Advising a Student Group

Owen Sutkowski explains why he thinks all higher ed professionals -- including faculty members -- should have this experience.

November 18, 2011

My student-life colleagues reading this piece know well the relevance of this topic. Advising student groups is a familiar responsibility for professionals and faculty members. I have worked with student governments, campus recreations boards, and other student groups during my career. I believe all higher education professionals, including faculty members, should advise a student group for at least one year. Many new and seasoned professionals have never advised a student group before, as few areas of higher education have such service as an expectation. Advising a student club or organization creates a unique connection to students as well as being valuable for your personal and professional growth.

Here’s why:

It's a way to share your interests or abilities with students and other colleagues.

One of the simplest ways I suggest professionals get into advising is having a common hobby or interest they can share with a group of students. I have seen professionals advise groups from boxing club to a knitting circle. If you have a hobby, interest, or skill that you wish to teach others, a student group is a great way to continue your interest and share it with students. Your personal interest may not directly relate to your professional work, and that's fine. Students want advisers who are going to be sincerely involved with the work of the group. Your advising in this capacity also allows students to see a different side of a professional. As a residence life coordinator, I sought out the advisory position for the outdoor activities committee on the campus activities board. The first weekend I took a group of students hiking they were surprised to see me out of my work shirt and tie, with boots on and water bottle in hand. At the end of the day several students even told me they now thought I was "cool." I have also asked faculty on these trips with me as a way to connect with colleagues on the learning side while adding an educational element to the program. On a rocking climbing trip, I sought out a faculty member in environmental science whom I knew students really enjoyed as a teacher. The turnout for the event was noticeably higher as students saw he was coming along. 

Advising can introduce you to a new area of professional interest.

I regularly talk with professionals, brand-new and seasoned, who are looking to explore different fields within higher education. Advising a student group that is related to the area of student support you are looking to enter is a great way to survey that area, get applicable professional experience, and meet the kinds of students with who you would be interacting. When I started my career in residence life I advised both a student government board and the intramural sports board. Advising the intramural sports board gave me experience in campus recreation that was helpful in being promoted to assistant director of campus recreation and gave me a skill set to managing an outdoor education program. I know colleagues who advise student judicial boards or orientation committees and many who transitioned to positions based on their experience advising a student group. Departments are always looking for active and interested student group advisors and it will add variety to your résumé as well student and campus interactions.

See and hear campus issues and concerns.

During my first year of advising a student group I quickly realized that it was an unintended channel to hear about the happenings of the student body. In fact, several times I brought issues to the group, unrelated to its charge, to gain feedback. Likewise, the students would bring me their concerns and campus questions. The second year of working with the campus orientation board a simple conversation about the freshman welcome programming turned into a talk about concerns of upperclassmen and the example they would set for new students. More importantly, the students knew that getting freshmen out to these orientation programs helps deter the onset of homesickness. I was impressed at the high level of concern beyond merely planning the actual program. Sitting through a student group meeting and taking the time to listen to the concerns, sometimes between the conversations, of students can be very enlightening. I have also asked pointed questions about campus issues to see if the groups I am advising have any comments or feedback. As you build a culture of trust with your student group, the students know they have an advocate and you know have a sounding boarding board.

See a different side of the student body.

The first year I took students skiing I rolled my ankle and ended up falling when I got off the bus. Before I knew it two students walked over behind me and scooped me up with on arm around each shoulder to get me across the parking lot to the college van. During one Saturday of rock climbing I worked through the apprehensions of a student on her first climb who went on to beat us all to the top of the mountain. Advising a student group offers a unique opportunity to get to know students away from the classroom or office. Whether setting up for events, taking trips, or sitting through the meetings, you get to know the students -- and end up in discussions on issues such as faith, race and other topics. The personalities of students when they are away from the rigors of academic work reveal themselves.  

Now take a moment and write down any advising you have done in the past, or groups you may want to work with in the future. Think about all that you have learned. If you have not advised a student group recently, I hope you will consider picking up an advising spot. Just one year can have a big impact. And it is a lot of fun.


Owen Sutkowski is director of the Transfer Resource Center, and an adjunct faculty member, at Central Piedmont Community College. Follow him on Twitter.


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