Jayne Drake, NACADA President
When the big screen monitor at the Philadelphia International Airport suddenly jumped to life, a uniformed young woman, smiling, asked “Why do you need to produce photo identification at the security screening area?” Because, she said in reply to her own question, “Identity matters. For everyone’s safety and security, our agents must verify that the names on the tickets match the IDs of the passengers.” Identity matters.
Would that establishing our identities were that easy. Who am I? I am the person looking at you from the front page of my passport or from beneath the plastic laminate of my driver’s license. My hair may be longer or shorter by now; I may be heavier or thinner, and I could now be wearing glasses... or not. But, yep, that’s me all right.
Alas, establishing our identity is simply not that easy or obvious. Perhaps even more challenging is working with our students to help them find and “define” theirs. Identity is a complicated thing.
I promise not to weigh down my musings on identity by referencing the collected knowledge of the saints, sages, philosophers, and divines who have had something to say on identity matters—the wisdom of the ages in all that has been thought, said, and recorded. Rather, I would like briefly to view identity formation as a process that the students who sit in our offices undertake every day of the week as they look for our assistance in navigating the sometimes perilous waters of their academic and life plans.
There are plenty of days when we as faculty advisors, professional advisors, counselors, personal tutors, or advising administrators might wish that our students came to us with mature, well-defined, well-refined identities. Our lives as advisors would be so much easier (and simpler) if our students appeared at our doorway as grounded, self-actualized, and responsible adults confident in their academic direction and career aspirations.
At this year’s Region 4 Conference in Atlanta, I had the opportunity to chat privately with the keynote speaker, Erroll Davis, the Chancellor of the University System of Georgia and an enthusiastic advocate of quality academic advising. Advisors, he commented, play a powerful role in higher education today because they stand at the nexus between the students who often enter the academy unformed and undefined and those who leave with identities and life direction shaped by a convergence of influences marked by positive interactions with faculty members and professional advisors. It is the particular responsibility of advisors, Chancellor Davis noted, to guide students to make academic and life plans consistent with their interests and abilities.
While one can reasonably argue that our identities are shaped by our families, friends, the media, education, role models, and the impact of life events, ultimately our lives are of our own making (positive or negative); the direction we choose is, at last, our own responsibility. We must be held accountable for our own actions. It is a fool’s errand to blame others instead of looking into ourselves. This awareness is part of the maturation process and is an invaluable life lesson for faculty and advisors to instill in their students. Encouraging students to accept responsibility for their own actions, and ultimately encouraging students’ self awareness are important life lessons for advisors to encourage.
With Chancellor Davis’s statement in mind, it becomes all the more important for us to be aware of various developmental theories that, in turn, provide insights into students’ cognitive, psychosocial, and ethical development. As a good starting place and overview of these theories, I would point you to Sherri Williams’ 2007 NACADA Clearinghouse article entitled “From Theory to Practice: The Application of Theories of Development to Academic Advising Philosophy and Practice,” in which she summarizes and applies to advising a number of concepts in identity formation from a number of the field’s leading theorists. Among these is theorists Arthur Chickering and the Seven Vectors of Identity Development which he identified in 1969: developing competence, managing emotions, moving through autonomy toward interdependence, developing mature interpersonal relationships, establishing identity, developing purpose, and developing integrity. Close on the heels of these concepts comes Burns Crookston’s and Terry O’Banion’s views that academic advising might best be seen through the lens of student development theories. Identity formation, they argue, is a process of shared responsibility between the advisor and the student, a reciprocal relationship that helps to engender students’ self awareness. In 1982, Ender, Winston, and Miller published a volume entitled Developmental Approaches to Academic Advising that contains an array of chapters on the connections that theorists have made between student identity development and advising. Also offering a useful summary of various approaches to student developmental theory is Susan Frost’s chapter in the first edition of Academic Advising: A Comprehensive Handbook (2000) entitled “Historical and Philosophical Foundations of Academic Advising.”
While no one would argue that advisors need to know all such developmental theories (and I’ve mentioned only a few here), it is, nevertheless, important for advisors to be aware of them as they forge that sometimes sensitive but always crucial relationship between themselves and their advisees. The beginnings of student self examination and identity formation in the academy occur when advisors pose the right questions and create a “safe space” in which advisees are free to explore and make their own decisions. Standing at the nexus, advisors provide the equivalent of Ernest Hemingway’s “Clean Well-Lighted Place”—a place in which students have the opportunity to make sense of their educational experiences and face with confidence their career aspirations, a place from which they can explore their own transformations and their futures. This intersection is a powerful and humbling place for advisors who understand that identity matters.
Jayne Drake, President
NACADA: The Global Community for Academic Advising
Cite this article using APA style as: Drake, J. (2010, September). From the president: She said 'identity matters'. Academic Advising Today, 33(3). Retrieved from [insert url here]