Vince Hernandez, Texas A&M University
When I began to advise students on my own, I recall one of the most impactful moments on my young career. I had just met with a student who was having a very serious concern about her graduation timeframe and remaining coursework. At the end of our session, we had developed a game plan and she felt so much more at peace about what she had to do to earn her degree. As she left my office, she turned around and stated, “Vince, this was one of the best advising sessions I have ever had. You really helped make everything seem so easy. Thanks!” For a relatively new advisor, that moment really opened my eyes about the impact I could have in this profession. I felt on top of the world, like I could do no wrong. The thing about that situation is that everything I did was based on what and how I was trained. If every appointment, every day, and every year could be like that moment, this was going to be the most enjoyable and least stressful career I could have hoped for.
The reality is that no job is that perfect. In the advising profession, advisors strive to have a positive impact each and every day. To some, advisors can be viewed as heroes because we find ways to solve complex problems that have no simple solution. Advisors tend to wear a wide spectrum of hats, all while fulfilling our day-to-day primary responsibility of helping students grow and develop—not just as scholars, but as individuals. One of the hardest things advisors typically face is the notion that advisors cannot always be the hero. As advisors, we want to help and we want to make things as easy as possible. Yet, there are so many things that are just beyond our control.
Think about this for a moment: how often during the registration season do advisors receive emails or conduct advising sessions with students who are trying to get a perfect schedule—either based on specific courses they want to take, specific times that would fit with their ideal work schedule, or perhaps just so they have no Friday classes? These students have been unable to craft their flawless schedule because classes are full or there is an unusual shortage of particular courses. Every now and then, underclassmen may ask advisors why they are not willing to help them enroll in a majors-only course even though they are planning to complete their missing 30 hours of lower level coursework at their local junior college over the next three summers.
One thing that I try to warn any advisors that I train and/or mentor, while also reminding myself, is that no matter how good of a person you are, no matter how good your intentions are, no matter your reputation as an advisor, you will not please everyone. When advisors work with students, it is easy to say, “Yes I can do that for you.” However, it can be harder to tell a student “no.” When an advisor tells a student no, it can come across as negative or as the advisor simply not wanting to make a student’s life easier. However, telling a student no could also be the best thing an advisor can do. Here is a good example. It can be easy to try and force a first semester sophomore into a majors-only class that is typically reserved for juniors and seniors. However, advisors have to also examine potential negative effects of that course of action. Perhaps the advisor would be taking away a seat from someone who needs it because they are closer to graduation. Perhaps the advisor would be enabling a student to avoid taking a core class that they have already been putting off for two years.
As advisors, it is critical to always remember that advising is a form of teaching. Advisors must not be afraid to help students have teachable moments. It is in those moments that advisors can help students grow and develop. I recall a student who was frustrated with me because I would not force her into a majors-only course because she had not completed either of our two required math courses. She did not understand why I could not help her when she was planning to take both math courses 12 months later back at her hometown. We proceeded to discuss my reasoning, but more importantly, we discussed her plan to save her math courses. She began to see the risk involved when I shared with her that by proposing to save six hours of a subject that she had concerns with taking at our institution, she was basically causing her potential graduation to hinge on passing both courses at the same time in her final semester. We then began to talk about making more of an effort to take the classes sooner rather than later and what I could do for her fall schedule if she kept in touch as her summer grades were posted.
Some advisors may also play a critical role in the probation/dismissal process within their respective departments and/or colleges. During an appeals process, a student may disclose to an advisor that they have been going through some physical, mental, or emotional circumstances and that has been the primary reason that their academic performance over the past one, two, or three years has not been in good standing. Of course, advisors want to help a student remain on track to graduate in a timely matter. Yet, advisors also care about their students holistically.
Sometimes the best thing we can to do to help students is to help them understand what it means to put themselves first—even if that means they need to take a break from school in order to do so. Students are told in a variety of ways that their academics are their primary responsibility. There is truth in that statement. However, advisors strive to help students gain an opportunity to learn about navigating their responsibilities and needs as an individual. Advisors are often the ones who tell a student, “Maybe working three jobs and taking 16 hours is not a good idea.” I still recall working with an individual last year who had been dismissed for a semester and had been going through severe depression and anxiety for as long has he had been in college. Upon being readmitted, he shared that the dismissal was the best thing that could have happened because it forced him to put his health and well-being first. That statement was so powerful that I continue to share it when I meet with a change of major or first semester student. Advisors should never hesitate to share with our students that not only do we care about a student’s success and their development, but we also have a genuine concern for their well-being.
In this profession, it is easy to become emotionally attached to our students. In my opinion, there is nothing wrong with that. Our emotions make us who we are. Many advisors strive each and every day to help make the lives and experiences of our students as easy and fulfilling as possible. College, like life, can be a series of peaks and valleys. Just like in life, our students can learn and grow just as much, if not more, from the hard times in college as they do in the good times. It can be really easy to throw our students a life-line to help get them out of the valley that there are in. However, advisors can also have a profound impact by simply giving students a map on how to navigate out of their valley and back to where they want to be. It might not be a quick solution, but it could very well be a journey that helps them grow and develop in ways they never thought they could. To me, that is pretty heroic too.
Senior Academic Advisor II
Department of Political Science
College of Liberal Arts
Texas A&M University
Cite this article using APA style as: Hernandez, V. (2017, December). Advisors are not always heroes, and that is ok. Academic Advising Today, 40(4). Retrieved from [insert url here]