Student: “What do we do about this?” Silence. And suddenly all eyes are on me. Uh oh…at that moment I knew I had to change the way I was advising the organization.
Advising student organizations is more of an art than a science. I often think of advising organizations as a balance between giving support and providing direction. An organization needs support so they become both owners and creators of their organization, but they also need direction to learn how to navigate unknown processes or policies. In my mind, a “good” balance is one where the organization generally runs themselves but the advisor is there to assist with tasks. For instance, an advisor can help interpret campus policies or steer members away from proverbial “cliffs.”
As I tell my faculty and staff advisors all the time, “advising is going to change from organization to organization and from semester to semester.” Change is necessary based on a variety of factors including the experience and personalities of current leaders, experience of membership, and the campus culture. I would imagine, however, that we all have a default level of providing support and direction with student organization which we are comfortable with and revert to in new or stressful advising situations. Therefore, to adjust the way one advises requires both an awareness of the current method of advising and a willingness to change.
The above scenario occurred during my second semester as an advisor to the Sorority Council. The Sorority Council was a two year-old group in the process of transitioning into a chartered College Panhellenic Council (which essentially means that we were adjusting to a number of new rules and processes). Reflecting back on that semester, I can now see that I was providing them with too much direction. I was new to the institution and they knew I was familiar with both the Panhellenic requirements and the process of forming a governing council, so they looked to me as the “expert” which resulted in them taking my advice with little to no questioning.
Quite honestly, I liked the way things were running. It was my first time as a fraternity and sorority life professional, I had knowledge and experience to impart on to the members, and I felt like I had something to prove – to my students, to my supervisor, and to my institution, which valued fraternity and sorority life enough to hire a full-time person to work with them.
Until that moment, I didn’t realize I was being much more directive than supportive, which was hard for me to accept. This situation made me think about my own default level of advising. I value student autonomy, organization self-governance, and group decision-making without too much of my influence, but maybe my default level is too directive to fully live these values. Clearly, in that “all eyes on me” moment I was not working within that set of espoused values and I knew I had to change the way I was advising so that I could empower the students to run, lead, and learn from their organization.
Making changes took work. It required better one-on-one meetings with the president to make sure she was knowledgeable and confident about the purposes and where we were going. It required joint meetings with the president and executive board members to help them develop their positions so that they would be positive role models for future members of the organization. It required providing resources for the members. Finally, it required promoting and supporting discussion and decision-making.
Now that a year has gone by, things are going much better. The members have more autonomy and ownership of their organization. I also spend less time on the nitty-gritty, and more time on the larger, long-term needs of the organization. Throughout this past year I have been more cautious and thoughtful of the way I approach student decision-making and learning in order to be more supportive and I intend to continue doing this as an advisor. I am thankful that this situation caused me to be more aware of my advising. The changes I have made are bringing me closer to my view of a “good” support/direction balance and working within my values on organization advising.
This post is part of our month-long series #OrgAdvising, an in-depth look at the different aspects of the student organization advisor role. This series hopes to bring front-and-center a role otherwise overlooked or forgotten in the discussion of “advisor.” For more information, see the intro post by Cindy Kane! Check out the other posts in this series too!