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You Can Do Hard Things: How to Be a Supportive Advisor to Student Leaders

New Professionals and Graduate Students
February 8, 2022 Anna Pietrzak

Advising student leaders is hard. It is difficult to learn and hone the skills necessary to guide and shape students’ experiences. As someone who just started her advising journey as a graduate assistant, I have the unique perspective of knowing what it is like to advise undergraduate students while also being advised by a full-time professional.

The frustrating part about advising is that there are multiple ways to advise depending on the group. If your students struggle to take initiative, you may need to take on a more active advising role to make their ideas a reality (or to even get them to start brainstorming ideas). On the flip side, you may have a group of students who want to take control of leading their organization with little assistance from the advisor. Then, a hands-off approach would be very beneficial for the group dynamic.

You may be thinking that these are two clear-cut approaches to advising – and you’re not entirely wrong. However, what happens when half your group falls under one category and the rest lean more towards the other? How about when your group’s needs fail to align with your most comfortable or familiar advising style?

Don’t take it personally. 

Students may not initially respond well to your advising style, and that’s okay! It is important to realize that advising is a two-way street and you may need to find compromises in how you work with your students. 

Be student-focused.

An important responsibility of an advisor is challenging your students to take the initiative and then supporting them before they fall too far from their goals. As a former student leader myself, this aspect of advising was a difficult adjustment for me. I had to change my perspective from doing the work for my students to guiding them in how to do it on their own.

I have primarily advised first-year, first-semester college students so they are just beginning their leadership journey. I eventually realized that I could not expect them to be the leaders I initially envisioned they would be when they did not have the baseline knowledge and experiences to build upon yet. However, this realization did not mean that I did their tasks for them. Instead, I started to intentionally model the behavior I was expecting of them so that they could learn the skills they need to succeed while simultaneously making sure the tasks were still being completed. For example, when we started to plan our first event, I took on the task of completing the program proposal form as well as the evaluation. As I completed the forms, I verbally walked my students through the process so they were aware of the steps, but were not overwhelmed with actually doing it themselves. Fast forward to our next event, the students felt more comfortable completing the form on their own knowing that I was available to support and answer any questions they had while doing so. 

Be comfortable with working after hours.

The likelihood that you will be able to fit all of your advising responsibilities between the typically working hours of 9:00 am to 5:00 pm is low - not impossible but also not common. That being said, I am not inferring that you need to sacrifice all of your personal time for your students because that is not sustainable for anyone. Yet, it is important to recognize that the schedules of college students do not often align perfectly with each other or those of professional staff; thus, requiring the flexibility of staff to work after hours.

My suggestion for navigating this concern is to be transparent about the time you are willing to help your students outside of working hours and establish boundaries. When scheduling meetings with a group of students who you advise, you do not need to provide them with every waking moment you are available. For instance, if your work day usually ends at 4:30 pm, I would recommend allowing 1-2 hours afterwards to accommodate your students’ schedules as evening availability tends to be more frequent for college students. Also, if you are finding yourself working a lot of late nights as a result of programming needs, communicate with your supervisor and possibly flex time during the day to balance out the late nights. Should that method not be possible in your department, consider delegating the advising responsibility at an event to another professional once in a while so that you are able to recharge and maintain your stamina long term. 

Additionally, set communication boundaries with the student groups you advise. Let them know that while you are there to support them, you are not available 24/7. If you do not have a work cell phone, consider utilizing a group messaging app (i.e. GroupMe, Slack, or Discord) to prevent having to share your personal number with students. If you have a work cell number you are willing to share, turn it off after a certain time at night so you do not get notifications when you are not working. 

All in all, I think it is important to note that while advising is hard, it can be incredibly rewarding. You are helping to shape the next generation of leaders. The serotonin you feel when your students host a successful event or go on to achieve higher leadership positions because of the effort you put into advising them makes all of the hard work, late nights, laughter, frustration, and sometimes tears worth it. 

With that, I feel like I should conclude this blog entry with a cool ending, but I think I will just leave you with this quote to encapsulate how it can feel to be an advisor: “Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts” (Winston Churchill). Remember- You are a good advisor. You are impacting student lives, even when you feel like you are missing the mark.

Author: Anna Pietrzak is a second-year graduate student at Clemson University. She is pursuing her Masters of Education in Counselor Education (Student Affairs) while working part-time as a Graduate Community Director with Clemson Home. Anna is a member of the NASPA New Professionals and Graduate Student Steering Committee, specifically as the Team Lead for the Conference and Recognition Working Group. She is also the Regional Director for the South Atlantic Affiliate within the National Association of College and University Residence Halls (NACURH). Outside of work and school, Anna enjoys taking walks around campus, watching new releases on Netflix, and discovering new recipes to cook or bake!