I learned a lot during the two-day Utah Advising Association Conference.
I learned that “good” students struggle too.
I learned that students frequently turn down help, even when they’re academically drowning.
I learned that students are more likely to trust someone who is smiling (it has to be a real smile though — a “Duchenne” smile).
I also learned that academic advisors are faced with some pretty tough questions.
For a moment, let’s imagine that we are advisors. Picture it: we’re maybe 2/3 into the first semester when a first-year student is brought to our attention. This student’s professors say he or she is far below the cognitive skill levels of the other first-year students, and this student is just academically drowning.
Here it comes: what if we don’t think the student is a good fit for this (hypothetical) school?
What if we look at all the evidence and worry that the fit is wrong enough that the student can’t succeed here? Are we even allowed to think that? Is it blasphemy to share this concern aloud?
Another tough question: how did this student get accepted into this school? Are we allowed to ask? Does it even matter? What if it was a mistake? Some argue that it ultimately doesn’t matter if it was a mistake because the advisor’s job isn’t to question admissions, but to support the student.
Okay, so let’s go with that argument for a moment and agree that it’s not our job to check into admissions. (But should someone check? If so, who? Would the knowledge benefit anyone? To learn it was a mistake and act to fix it would be a PR nightmare for the school. Better to just leave that stone unturned. Right?) Let’s say the number one priority is to support the student, and this student wants to stay at this school. Then, I suppose, the remaining questions only surround what steps to take with remediation and coping. There are several viable options, and some experimentation with different combinations will surely be necessary. It will be tough, but we can probably help get this student through.
But hang on… what is owed to a student? What can students reasonably expect? Is success a right? Well, that’s an easy no. But access to the tools necessary for success? I’d argue that’s an easy yes. But between those two things it gets murkier. For instance, do students have a right to professors who believe in them? Must an institution guarantee that each student will thrive? Maybe a chance to thrive?
I just got more stressed as I progressed through this thought experiment. I worried that the student would sense my doubt. I worried that the student might not reach the cognitive skill levels of his or her peers. I worried that the student might be missing out on the confidence of a big-fish-in-a-little-pond experience at another school, and wondered if that might set the student on an entirely different life course.
Best practices and policies aside, most academic advisors wrestle with difficult questions all the time. The advisors I met at UAA took none of these hypothetical questions lightly; they care deeply for their students and I was touched by the fierceness of their commitment.
While I learned a lot, maybe the most important thing was a healthier appreciation for academic advisors and the work they do.
I went home after the conference and emailed my old academic advisor just because I wanted to say “thank you.”
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