In the early days of my career, I remember being so confident in my ability to be a great advisor to students. As a new professional, I served on every committee possible to expand my experience and build my resume, and I was always the first one in and the last one to leave. I was so determined to teach students what I had learned and to help them be successful. I was prepared to change lives.
The truth is, I was naïve. I thought organizations were going to form, storm, norm and perform in a neat, little progression and that students would develop interdependence and establish mature relationships just as the vectors I learned about had indicated. My academic studies had given me the foundation of theory, and I thought all I had to do was take the theory and put it to practice. After many interactions with students and countless conversations with colleagues, I realized this was going to be harder than I thought.
Weeks, days, and hours were gone in a flash and my ‘open door’ policy became a revolving door of constant problems: issues within organizations, relationship drama, financial woes, and it was making it very difficult to do ‘my job’. Then it occurred to me that perhaps it wasn’t my IQ that would make me successful in working with student organizations, but my EQ or ability to be emotionally intelligent that would make me a good practitioner. I not only needed to learn how to perceive students’ emotions, but I also needed to teach them to express and manage their own emotions. I knew that if I could help students be more aware of others and encourage them to establish strong relationships with other student leaders, they would be able to use those skills to act appropriately and successfully in challenging situations. I needed to empower them to create empathic connections with one another.
In the thick of the spring semester, we tend to get very overwhelmed by our schedules and our students. I will admit that by mid-April, I sometimes secretly daydream of Commencement because of the little break it provides between Graduation and Orientation. In times of stress, it’s easy to dismiss the problems of our students and get frustrated by their lack of follow through. Perhaps it’s endless cups of coffee we consume, or maybe it’s the 14th day in a row of working 14 hour days, but spring semester is enough to put any student affairs professional a little on edge. Here are a few things that, even in the busiest of times, under the most stressful situations, help us be better advisors to our students and help them to help each other.
Teach them to listen. Really listen.
I admit, sometimes it takes all of my being not to roll my eyes at a student who responds to my cordial, “How are you?” with their whole life story. Don’t they know that I have 50 million things to do… before lunch…and that I don’t have time to listen to them tell me about the drama between them and their BFF for the fourth time.
Remember that they are confiding in you because they trust you and they respect you as their advisor, and in turn, they should expect that same level of trust and respect from one another. Try your best to listen to the students and hear between the lines. You never know when you might hear a cry for help or get an opportunity for a teachable moment.
Teach them to be there for each other with a listening, non-judgmental ear. I always tell students they have 2 ears and one mouth because they should listen twice as much as they speak. Make time for them or schedule an appointment when you know you can be truly present with them and remind them to do the same with others.
Encourage them to hurry up… and wait.
I used to get upset and annoyed when students on the programming board would not turn in projects by the due date. I wanted them to be as organized as I had learned to be. Don’t they know how much easier life is with color coded post-it notes? If they don’t meet your deadlines, it’s often not because they don’t care, but because life got in the way and they were afraid to tell you or ask for an extension for fear that they might disappoint you.
Have candid conversations with your students about how much is on their plate and advise them to only take on things they can handle. Be patient with students and communicate to them the importance of meeting deadlines, but be open and flexible whenever possible. Teaching them to prioritizing the importance of each delegated task in advance and communicate with one another on the things they volunteer for will certainly bring peace to any organization of over-achievers.
Remind them to laugh… Even when they want to cry.
According to Tal Ben-Shahar in his book Happier, happiness is the ultimate currency. Student affairs is not going to make you a millionaire, but you can be very rich with happiness in this field. Instead of asking ourselves, “Am I Happy?” which Shahar notes is an unhelpful question, we should be asking ourselves is, “How can I be happier”. One of the best ways I try to find happiness is through laughter.
Have you ever smiled at yourself in the mirror when you are in a bad mood? I have and I encourage students to do it too! You will laugh at how silly you feel and it will actually make you feel better.
When working with student organizations, it is so important to enjoy the students and be a member of their team. Laughing together will show the students your human side and will help you build stronger relationships with them. You can be professional and still have a great time and the humor will create a great relief from the stress and pressure.
Thank them often and teach them to be thankful.
Recognizing and rewarding others for a job well done teaches appreciation and respect. As an advisor, modeling this behavior can go a long way among student organizations. Student leaders and club members want to feel appreciated. They want to know their ideas are heard and their efforts matter. Be sure to tell them how much you appreciate the work they do – it will mean more to them than you will ever know.
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!