Sanford advanced the now time-tested concept of “challenge and support” in the early 1960’s. He asserted that there must be a balance of supportive and challenging aspects in college students’ lives in order to maximize growth and development. Challenges are activities that push students beyond their current competency. Support is an environmental function that encourages growth to happen in a safe way. Too much challenge leads to frustration, and too much support impedes learning. (For great examples of operationalized challenges and supports, see Roark’s article in the Summer 1989 NASPA Journal.)
This theory has served many of my fellow advisors and me well over the past 25 years. It is an adaptable theory that can apply to our diverse student organization leaders; it is flexible and inclusive. Challenges and supports will vary from person to person, so we as advisors can adapt to our individual student leaders. In fact, getting to know the things that challenge and support our student leaders is a great way to building advising relationships.
Under challenged and over supported means less growth
Few advisors will argue with these concepts: in theory. As a daily practice? Well, that is another matter. As early as 1966, Sanford asserted that colleges do not challenge students sufficiently. I agree. I think we over support our student leaders and under challenge them.
Student leaders are definitely challenged, by a myriad of issues, including member commitment issues, time management, and budgeting complications. They are also challenged by their own lack of skills, lack of experience, and personal weaknesses. All of these challenges can promote growth, and help students broaden their perspectives and build their skills.
“Nice” as a barrier to growth
There will only be growth if we challenge student leaders to learn from their own failures and shortcomings. But sometimes we do not challenge them, we only support them. For some reason, we land in “nice.” Why? Advising can be a truly rewarding endeavor. Helping students and witnessing their achievements is exhilarating. Do we perceive that challenging student leaders will hurt our relationships with them? Are we afraid that we won’t be seen as good advisors? Are we afraid that the folks “above us” will critique our work? Is this why we tell student leaders that they are great even when we should be holding them accountable for poor leadership? Could this be why we sometimes do their student organization work for them when we should be letting them fail?
Advisors: know your own challenges and supports
This is why Sanford’s theory is so relevant, even forty years later. While we are challenging and supporting our student leaders, we need to understand what we as advisors need to feel supported and challenged. It is a personal development issue for us as advisors. Maybe you feel comfortable confronting (challenging) a student leader who handled a situation poorly, maybe you don’t. If you don’t, you need to learn how to do that so that the student isn’t deprived of a growth opportunity. And maybe it makes you a little nauseous to think about cancelling an event because the students aren’t finishing their work, and so that is why you do the work for them.
Caveat: The reality of an advisor’s work is that it doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Each advisor has personal challenges and supports, but the work environment has its own challenges and supports. Perhaps you want to let students fail because they haven’t done the work, but money has been invested and your supervisor would not support you in letting the event fail. Perhaps the risks of a student planned event become too great for the students to handle, and you step in to help them manage the risks on behalf of the university. In these situations, student growth might not be maximized, but there is still room for growth if these issues are discussed with students so that they can cognitively, if not experientially, be challenged.
The hard road for the advisors (not being “nice”) can lead to growth for the students
I once pushed a student organization to cancel a conference they were planning because the leaders had not fulfilled the responsibilities that they had defined for themselves. Some of them were extremely angry. Some understood. Some begged me to understand that they were students, and shouldn’t have to shoulder the burden of a conference on their own. I agreed, but reminded them that, first of all, we had already considered the burden and they chose to shoulder it, and secondly, I would not do their work for them. My biggest critics were my colleagues, some of whom couldn’t believe I could be so direct and so mean (the opposite of “nice”). I am not saying that this was easy, or that it would even be possible at all institutions. I do think it was the most educational thing to do for the students. Years later, I saw one of the student leaders in that organization at a conference. She had become an event planner. She told me that the cancelling of that conference was the most meaningful moment in her career preparation. She said that, in retrospect, she was glad I didn’t “let them get away with slacking,” and that my actions helped her see that an advisor could help students even when an advisor wasn’t “nice.”
That’s the thing. When we do not challenge our students–when our challenges get in the way of challenging our students–we are impeding their growth. We may even be “un-educating” them. Take the risk. Worry less about being “nice.” Face your own challenges so that you can you can do better by your students.
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!