Throughout my educational background and student affairs internships, I have always been taught what to expect, how to handle a situation, and how to solve any problems that may arise; what I was not prepared for was advising students who did not feel that they could relate to me. As a new professional entering into my first post-graduation position, specifically working with student organizations and campus leaders, I took a position at an institution with a large majority of commuter students who fell under that category of “non-traditional.” My office was adorned with inspirational quotes and a large collection of souvenirs and memories from my days as a student to help spark a conversation among my newly assigned student organizations. Yet, I found myself to be working with many students who have had drastically different experiences from myself, and were vocal about believing we couldn’t ever successfully work together.
When I accepted my current position I was still in graduate school and had just turned 24. When I encountered students who had a completely different view on getting involved then I did, I had to alter everything I was told about advising. Within my first year, I worked with one of the student organizations executive board members; she was around my age, balancing school, full-time work, and a two year old. I felt stumped when trying to hold onto a conversation, and quickly altered my approach to include what mattered most to her – her son. We started with baby steps, literally, by changing our meeting times to accommodate her schedule better, giving permission for her son to attend meetings, and social events.
This one experience made a huge impact on how I went about advising my student organizations and campus leaders. While this was just one of the experiences I faced while transitioning from a very traditional background to navigating an institution with a unique population of students, I want to be able to assist other professionals who may find themselves in similar situations.
- Age is Just a Number. All professionals may run into an advising situation where a student may be much younger or a bit older, but it is up to us to change our mindset. The characteristics of non-traditional students are constantly evolving, so we often need to adjust our views of these students. Do not let your age hinder your advising style, learn how to embrace it! Many students accepted my age and even applauded my quick turn-around into a professional career, but some seemed hesitant to trust me. Utilize your students’ life experiences and have them drive the conversation to help keep things neutral.
- Think Outside of the Box. Try to step out of your norm and try to incorporate children and spouses into campus activities to keep students engaged. With our current student population, we have created Family Programming: a department-run initiative that allows students to bring their children with them to enjoy activities in the area without paying out-of-pocket. If you are advising student groups where a few students have children, invest in some stuffed animals to keep in your office. Keeping a plush mascot in your office shows that you care about your students’ child, and allows the ideas to keep flowing.
- Establish Goals & Expectations. All students work differently, so make it clear to the students you are advising that you want to help outline their goals and expectations. Help direct your students establish their own road map and get a better sense of why they are there in the first place.
All advisors should feel confident and secure in working with the students they interact with who possess different career and life experiences that differ from their own. Non-traditional students are becoming the new normal and we need to work to gain a better sense of how they will work better, succeed, and ultimately, accomplish what they came to do. By expanding our knowledge of what may work better for some of our students, we will better be able to communicate with them and help them succeed.
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!