By Anita Bruzesse
Being a student advisor can be as challenging as it is rewarding, but for those who are new to the job, it can also be confusing and intimidating as they attempt to take on a new position while also navigating remote work and an academic experience that is being affected by COVID-19.
But seasoned student advisors are ready to assist new advisors. They well remember what it was like in the early days of the job, and can offer insights such as the most important lessons they've learned on the job and how to be most effective during the new normal.
"New student advisors can be of most value by being honest and open with students and allowing students to indicate what other obstacles are in their lives right now," says DeeDee Bowers, director of academic advising at Franklin University in Columbus, OH.
Jennifer Kinkead, a senior academic advisor at Franklin, agrees. "Many times, students may need to vent frustration, express doubt or concern or simply need a shoulder to lean on when they are struggling in a term and I am happy to be that support person for them," she says.
Be a Student of the Job and Make Connections
While more experienced advisors interviewed for this story say that their main focus is aiding the student on his or her educational journey from the beginning until graduation, they also say that they must be "students" in their jobs.
"To be of most value, it helps to learn as much as you can about the different areas of your university, including the different departments and policies associated with each. Try to stay on top of changes and make connections with people in each department to have a person to go to quickly when issues arise," says Megan Johnson, a Franklin academic advisor. "Knowing as much as you can will help you best assist your students with their questions, or at least give you the knowledge of where to send students to get their questions answered."
Learn About the Student Experience at Your School
Gloria Deamer, StraighterLine manager of student support, says that new StraighterLine advisors complete two courses in the first 90 days of employment that helps them gain a comprehensive overview of the student experience – from the enrollment process to transcript request and cancellation process of the student life cycle at StraighterLine. Not only does this give new advisors a better handle on how courses are set up and structured, but allows them to be of greater service to students.
In addition, Deamer says new student advisors learn how important it is to just sometimes be there to listen. "Our Caring Initiative training provides our student advisors with the tools needed to be active listeners, care about every student interaction, and reflect on how best to approach a resolution, even in the most difficult situations," she says.
Master Technology That Can Help You Efficiently and Effectively Communicate
Michael Lee, an online advisor at the University of Louisiana Monroe, says that it's also important during remote work that new student advisors learn to master some technology that they will find useful, such as Zoom meetings. For example, he suggests downloading it before a first meeting and exploring its control panel to become more familiar with it.
Lee also advises asking questions about how to file and sign necessary documents via email (Adobe will allow you to copy and paste your signature as needed); understanding potential software problems (VPNs can freeze when too many programs are open); and whether email can be used for approvals instead of physical documents.
Gain Confidence by Speaking Up and Asking Questions
Alyssa Hurt, a senior academic advisor and VA school certifying official at Franklin, says that she was an elementary school special education teacher before changing careers and becoming a student advisor. She admits that at first, she felt like she didn't belong.
"Not knowing the higher ed 'jargon' made it challenging to speak up or contribute in meetings because I didn’t want to make a fool of myself," Hurt says. "My advice to any new advisor is to speak up, ask questions, and don’t be afraid to sound like the new kid on the block because frankly you are, and at one point everyone else in that room was too!"
Use Online Tools for One-On-One Chats with Colleagues
Since advisors are working remotely, however, it's not like they can ask a question of another advisor sitting nearby. Because of the remote working situation, Kinkead suggests new advisors use available online chat functions or even request a mentor to ask one-on-one questions.
Experienced advisors also say it's OK not to know everything and to simply tell a student that you'll have to do some checking before providing an answer. Taking the time to find the right answer is important if you want to become a trusted voice in a student's life, they say.
Use Free Resources for Student Advisors
Dinah Gygi, a graduate academic advisor at Webster University in St. Louis, says that new advisors can also educate themselves through free webinars and resources through the National Academic Advising Association. She also suggests joining committees and making a special effort to connect "with a key person in each department – especially those you will need to work with and collaborate on student retention efforts."
Advisors also offer some other advice to new student advisors:
- Learn from students. Peter Dachille, an academic advisor at Baruch College, says that he was informed by a student that taking two specific accounting courses together was very demanding and would leave students little time to do anything else. "Listen to the students – they've got a lot to say because they're the ones taking the classes," he says. "Their perspective in very much boots on the ground."
- Be realistic about the lives of your students. "While it is important to keep our eye on retention, enrollment goals, etc. it is also important to realize that these are students who are working full-time with families and other obligations," Kinkead says. "As an advisor, you want to do all you can to grow the university you feel so passionately about, but also realize that a student's need to make the best choices for their lives should come first." Adds Gygi: "It is ultimately up to them (students) to hold themselves accountable and take it upon themselves to understand their curriculum and take advantage of all the opportunities presented to them."
- Listen to what your students are saying. "Especially while navigating our remote work environment due to COVID-19, advisors should approach students with flexibility and empathy," says Julie Barnickle, graduate academic advisor at Franklin. " I am inquisitive with my students to find out exactly what they are balancing, and I listen for understanding to best serve what they need during this time."
- Take care of yourself. New student advisors should make sure they're also practicing self-care in order to be effective for students. "Find time to meditate, exercise, read for pleasure, binge watch a good show, create something - whatever it is that relaxes and reinvigorates you," says Katie Dawson, director of ULM online. "Reach out to friends and family to check-in. Even though we may have to isolate ourselves physically from our colleagues, friends, and extended family use technology to keep communication and connection alive. We are absolutely all in this together."
Experienced student advisors say that the key to success for new student advisors is to ask questions, focus on the unique needs of students, stay informed on the latest academic issues and technology and develop a balanced lifestyle to handle stress. Following these tips, new advisors will be well-equipped in their new job and be ready to assist students right away.
Anita Bruzzese is an award-winning journalist and the author of two career-related books.
Learn how you can reduce stress to be at your best to help students succeed. Click here to read Stress Tips for Student Advisors