Joining a student organization as an undergraduate student is a fantastic experience, but advising an organization is a different, but awesome, opportunity. Advising student organizations is a common responsibility for graduate students and new professionals. Yet, there is little formal education, training, or go-to models on how to advise effectively. I’ve suggested one model for advising previously and will discuss some of the elements of transitioning from student organization member to advisor here.
Level of Involvement
If you’re coming into student affairs from the “traditional” route, you were likely a hyper-involved student. And, if advising one or more organizations is part of your job description, then it is likely that your hyper-involvement included membership or leadership in a student organization. As a hyper-involved student, you probably had your hands in a number of operational areas. This may not be the case when advising, especially if it’s outside of your formal job description.
A conversation with the organization’s executive board and key members is helpful. Find out what they want to accomplish; what they see as their strengths and weaknesses; and what their expectations are of you. Similarly, you should go into this meeting with expectations. As an advisor, what do you expect of the groups with which you work? In the best case scenario it will all align, but you may have to negotiate with the group to get to a place that is amenable to all.
Definition of Success
As an undergraduate, your organization’s success may have depended upon the number of programs executed, membership numbers, and event attendance. While some of these elements still matter, success will also now need to be measured by individual and group development. It is also important to remember that not all students join organizations in hopes of becoming the next great campus student leader. What they may be looking for is a place on campus where they can develop a sense of belonging, which has a number of benefits related to students’ success.
Managing Campus Politics
In many ways, students are shielded from the priorities, histories, and complicated relationships between individuals and departments – as they should be. You, as an advisor are not. Advising requires balancing advocacy for your students and your allegiance as an institutional employee. A major challenge is that as a graduate student or an entry-level professional, you will probably have very little, if any, influence on these politics.
Awareness of your campus’ politics, however, can help you in your advising capacity. Questions to consider are: What are the campus’ priorities? Who are the major players? How are decisions made? Building relationships with a wide range of constituents, developing an awareness of the campus beyond your unit, and garnering insight from well-connected colleagues can help with this process. Cluing in your organization members on these ideas may help them shape their goals in such a way that makes them extremely valuable to the institution.
This isn’t to say that you should never advocate for your students or challenge your institution’s processes, culture, and norms; part of advising is advocacy, after all. But for many, the battles you pick related to the organizations you advise are inseparable from the other aspects of your work. Pick carefully.
Knowing When to Step Away
Advising student organizations is work, but it should also be fun. This doesn’t mean every day will be rainbows and sunshine, but you should enjoy your work advising student organizations, particularly when it differs from your daily work responsibilities. At some point, however, it may be time to step away. That is okay. If advising organizations is part of your job description, then stepping away may mean searching for a new position – in or out of student affairs. Unlike being a student, advising an organization may not have a two-, three-, or four-year expiration date on participation. It’s important that you’re aware of your work, how you’re feeling, and the situations that affect you. And if it’s time to go, it’s time to go.
Advising student organizations is a great opportunity. I think it’s something that all student affairs professionals should have the opportunity to do consistently throughout their careers. Advising a student organization, however, is different than being a member of one. Understanding this difference and the challenges associated will not only help you as an advisor, but also the students you advise in the organization.
September is the month of transitions, especially on the college campus. Follow #SATransitions to read as the community reflects upon transition and change, personally and professionally. Have ideas about a future series for the Student Affairs Collective? Contact Nathan Victoria on Twitter at @NathanVictoria or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.