Advising is like birdwatching

— Joseph Croskey

I don’t feed the birds because they need me; I feed the birds because I need them. – Kathi Hutton

Joseph Croskey

Joseph Croskey

I think that watching birds is a delightful experience. Similarly, I genuinely enjoy advising students, providing them with information while building a relationship to better serve them and help them achieve their goals.

One day a question struck me; could advising be like birding? I am an amateur bird watcher, but—with attention, training, and practice—my birding will improve. Similarly, I know that I have to devote time and effort to advise and serve my students better. In addition to developing my interpersonal advising skills, there are several tools that can improve my efficacy and efficiency. As my advising skills improve, I hope that translates into students achieving more success.

With birdwatching, you start where you are and improve your skills along the way. I found it quite interesting to watch the behavior of birds when they fed at the mulberry tree near Ralston. I also love to watch birds and other animals at a feeder. We have had indigo buntings, turkeys, and deer – and once I looked out and was alarmed to spot a bear at the feeder. In similar fashion, I have all sorts of students who come to my office. Undecided students with few interests and those with so many interests that they are overwhelmed. There are those interested in business, the sciences, and education; some want to write poetry while sitting outdoors without a care.

I often ask an open-ended question like “What were you famous for in high school?” to steer students towards the right class or student organization. Just the other day, two successive students shared their interest in volleyball, and I encouraged them to form an intramural team together. Life becomes interesting when you start to pay attention to particulars. Instead of seeing student 8675309 who needs a schedule, I begin to see a bit of the story of Lauren and all that she brings. She wants more than a schedule; she wants to find something that will ignite a fire in her.

I’ve learned that it is useful to provide various types of food, water and shelter in your backyard, in order to encourage a variety of birds to visit. Likewise, you may find students appreciate it when you offer multiple reasons to drop by. Some students want a schedule. Some want someone to listen or even someone to mentor them.

There are the occasional situations that you are completely unprepared for. Recently, a professor shared that a student dropped in with upsetting news about an unplanned pregnancy. Luckily, that is a rare situation. However, I imagine you have seen several students with financial challenges. I typically share my minimal knowledge of the financial aid process, help them log in to FAFSA, PHEAA or StudentLoans and encourage them to visit Student Financial Services. Although I don’t make a practice of it, I did pay to have a student’s transcript sent from another college.  She had left her wallet in her car, and she needed the transcript to lift her registration hold. I have Frequent Fliers who just stop in to let me know what’s going on, sharing stories of success or failure in their classes. One likes to share YouTube videos. Some might just drop by for candy, but that is okay, too. There are many ways to feed the birds.

Advising is more than just suggesting  five classes a student should take the next semester. Advising is teaching. NACADA, a national advising association, suggests that advisors teach students how to transition to the academic world and (I would suggest) to the professional world after their time at the academy. Advising is a point where we can have significant impact. Advising is so crucial to student persistence that Tinto (1999) argues that  “academic advising should be an integral part of the first-year experience, not an adjunct to it. Advising should be woven into the fabric of the freshman year in ways that promote student development” (p. 9). Advisors should be prepared to help students find resources to solve their particular problem. If you can walk them through the issue the first time, they will benefit from your expertise and guidance. Then they will have the resources to do it the next time.

The research on high impact practices shows us that students are more successful when they develop connections on campus (Kuh, 2007; Tinto, 1999). For a variety of reasons, it often requires extra effort on our part to reach out to students to initiate and form these important relationships. Some students visit me after they receive the first email message I send, while others come only after several invitations have been extended. There’s only so much time in a day, so it’s nice to have visits spread out. Still other students, like uncommon birds, are quite difficult to attract into the office. Occasionally, you have to go to their natural habitat to connect with them. I will sometimes take advantage of chance meetings in the dining hall, library, and other central watering holes.

I reach out to my students in different ways to encourage them to visit me. Although I typically send a text-based email, I occasionally email an image or flyer to add variety. Sometimes I send an email-to-text message, although you have to know the phone carrier that specific student uses.  In a very urgent situation, I reached out to a student via a Facebook message. UASC is going to experiment with other social media like Twitter and Instagram (@ClarionAdvising)  as a means to attract students to various workshops and events.

We have a large number of students who will change their majors. One event, Meet Your Advisor Week, provides opportunities for students to learn more about their major and also to find out about others. It is not quite like a majors’ fair or open house where all departments are represented at the same time, but it provides students with a chance to learn more about practical requirements in that area and also the career options and rewards associated with a particular major. Meet Your Advisor Week can be an opportunity for students to find a program which will interest them and lead them to success.

Unfortunately, not many students take advantage of the event, so they don’t know much about what we offer. For instance, as I was speaking with John, a business marketing major, I realized that had he attended this event, he might have realized that he was more interested in strategic communications/PR/advertising. As John and I talked about it, we looked over the courses required and discussed a path forward. This conversation models the teaching function of advising. I encouraged John to meet with advisors from both departments, meet with Career Services to verify that this new option was viable for him, and then report back to me. He left with a smile on his face, happy with the knowledge that he was not facing several semesters of coursework he sees as drudgery. I logged his visit into the database and shared this strategy with another student later in the week.  When we track this type of information, we can begin to better advise students with similar backgrounds and preferences.

Databases or other software systems can be helpful for all types of endeavors. I log the birds that visit the yard on a nice app, iBird; Cornell Lab of Ornithology is a fantastic resource, too. These types of software allow birdwatchers to share what they have seen, learn from each other where to spot certain birds, and recognize different bird behaviors. Likewise, we have several forms of student advising and support system software to help us advise effectively. You may already use a spreadsheet or Beacon. Recently, PeopleSoft / MyClarion added the Advising Notes function, which gives more functionality to that system. We use these platforms to share information about each individual student with other advisors and to understand and advise our students better. Such software is helpful for a quick look at a student’s likelihood for success in a particular major based on academic history, while Beacon’s dashboard displays similar information based on the individual’s response to the Student Strengths Inventory. I especially appreciate the note taking features and the interface some of these systems provide.

It’s exciting to see colorful birds like goldfinches, woodpeckers, cardinals, or hummingbirds in my backyard. I get just as excited to hear students’ stories and learn what they’re interested in. There is the occasional emergency or disappointment, but those are greatly outweighed by their stories of triumph and perseverance. I am fortunate to see students on Move-in Day, graduation, and many days in between. It is rewarding to see students as they leave our nest ready to fly to their next adventure.

In the end, like birding, advising is gratifying. Both activities allow one to sow seeds in the hopes that they will be fruitful in the future.

References

Kuh, G. (2007). What student engagement data tell us about college readiness. Association of American Colleges and Universities, 9 (1). Retrieved from https://www.aacu.org/publications-research/periodicals/what-student-engagement-data-tell-us-about-college-readiness

Tinto, V. (1999). Taking retention seriously: Rethinking the first year of college. NACADA Journal, 19 (2), 5-9. Retrieved from http://www.nacadajournal.org/doi/pdf/10.12930/0271-9517-19.2.5


Joseph Croskey is a faculty member in the Student Success Department responsible for the University Advising Services Center in Becht Hall. He is also the Associate Director of the Honors Program. He currently serves as the Chair of Faculty Senate. He enjoys working with students in and out of the classroom as they develop and grow. He has recently been certified as an instructor for the Search Inside Yourself Leadership Program. He and his wife Kathy have a wonderful 16 yr old dog, three grown children, and three grandchildren.

 

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