At StraighterLine, we live and breathe online learning and are focused on student success 24x7. We’ve teamed up with Anita Bruzesse, an award-winning career expert and author of two career-related books, to speak with several experienced student advisors to provide a roadmap to success for those on the frontline working with students during this time of Covid and remote learning advising.
By Anita Bruzesse
As students and faculty adjust to the challenges of online learning during COVID-19, student advisors are also learning how they can be most effective when advising students remotely.
Experienced student advisors interviewed for this story offer a host of strategies and tips on how to successfully communicate with students, stay motivated, maintain connections and remain productive during these challenging times. They also stress another key point: Student advisors must also take care of themselves while helping students succeed during a global pandemic.
In addition to speaking with several StraighterLine students advisors for this guide, we interviewed eight experienced advisors from a diverse selection of schools, from The City University of New York’s (CUNY) Baruch College to adult-serving institutions such as Franklin University to online institutions such as the University of Louisiana Monroe Online.
Adapting to Change
Now more than ever, students need student advisors to help them navigate online classes, upended routines, increased anxiety, and uncertainty around "what’s next?" The dedicated advisors interviewed for this guide identified some of the major concerns students are facing during this time. These include financial hardships, making the transition to online-only classes, concern about how grades will be assessed and what remote learning means for reaching their degree goals. The advisors interviewed say that by being flexible and focusing on student success, they can meet individual needs even when working remotely.
"It’s important to keep the same student-focused mindset of this position (student advisor) in order to really help students, as well as reach the goals we have as individuals and as an institution," says Peter Dachille, an academic advisor at Baruch College who guides students through general undergraduate degree plans. "The student and I are not in the same room during an appointment, but I don't change my approach on providing assistance and being approachable, from being glad to 'see' them again, and engaged in a manner that shows that I am ready to help."
Jess Leber, an academic advisor and team lead at Franklin University, finds that reminding the adult students she works with of the ways they’ve already learned to be resilient in their lives can help them move forward with the new challenges.
“COVID-19 is a big thing, for certain, but our adult students have already experienced the need to adapt to big changes in their lives, whether it’s having a new child or working full-time while going back to school,” Leber says. “As advisors, we can steer students toward taking advantage of their own resilience as well as the flexibility our faculty, staff, and university offers. As an advising team, we have experience with being accommodating to our students’ changing needs – and, during this time, it has been a difference maker to our students’ success.”
For this guide, seasoned, successful advisors were asked about their jobs and the advice they would give to other student advisors working during this time. Among the advice:
Focus on Goals
As remote learning ramps up and students come to advisors with a growing list of challenges, it’s easy to start to feel overwhelmed. By focusing on why you became a student advisor and how your actions are making a real difference for students and their families, you will find it easier to stay motivated, advisors say.
DeeDee Bowers, director of academic advising at Franklin University, says that all of her advisors “pride themselves on being helpful and compassionate to our mostly adult student population.”
“We are motivated by the success of a single parent taking care of children, or the graduation of a student who has faced many obstacles, or the older generation parent who is obtaining a degree to show their family what they 'can do,'" Bowers says.
Gloria Dreamer, Straighterline manager of student support, says: "Our goal is to not look at how quickly we can address student concerns, but rather to ensure each student is –and feels – as if they have been fully supported and we have resolved concerns prior to ending the engagement. Every day, we help change students' lives as they work to reach their goals."
Student advisors share a deep commitment to helping students succeed in their courses and degree programs, but it’s not always clear what life roadblocks exist for each student. Especially during this time, it’s critical to ask more questions of the student to truly understand the issue, whether it’s worry over paying bills or caring for a sick relative. Once the root cause of a student’s problem is understood, then student advisors will be more effective in helping to find the right solution.
"The best way to communicate with students is by putting myself in their shoes. Understanding where they are coming from is huge in this line of work because it allows you to see from the students' perspective," says Kasey Dolch, a Straighterline student advisor.
Address Individual Struggles
Those interviewed for this story say that advisors need to understand these are unprecedented times and may require them to come up with unique solutions that need to be changed daily. Advisors also need to be prepared that there isn’t a cookie cutter solution – each student will face unique circumstances that require some innovative thinking by advisors.
Robert Lewis, an academic advisor at Franklin University, describes advising students at this time as “breathtaking.”
“As an advisor,” Lewis explains, “you witness the pure frustration of the students trying to maneuver through this difficult time, followed by their overwhelming joy when the at team at the university offers a solution that will work and gives them hope!"
Taishawn Lively, academic advisor at Franklin University, says that it’s important to be understanding of each student’s individual situation.
“This is especially important when so many working adult students are finding themselves having to adjust to the reality of stay-at-home requirements and remote work, all while juggling classes, taking care of their own families, and/or facing financial difficulties that they could not have foreseen," Lively says.
At the same time, advisors should be on the lookout for students struggling with a lack of motivation, says Dachille of Baruch College.
"Many want and are used to that 'in class' motivation, which is provided by physically being on campus and in a classroom and not at home, where a private quiet space, technology, or moral support may be lacking,” he says.
He adds that advisors need to direct students to resources available to them remotely, such as counselors, financial assistance and tech support, all while personally encouraging students through extra support and communication.
Stay Connected and Productive
Not only are students finding new ways to work, so are student advisors. Working remotely may be a unique experience for some, and there are often challenges such as figuring out how to stay productive and feel a sense of connection to others.
Katie Dawson, director of ULM Online, says that she’s learned some important lessons while working remotely. "As much as I can I maintain a routine, I do, but when I do stray, I cut myself some slack. This is a weird time and it's okay to not be okay all the time."
Lisa Tolliver, the academic advisor team lead at Franklin University, promotes using technology to keep relationships with colleagues alive. "I was missing the interaction with colleagues that I had already formed relationships with. Microsoft Teams has helped me to be able to video chat or reach out to my colleagues so I could continue with the human interaction and relationships essential to thriving in this position,” she says.
Leber, of Franklin University, offers tips about creating a work-life balance.
"Be willing to ask for help when you need it,” he says. “Having a designated, quiet space for work, ideally somewhere where you can turn off the computer at the end of the workday so that it can be out of sight and out of mind the rest of the evening. And sign off as close to the regularly scheduled end of your day as possible. When I do that, I know I’m less tired and more focused the following day(s)."
Find Ways to Cut Stress
Student advisors often burn the candle at both ends and the difficulty of creating a work/life balance during a pandemic can mean a lack of self-care as they focus on others.
Megan Johnson, an academic advisor at Franklin University, recommends using a strategy of planning ahead to “celebrate” and mark the end of the work day.
“I try to have something to look forward to after my shift is over. Whether I plan on taking a walk down to the local ice cream stand with my husband and son or trying out a new exercise routine, this reduces my stress levels during my shift," she says.
Dawson says she reaches out to colleagues – who she says are “like family” – when she’s lonely.
She also walks around her neighborhood to get exercise and listens to music while working. A bright spot of working from home? “Getting to hang with my 'furry co-workers' is a big plus!" she says.
Despite the challenges posed by COVID-19, student advisors can remain dedicated to ensuring student success without sacrificing their own professional goals and health. Student advisors, new or experienced, should consider the advice provided by these seasoned professionals to become the best student advisors they can be during this time – and help their students reach their degree goals.
Anita Bruzzese is an award-winning journalist and the author of two career-related books.