditional universities, this was the first time these adult learners had been in a room exclusively with other adult learners. Most of the time, adult learners tend to blend in with the traditional-aged students on campus, and they can almost assume invisibility. Jay was one of last year’s inductees and I invited him to be the speaker. In his speech, “The Possible Dream,” Jay shared anecdotes about his journey away from academia at the traditional age and back again as an adult learner. There was a palpable connection between Jay and the audience. Smiles lit up faces and heads nodded in agreement as Jay spoke of his academic journey.
A few years ago, as a way to begin peer connections early in the adult learner’s academic journey, I began holding an adult learner orientation the week before classes begin. The orientation lasts about two and one-half hours (approximately as long as an evening class), and students are not only invited to eat and chat with representatives from various campus offices, but they are able to meet other returning students, who share their stories,questions, and challenges. Student evaluations (both formal and informal) indicate how meeting fellow adult learners, prior to beginning classes, eases the transition back to higher education, assuring returning students that they have peers on campus. Adult learners discover that they are not alone in their quest for an education while juggling other life responsibilities and obligations.
Why should advisors care about helping to ease the adult learner’s transition to academia? The Noel-Levitz and Council for Adult and Experiential Learning (CAEL) 2008 National Adult Learners Satisfaction-Priorities Report remarked that “Satisfied students are more likely to be successful students…Satisfaction with an institution includes a combination of academic factors as well as areas related to campus services. An institution needs to identify all of the issues that are relevant to students” (p. 2). Many universities consider the social aspect of student success for the traditional student; however, the importance of peer connections can be overlooked for adult learners.
Julian (as quoted by Skorupa, 2002) said that adult learners have different psychological needs and perspectives than traditional-aged learners. 'Adult students have a greater need for motivation, inspiration and guidance since they have more responsibilities than younger students whose primary responsibility is school,' Julian said. Julian goes on to indicate that many adult students have some degree of fear and stated, 'When they verbalize their fears, they feel better about the investment.” Not only do adult learners need to verbalize their fears to peers who can empathize, but also, as Jay stated in his email, there is comfort in knowing one is not alone. That comfort leads to a sense of place for the adult students at our institutions, and we all know what that means to our institutions – in a word: retention. A comfortable student is a retained student.
Lisa G. Peck
Academic Advisement Center
Western Connecticut State University
Marques, J., & Luna, R. (2005, June). Advising adult learners: The practice of peer partisanship. Recruitment & Retention in Higher Education, 19(6), 5-6. Retrieved June 19, 2009, from Academic Search Premier database.
Noel-Levitz and the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning. 2008 National Adult Student Satisfaction-Priorities Report. Retrieved August 25 2009, from http://18.104.22.168/article.php?category_id=12
Cite this article using APA style as: Peck, L. (2009, December). Advisors can steer adult learners toward peer support. Academic Advising Today, 32
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