Advising: Start with the Why

– Joseph Croskey

Joseph Croskey

I was working with a student* who had no real idea what work he wanted to do, although he knew that he wanted to travel and enjoy a sense of freedom. He was meeting with me to change his major, but had no idea what to change it to.

We played with the idea of what he thought would be fun. He knew he wanted to travel, so we looked at taking courses that he was interested in and curious about. We looked at courses that would build certain skills and expose him to different ways of thinking about people and his world.

I find this type of conversation much more interesting than only focusing on what students need to take to fulfill a requirement on the check-sheet and graduate. It takes a little more time, but, boy, is the time worth it! One place to begin an important conversation like this is to start with the why.

Start with the why

Viktor Frankl discusses why we should encourage people to stretch, to aim higher, to find something ‘deeper’ than just pursuing a job because of the money they might earn. He argues,

If you don’t recognize a young man’s way to meaning, man’s search for meaning, you make it worse, you make him dull, you make him frustrated. You still add and contribute to his frustration. While if you presuppose in this man … there must be a, what do you call, spark or search for meaning? Let’s recognize this, let’s presuppose it, and then you will elicit it from him, and you will make him become what he in principle is capable of becoming. – Frankl, in a 1972 speech

Instead of beginning by talking to our students about what they should take, start with the why. Recently, Simon Sinek (2009) has argued that one should ‘Start with Why’ when considering any course of action. Why should students take General Education courses? Why should they take Statistics – or whatever course in their major they see as challenging? Why should they take a range of courses rather than only the ones they imagine themselves using “when they grow up”? Having a why can provide the motivation to complete what might otherwise be perceived as a boring task. It can focus our attention and make the work meaningful.

There are many questions that we should consider before even meeting with our advisees. Why is a liberal arts education valuable? How can we express this more simply, more clearly in our classrooms? How can we express the value of a liberal arts education in our advising conversations? How can we express it so that they not only get it but that they are happy to tell others about why it is important? How can we share our knowledge so that students get closer to knowing themselves and their purpose/meaning?

Should these conversations be only between advisors and their advisees? Should this conversation only occur during advising appointments? Maybe these conversations should also happen during inquiry seminars and General Education courses. Maybe early courses in a major should help students recognize and understand the circuitous paths they’ll likely travel and the purpose of the journey. Maybe later courses, courses where students are considering their future, should help students recognize their whys, consider their goals, and identify the skills they gained over the course of their educations.


We know that many jobs don’t have specific degrees leading to them. There aren’t, to my knowledge, majors on how to interact with customers to design and install furniture for buildings or key card swipe security systems. Yet, I recently worked with two professionals making a good living doing this.


We know that companies are dealing with a world that is, in the military vernacular, VUCA – Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous. Companies need people who are capable of adapting to situations, people with skills that are applicable to a wide variety of situations. Many students are much more comfortable with Stability, Certainty, Simplicity, and Clarity (SCSC). We often want the top path in the cartoon, but life is more like the bottom one.

Our society needs citizens with an understanding of the natural and social worlds that they will inhabit and, in fact, create. Students need a variety of ways of thinking, feeling, and doing that will help them become successful personally, interpersonally, and professionally. Businesses need employees who are creative, excel at communication, and solve problems well. These are things that liberal arts courses provide and that students benefit from experiencing. And, as Ralph Leary would say, “Taste everything from the Thanksgiving buffet!”

Frankl is most noted for writing about the importance of searching for and discovering one’s meaning. You can find many books that help people find their purpose. Many of these argue that people will be happy and productive when they are working from their purpose, their ‘why’ for being.

I don’t think there is a silver bullet or cookie cutter answer to the question of how to best advise students. It depends on the student and often depends on the circumstances the student is facing. I do think it is important to help students do more than choose classes to meet a requirement; we need to do more than hand them a list of courses required for the major and tell them to register. Perhaps when we are aware of our own why, we can help students intuit and clarify theirs. Sinek boldly asks us to

Imagine a world in which the vast majority of us wake up inspired, feel safe at work and return home fulfilled at the end of the day.

Advising while understanding our own purpose with clarity and maintaining a commitment to help students understand their own purpose may be challenging. This is especially true when the student has not yet been exposed to such a perspective; nonetheless, pursuing such advising conversations is beneficial for both student and advisor in the long run. Students and the community will benefit when we start with why.

Want to know more about the student from the beginning of my essay? Check out his story:

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 Director of the Act 101 Program and Associate Director of the Honors Program. He currently serves on the Faculty Senate and as CAP Chair for APSCUF. 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 UN Peace on Purpose program and the Search Inside Yourself Leadership Program. He and his wife Kathy have a wonderful 2 yr old dog, three grown children, and five grandchildren.

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1 Response to Advising: Start with the Why

  1. DrOlivas says:

    This report from Gallup and “Bates college” can continue the conversation in a meaningful way:


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