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VPbanner.jpgJana Spitzer, University of Tennessee

Jana Spitzer.jpgI have worked as a full-time academic advisor for four and a half years.  Recently, I have spent some time reflecting on the things I have learned so far during my professional journey.  While I am certain that my views will evolve with time, I choose to reflect on my career now while I still remember exactly how it felt to be “new” in case my experiences can help someone just starting out in the profession.  To borrow from Oscar Wilde (1892), “Experience is the name everyone gives to their mistakes.” Considering some of my previous misconceptions seems like a potential opportunity for learning and growth for others as well as myself. 

Please allow me to share a few of my early misconceptions:

I underestimated my potential impact.  As a new advisor, I understood that my role involved more than just advising students about their curriculum, but I did not fully grasp how greatly I could influence another person’s life—for better or for worse, hopefully always for better.  I actively sought information about career paths and resources on campus, but I had no idea the extent to which my words and actions could alter the course of events for another person.  Over the years, I have introduced students to majors they had not considered and provided information about new career options they did not know existed.  I have watched their faces light up with excitement at the prospect of a program which might be a good fit, and it is hard not to get lost in that enthusiasm as well.  Many students come to my office lost and seeking answers to lessen their anxiety about the future.  This may or may not be a service I can provide.  I am certainly not saying that there is something wrong with sharing in a student’s joy.  In fact, I think that is one of the kindest and simplest gifts I can give a student.  Rather, as time has passed, I have realized that I need to proceed cautiously as I present information and resources so as not to unduly disclose my preferences, for it is not my future that is so heavily impacted.  To me, the purpose of advising, especially as it relates to major and career selection, is to help students make an informed decision—their decision. 

I believed, especially in the very beginning, that I had little to contribute to my office.  In fact, I sometimes felt like a hindrance.  I remember my first few months as a full-time academic advisor well.  I felt like a fraud, and I was constantly worried that I would offer inaccurate or incomplete advice.  Looking back, I think I was mostly afraid of what I did not know.  Would following an earlier catalog year be more beneficial for the student?  I did not know!  I was still trying to grasp the caveats and exceptions of the current year’s curriculum.  I was constantly seeking help from other advisors and often felt like I was asking the same questions for clarification multiple times.  I now know that is completely normal, expected, and okay.  More importantly, I wish I would have recognized all that I brought to the table as a new advisor.  I have an academic background in sociology, a discipline which has taught me a lot about social interactions and looking at complex problems on both a micro and macro scale.  Furthermore, I had taught college-level courses, and while I touted my belief in teaching as an integral part of the advising process during my job interview, I somehow forgot that I had that asset to contribute in the beginning.  Now, having trained several new advisors in our office, I recognize just how much new team members have to offer, sometimes sooner than they realize their own benefit.  Even recent graduates from college student personnel programs whom we have hired with little formal experience in higher education bring an incredible and current understanding of student development theories.  Additionally, they offer new perspectives and question the old systems we have in place.

I thought I was pretty good at having “tough” conversations.  Sometimes as advisors we have to have incredibly difficult conversations.  I thought I was ready for that.  I had a little experience advising freshmen at orientation, but that experience led to few conversations which would lead to tears or life-altering choices.  In my previous career, banking, I had to have many seemingly negative conversations with customers about a variety of requests.  I now must admit, tough conversations in advising are completely different.  In some instances, it involves shaking a person’s future plans to the core and forcing them to reexamine their major and/or career plans.  In many ways, these conversations are more difficult than the ones I had in my previous career about people’s financial status because issues related to advising often affect people’s core sense of self in a very intimate way.  We cannot underestimate the importance of these conversations, and having a strategy is imperative.  One quote which I have found as a helpful departure point states, “Everybody is a genius.  But, if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing it is stupid.”   Some attribute this quote to Albert Einstein, although I believe the origins are up for debate.  Regardless, I think this quote makes an important point.  Students, rather people in general, have to find what they are good at in order to increase their likeliness of success and to increase the likeliness of finding happiness in their career.  And, maybe in some ways the quote is wrong.  Maybe everyone is not a “genius,” per se.  And, perhaps people can force themselves or train themselves to be good at a thing that they do not naturally enjoy, but I do believe that people have inclinations toward certain subjects/fields and that people gravitate toward things they enjoy.  Helping students discover their passions and strengths sooner rather than later can be a great way to make tough conversations considerably easier.

I thought I needed to keep a distance from my students.  When I first started advising, I kept my guard up.  I wanted advising sessions to be about the student, and of course, it ultimately should be.  What I did not realize, was that the more I tried to avoid disclosing information about myself, the more I failed to build meaningful relationships with the students I advised.  A few months ago, I attended a presentation by NACADA Past President Jennifer Bloom.  During her presentation, Bloom stated on a couple of occasions, “It is okay to love your students.”  She truly made a point to emphasize this statement to let us know that it is okay to get personal with our students.  Advising is a personal field.  Obviously, it is crucial to remain professional as well, but that doesn’t mean that we, as advisors, cannot love our students, relate to our students, and share personal experiences with students when it is relevant to their current situations. 

With every semester that passes, I gain an even greater appreciation for academic advising as a profession.  This career path can be stressful and draining, but mostly it is joyous and rewarding.  I love leaving work every day knowing that I have done my best to positively influence the students I have encountered.  I hope others can learn from the mistakes I have made or at least relate to them in some way.  So, while the word “mistake” may have secured a negative connotation over the years, let us not forget the benefits of our inexperience and consider Oscar Wilde’s quote once more: “Experience is the name everyone gives to their mistakes.”  At least I can now say with certainty that I have gained experience.

Jana Spitzer, Ph.D
Coordinator of Advising and Assessment
College of Education, Health, and Human Sciences
University of Tennessee
jspitzer@utk.edu

Reference

Wilde, O. (1893). Lady Windermere’s Fan: A play about a good woman. London: E. Mathews and J.Lane.


Cite this article using APA style as: Spitzer, J. (2015, March). Reflections of a new advisor. Academic Advising Today, 38(1). Retrieved from [insert url here]
Posted in: 2015 March 38:1

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