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Deena Williams Newman, Darton State College

Deena Williams Newman An honest person is often difficult to find.  Officials at an automobile company lie and skirt emissions standards.  Sports figures are caught using performance-enhancing drugs and employing other dishonest methods to win.  Politicians misuse statistics, twist facts, and retell known lies about their opponents in order to win an election.  Even in the academic world, plagiarism and cheating are significant problems on college and university campuses.  Unfortunately, a few academic advisors have even been caught up in scandals involving academic misconduct and fraud and aiding students improperly. 

In spite of cultural trends against honest and ethical behavior, academic advisors must stand strong in support of honest practices in the profession.  According to NACADA’s Statement of Core Values, students who seek advising have a right to, among other things, honest professional service (NACADA, 2005).  Over my 11 years of advising students, I have faced some challenging situations and learned some lessons about what it means to provide honest professional service. 

Advisors must be honest about the demands of college life.  Advisors, especially at access institutions, need to let first-generation students know the basics.   From the beginning, students need to know they need to spend at least two to three hours outside of class each week for each credit hour they are taking.  It must be made clear that studying, reading, and writing assignments must take priority if students are to succeed.  I’ve had students tell me, “Put me in easy classes.”  My tactful, honest response is that college is not meant to be easy and very few classes are “easy.”   This is especially true for new students who sign up for online classes, thinking they will be less work than face-to face classes.  Without nonverbal clues, it is sometimes a challenge to advise over the phone or by e-mail and combat some myths about the demands of online education. 

Advisors must also be honest with students when they communicate about future goals.  For example, an advisor cannot mislead an advisee into thinking she can get into a competitive nursing program when her GPA is barely 2.0.  An honest response is tough to give because no caring advisor wants to crush a student’s dreams, but it is necessary to tell the truth.  Of course, concern and discussion of a more realistic Plan B for the future should be a part of the agenda. 

Advisor honesty is key when helping students schedule classes for upcoming semesters.  I have advised students who were trying to work 40 hours a week and take 15 or 16 semester hours at the same time.  They were disappointed when I advised them against overloading themselves, but at least they were given an honest warning.  Students whose advisors do not assist them in developing an appropriate educational plan early on may feel misled when they have to delay graduation a semester or two. 

An honest advisor will be open with students about their fears and anxiety about attending college.  A few semesters ago in my first year experience class, students had to write their feelings about attending college on an online discussion.  I was amazed at their responses, particularly their fear of failing.  They felt pressure from their parents to do well and did not want to disappoint them.  This fear motivated some new students to do well, while it almost paralyzed others, especially first-generation college students, some of whose families’ hopes and dreams for a better future rested solely on them.  Allowing students to discuss those fears in a non-threatening environment may help students realize they are not alone.  An advisor who can be vulnerable with students and share in an appropriate manner from her own college experience can also be helpful.  

An effective advisor can’t sit back and allow a student to self-destruct.   I’ve been honest with some struggling students and have even suggested they may want to consider taking a break and sitting out a semester or two.  Of course, I try to do it with kindness.  I don’t bluntly tell them they are unmotivated, young, and unprepared for college and need to time to mature, get out in the work world, and think about their future plans.  In my 11 years as an advisor, it has been a real joy to see some of those same students take my advice and later return to college with a renewed sense of purpose and a desire to learn. 

Honesty is needed when relating to students who are in college for one reason: money.  Some think that having a college degree will enable them to get a high-paying job and they will be set for life.  Admittedly, statistics on lifetime earnings do show that college graduates earn more than high school graduates; however, money won’t buy happiness.  I have known of students who changed their majors from social work, education, or another low-paying profession simply because they yearned to make more money.  When I know the student is one who would be successful in a helping profession, I ask questions to make sure he is not chasing money over doing what he really wants to do to make a difference in the world. 

As well as being honest with students, advisors need to be honest with themselves.  They should be open about issues that may influence their interaction with students, such as issues related to gender, race, socioeconomic status, culture, and sexual orientation.  Generational differences may also come into play.  An effective advisor must be self-aware enough to realize he is likely very different in many ways from the students he advises.  This is not a bad thing unless the student feels he cannot get the support and assistance he needs.  For example, Advisor A may have difficulty relating to a student who is disengaged and unmotivated because he never experienced those feelings himself when he was in college.  Advisor B, who was not a first-generation college student, may need to work harder to build relationships with his advisees who are the first in their families to attend college. 

Wise advisors are honest about their own weaknesses and limitations.  I am always suspicious of advisors who think they know everything about every program, policy, and course offering.  I much prefer to work with advisors who are not afraid to admit they are not sure about a pre-requisite or requirement and take the time to double check, make phone calls, or refer the student to other resources when necessary. 

At times, being honest is a challenge.  In an institutional environment that is numbers driven, it is somewhat risky to be totally honest with students.  Should an advisor actually tell a high-risk student that she would be better off going to a technical school than attending a state college?  Such honesty would hurt enrollment but help retention rates.  What does honesty mean when relating to students with extremely low entrance scores?  How can I be honest with a student who lists psychology as her major but she can’t spell psychology correctly?  How can I be honest when advising a declared pre-engineering major who requires math support classes? 

Advisors, then, must have the courage to be honest with students and with themselves.  In the long run, an honest advisor will be more respected and trusted than one who avoids dealing with difficult issues.  Honest advisors are the role models students need in a society where honesty is often not valued. 

Deena Williams Newman
Advising Center Coordinator
Peer Tutoring Coordinator
Darton State College
deena.newman@darton.edu

References

NACADA. (2005). NACADA statement of core values of academic advising.  NACADA Clearinghouse. Retrieved from http://www.nacada.ksu/Resources/Clearinghouse/View-Articleds/Core-values-of-academic-advising.aspx

Cite this article using APA style as: Willams Newman, D. (2016, December). Honest advising. Academic Advising Today, 39(4). Retrieved from [insert url here] 

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Academic Advising Today, a NACADA member benefit, is published four times annually by NACADA: The Global Community for Academic Advising. NACADA holds exclusive copyright for all Academic Advising Today articles and features. For complete copyright and fair use information, including terms for reproducing material and permissions requests, see Publication Guidelines.