Robert D. Mack and Ikenna Acholonu, Tufts University
Editor’s Note: Looking for an opportunity to improve your skills for “advising without borders”? Join our Global Engagement Commission-sponsored panelists for the December 11th webinar on Developing Intercultural Communication Skills for Academic Advising. Interested in joining advising colleagues at a Region Conference? Learn more here.
NACADA promotes student success by advancing the field of academic advising globally, and providing opportunities for professional development, networking, and leadership for our diverse membership (NACADA, 2013). In providing support for a diverse student population as well, opportunities occur for the professional growth of academic advisors. In this article, we explore how student voices should be incorporated into the practice and professional development of academic advisors.
In March 2012, the director and student coordinator of Tufts University’s Bridge to Liberal Arts Success at Tufts (BLAST) program brought six students – Patrick Williams, Wayne Yeh, Whitney Arnold, Liz Palma, Daniel Vargas, and Jared Smith – to the NACADA Region One Conference, Advising Without Borders. BLAST focuses on supporting and retaining first-generation college students, students from under-resourced high schools, and students who are affiliated with college access agencies.
As staff members, we participated in this conference to give our students an opportunity to continue their development as scholars and professionals. When asked for their feedback on their conference experience, the students’ nuanced responses demonstrated the complex understanding that students have of the advising process and how student voices can significantly contribute to the practice and professional development of academic advisors. Following is a portion of that feedback.
Students Felt Welcomed
Students found the conference environment and attendees friendly and welcoming. While they were surprised at how few students were attending the conference, they did not feel out of place. In most cases they were assumed to be professional advisors, and not first-year students. According to Jared Smith, "People were generally eager to see how we [students] understood their thoughts and views on advising. It was almost like they wished they had more students attend the conference."
Student Contributions Received Mixed Responses
Regarding speaking out during the multiple sessions she attended, Whitney Arnold said, "I felt that when I did speak up, some people praised my point of view and said that they wished more students were willing to speak up and share their experiences with them. A few advisors did come up to us after one session and told us that they really appreciated that I spoke up.” This sentiment was expressed by some of the other students as well, including Smith who commented that "I felt my opinions were valued and respected.”
As staff members, we were encouraged by this feedback as we had advised our students to contribute in sessions. Some of the students admitted that the amount of support from conference attendees varied, and others were limited by their lack of comfort with public speaking. At times students felt their contributions were underappreciated.
Students Struggled with Session Content
Though as advisors we intended for our students to increase in their development as scholars and professionals, we also acknowledged that this conference was primarily designed for the professional development of advisors and practitioners rather than for student participants. However, despite the intended audience of the conference, our students wondered if session creators consulted with or considered students when designing their presentations. The following are some examples that were cited:
- Three of the students attended a session on advising first-generation students. When the session began, presenters were dressed in costumes portraying astronauts and aliens as a metaphor for working with first-generation students, foreign to higher education. The audience laughed at this representation, but our students felt silenced and unable to speak about their experience. Two of the students expressed discomfort with the “alien” depiction connected to first-generation students.
- In another account, a Latino student attended a session on microaggressions which was dedicated to discussing how society, and subsequently higher education, is permeated with subtle and unconscious acts of degradation, often directed at racially and/or ethnically minoritized individuals (Yosso, Smith, Ceja, & Solorzano, 2009). As an active social justice advocate on campus, he was excited to see this topic included in the session. However, he was troubled when the majority of session participants were unaware of what a microaggression was. This concern stemmed from his awareness of how much microaggressions had affected his personal experience as a college student.
- Lastly, in a widely attended session focused on lying, two student participants wondered why issues that may prevent students from sharing information with advisors were not addressed. Instead discussion seemed to revolve around “catching” advisees lying. The students instead wanted to discuss techniques for improving dialogue while challenging the image of students as dishonest.
Students Defined “Advising without Borders”
In keeping with the overall conference theme of Advising Without Borders, the students were asked to describe what this meant to them. These are some of the perspectives that were shared:
- Liz Palma and Daniel Vargas thought of the borders that exist in our identities, emphasizing how race, class, culture, and gender can cause divides that students and advisors need to work through. “The geographic, political, and social lines that used to divide the world are disappearing, making the need for culturally humble advisors [and these advisors are] critical for the fair development of members of underprivileged and under-resourced communities,” said Vargas. He added that the power in advising comes from providing services to all identities to empower the members of different communities.
- Jared Smith also expressed the need to support students, regardless of racial, religious, or personal circumstances, with that support generated by an awareness of the life experiences of students and by developing a trusting relationship between advisor and advisee. Whitney Arnold added that holistic advising which provides students with a well-rounded support system could make all the difference. Though not all institutions have the capacity to do this, Arnold expressed how much this human connection impacted her personal experience.
Recommendations and Conclusions
As director and student coordinator of BLAST, our ideas did not completely align with our students’ when planning our presentation for the NACADA conference. Our students gave feedback about our presentation that we did not expect, and at times was tough to hear. However, through their input we changed our approach, improving our knowledge as advisors and as presenters at the conference. As we continue to develop as practitioners, we attempt to listen to our students who advise us on the support they need. This guides our work in building structures to give students more authority and accountability to the success of the program. In response, students develop a culture where they support one another while using us as resources, and we constantly reevaluate our approach based on their needs.
In an attempt to eliminate the borders that divide students and advisors we recommend that practitioners develop structures that encourage open dialogue with their students. This dialogue should include substantive feedback from students to understand the best way for advisors to support them. In professional development environments, knowledge can be exchanged with the help of students from various backgrounds who share their personal experience. This will make practitioners culturally aware of the specific challenges students with different identities face. With increased student involvement in our advising processes the practice and professional development of advisors can be buttressed by the merging of professional expertise and student voices.
Following the conference, student attendee Wayne Yeh asked us, “Do you believe that you advise without borders?” This is a question that we strive to answer each day working toward a style of advising that critically listens to the experiences of students in order to guide the direction of our work. As practitioners who work to empower students, we value their voices. In working directly with student feedback, the hope is that students will develop a confidence and sense of self that will assist in their academic careers, ultimately resulting in the enhancement of student learning and development in a diverse world.
Robert D. Mack
Associate Dean of Undergraduate Education
Student Coordinator of BLAST
NACADA. (2013). Our Vision. Retrieved from http://www.nacada.ksu.edu/About-Us/Vision-and-Mission.aspx
Yosso, T.J. et al. (2009). Critical Race Theory, racial microaggressions, and campus racial climate for Latina/o undergraduates. Harvard Educational Review.79 (4) 659 – 691.
Cite this article using APA style as: Mack, R.D., & Acholonu, I. (2013, December). Incorporating student voices in the practice and professional development of academic advisors. Academic Advising Today, 36(4). Retrieved from [insert url here]