Advising as Activism

If we want college to work for everyone -- especially students on the margins -- we have to advise those who are most vulnerable, writes Wendy M. Christensen.

September 9, 2016

Undergraduate advisement is a chore that few academics want. Advising means more emails, more questions and more meetings. The weeks leading up to registration will be packed, and students will email into the summer months with questions about registering. Despite this time and energy, advising often does not count much toward tenure, reappointment and promotion.

But I admit it -- advising is one of the best parts of my job. I love teaching, but connecting with students one-on-one gives me the opportunity to know them as people. Advising is more than guiding students through graduation requirements and academic bureaucracy. It is one of the most powerful ways we can reach vulnerable students who need guidance to get through and succeed in college. Frankly, advising is one of the most important kinds of activism that we do as professors.

Through advising, I have learned that most of my students work full time, and many have children and family to support. Most pay for college through a patchwork of loans and grants, and some get to classes via a patchwork of public transportation, after working night shifts. These are our most vulnerable college students. First-generation students are often a single crisis, job move or financial change away from a failing grade -- and from dropping out of college altogether.

First-gen students and students from low socioeconomic backgrounds diminish overall school retention rates and are the most likely to drop out of college. In fact, only 11 percent of low-income students who are the first in their family to attend college will have a college degree within six years of enrolling in school, according to the Pell Institute. The reasons for this are numerous. For one, first-gen students might have less support off campus and lack necessary support on it, as well.

American colleges and universities are built on the premise each college student goes to school full time, only works part time (if at all), lives on campus and does not have a family to support or care for. Colleges measure completion rates in terms of graduating within four to six years, even though that milestone is difficult to achieve for many nontraditional students.

Even with precollege orientations, success in college requires “college capital” that too many of these students lack. They do not necessarily know what is expected of them, what terms like “syllabus” mean or how to study independently.

When facing a room of first-year students, I try to remember what it was like for me, sitting in my first graduate seminar, feeling ashamed that I did not know what “peer review” meant. We must remember that all of us come to college with different or even partial and limited knowledge.

Most often, first-generation college students do not realize that there is support on campuses, including tutoring, counseling and other services and resources. Many tend to be too shy or proud to seek out help, and they are the shiest about advocating for themselves. Combined with their already vulnerable socioeconomic position, it is not surprising that most of them drop out.

Retention research shows that connections with faculty members outside the classroom make a huge difference in whether a student drops out. If we want to help marginalized students through the often-overwhelming and mysterious process of earning an undergraduate degree, advising is one of the most powerful ways that we can do it.

The one time that I get to connect with each of my advisees is during their registration advisement meeting. At the beginning of that meeting, I always ask a crucial question: “How is your semester going?” I make sure to turn from my computer and make eye contact with them, listening to their answer carefully. I ask follow-up questions. Are they having a typically busy semester? Are more serious issues brewing?

I am not always prepared for what my advisees say, but the following come up with regularity and I have developed ways to respond:

  • If they express exasperation with a certain course, I give them strategies for talking to the professor and getting other help.
  • If they dread their data analysis course (which is frequently the case), I talk with them about tutoring resources, opening up a bit about my own math anxiety.
  • If they are having an issue -- say, an illness or a crisis -- that impacts all of their classes, I call the dean of students on their behalf to make an appointment so that appropriate documentation can be provided to all their professors.
  • If a student has lost their job and child care, then together we call the child care center on campus to ask for resources to help out.
  • If athletes open up about the crushing stress they are feeling, I validate those feelings, explaining that no one can deal with so much by oneself. I get the counseling center on the phone for them and follow up with their coach.

Other times, a student might explain that she is being stalked by an ex and that she is afraid to go to her night class. Together, we will call campus security and get someone to walk her to and from class. Student veterans often notice the many war-related books in my office and open up about their service. I refer them to our veterans’ center, recognizing how difficult a transition it is from service to college. And sometimes I am able to call financial aid and start the emergency aid process for students. Given my own problems with financial aid in college -- many times I was deregistered from classes because loan money had not trickled in yet -- being able to help out feels great.

Of course, those students could do such things on their own, but they often do not know what resources are out there or whom to call, or they are afraid to pick up the phone. First-gen students, in particular, often do not know what resources are available on the campus or what various offices do. They need to know not to feel ashamed if they need help. I open up with my advisees and share my own college history of anxiety, failed classes, financial struggle and the like, so they see that someone who has experienced those hurdles can succeed.

Following up with your advisees is vital. After I meet with a student, I send them an email with meeting notes and instructions for next steps about an issue with counseling, another professor or the dean of students. The email also includes a list of campus resources. They can use the email as a to-do list and reply to me if they have further questions.

Yes, this is a lot of exhausting emotional labor. And we know it largely falls on women faculty and faculty of color. Perhaps part of our reluctance to counsel students has to do with all that emotional work we must do when we advise. In the classic model of college education, we professors are to impart students with knowledge from a safe distance, lecturing to a sea of faces in a lecture hall. Mentorships ought to focus on learning and knowledge, planning a course of study for graduation. There is no room in that model for what might seem like hand-holding and mollycoddling. But if we want college to work for everyone -- especially students on the margins -- we have to teach to, and advise for, those most vulnerable students.

It is possible to advise students by meeting with them, looking at their record, telling them what classes to take and sending them on their way. I am sure that describes a lot of advising. But advising can be so much more powerful -- and even a form of activism to challenge existing class-based disparities in higher education. It is an opportunity for us to reach first-generation and marginalized students -- those who often do not have support systems and safety nets in place. This is one place in which we can make a huge difference as faculty members.


Wendy M. Christensen is an assistant professor of sociology at William Paterson University. Her research interests center on how inequalities and institutions -- like the media, the military and the family -- contribute to limiting political engagement. You can follow her on Twitter @wendyphd.


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