David Throgmorton, Carbon County Higher Education Center
Editor’s Note: David Throgmorton, Executive Director of the Carbon County Higher Education Center in Rawlins, Wyoming, was the invited speaker for the Opening Session of the NACADA Region 10 Conference in Cheyenne, Wyoming in May 2009. The following article is adapted from that address.
When life is ambiguous, people tend to cling to the familiar. They aren’t likely to try new things. They are not likely to experiment. In a word, when times are uncertain, people hunker down.
And times are uncertain. Phony industries like Enron have collapsed. Legitimate institutions like Washington Mutual and Merrill Lynch appeared healthy one day, then withered into bankruptcy and disappeared the next.
Worst of all, major industries that actually produced things—the automobile industry chief among them—are being dismantled daily.
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics dispassionately tells us who pays the price for this. In March of 2008, the unemployment rate for adults without a high school education was 9.5%. A year later, the unemployment rate for adults without a high school education was 13.3%. Comparable figures for adults with a bachelor’s degree or higher were 2.0% in 2008 and 4.3% in 2009.
The message is clear: in uncertain times, the most vulnerable people in our country are those with the least education.
Ten years ago, you were advising people who wanted you to lead them down the path to prosperity. Today, you are advising people who want you to lead them down the path to security. They are frightened.
The NACADA declaration of values unequivocally states that advisors are responsible to their advisees, their home institutions, the educational community and to the principle of higher education. I would add two more responsibilities.
- You are responsible for not being afraid, for not being timid.
- You are responsible for creating a culture of optimism at your institution.
Presidents need to be frugal. Deans need to be cautious. Professors need to be territorial. Academic advisors need to be bold.
There are four key areas where academic advisors need to be bold. Hang tight on these, and you will fulfill the NACADA values. More importantly, you will serve your advisees well.
First, never forget that as an academic advisor, you are the front lines of hope for your advisees. You know your people. You’ve encountered the 18-year-old who wants to be an art historian but whose parents want her to be a beautician because, even during a recession, people want to get their hair done.
And you know the desperation of the 45-year-old shift worker who has been laid off and has no clue how to prepare for another line of work.
These people are not looking to the president or the dean or their professors for advice. They are looking to you. They are investing their hope in your ability to understand their plight and to suggest a path out of the darkness. Clearly your advice for the 18-year-old will be different than your advice to the 45-year-old, but in each case you need to keep hope alive.
Hope is important. Hope is real. Hope gives people the courage to move on. And academic advisors give shape to hope.
Second, your advisees want you to connect the dots between them and security. Your real task is to help them connect the dots between them and….themselves. The Enron guys connected the dots between themselves and security, but in the process they lost sight of their purpose. They were not evil; they were simply disconnected.
Your advisees will not be truly secure simply acquiring the skills to do a job. They will truly be secure when they know what they are capable of doing, what they are capable of knowing, and how they are capable of adapting to shifting circumstances.
The most important tool in your repertoire is the ability to listen and to mold what you hear into a coherent plan. People solve their own conundrums, but they look for outside validation. Your validation must assure your advisees that understanding themselves sounds trite but is, in fact, the only way to secure an education that will allow them to actually prosper.
Third, resist pressure to dumb down academic advising to job training or career counseling. The unemployment figures mentioned earlier pivot on education. There is a movement afoot to equate job preparation certificates with an education. There is pressure being put on institutions to promote certificates based on single multiple choice exams as a quick alternative to degrees.
You know better. A high school graduate with a career preparation certificate is still a high school graduate. A high school drop out with a career preparation certificate is still a high school drop out. And these people are vulnerable in the job market. You will be called upon to promote these spurious certifications. Do what you need to do to protect your job, but make sure your advisees understand that a genuine education is the only long-term solution to their circumstances.
Education matters and people in your institution are being pressured into pretending otherwise. The Bureau of Labor Statistics is your ally, and you should wave their data like a bloody flag.
Fourth, tell your advisees to follow their hearts, no matter how absurd it seems. Put a huge poster in your office quoting the words of Daniel Burnham, the architect of the Chicago World’s Fair: Make no little plans! They have no magic to stir men’s blood. Ditch the sexist words and embrace the sentiment. Tell your advisees about the businesses that began during the most oppressive economic circumstances: Hyatt, Burger King, CNN, Wikipedia, Lexus-Nexus, Fed Ex, Microsoft, Jim Henson Productions…. More importantly, there are millions of small businesses they have never heard of that were founded during harsh economic times. Each of them prospered because the founder believed in him or herself. Each succeeded because they had an advisor tell them to pull out the stops, let out the reins and to work hard at what they love. Successful enterprises are not initiated by timid people, frightened people, hunkered down people. As an academic advisor it is your responsibility to make this clear, to encourage courage, to blow oxygen on a spark.
Academic advising has never been more important. It is not about discerning the arcane institutional rules that students need to follow in order to graduate. It is about connecting students to themselves, providing them with the courage to pursue their dreams and helping them realize their purpose beyond simply securing a paycheck.
This is the stuff of real life. What a wonderful job you have. Be bold! This is no time to hunker down.
Carbon County Higher Education Center
Cite this article using APA style as: Throgmorton, D. (2009, September). The front lines of hope: Helping students connect to themselves for a brighter future. Academic Advising Today, 32(3). Retrieved from [insert url here]