Editor's Note: This article was selected as the winning entry in The Mentor's eighth annual Academic Advising Writing Competition. Melissa Vosen, the author of the entry, will receive a $500 cash award.
Redefining Roles: Joe Mauer and My First Semester as an Academic Adviser
I first started as an academic adviser in October. I had one week to prepare for what my campus calls advising week. I spent my first week taking in my surroundings and making very critical decisions. My first decision, a very important one, was to decide how to decorate my newly painted office. I hung up my Bruce Springsteen poster, and I scoured the Internet to find a print of my favorite Minnesota Twins player, Joe Mauer. I wanted my students to know a little bit more about me and my interests. I wanted them to feel comfortable in my office.
I also immediately noticed that the bottom left drawer of my desk did not open and that the kitchen microwave was often dirty. I organized and reorganized my books. I struggled to adjust to my new hours and the new dress code, and I learned quickly that a full-time position was quite different than teaching as an adjunct instructor. I was, however, grateful for, as well as overwhelmed by, the amount of change in my life. As the long days slowly passed, I started to become anxious. Despite my nerves, I wanted to start seeing and advising students immediately. I wanted to be busy. How foolish I was! Just as teaching is a reflective practice, so is advising; and as I look back, I realize I had not prepared for the month I was about to endure. When teaching, I always prepared a lesson plan; when advising, I needed to do the same.
I learned later that in my department advising month is a more accurate term, because of the hundreds of undecided students served by our office. I will admit that I made several rookie mistakesmistakes we all have made. I misread a few transcript evaluations, and I constantly had to ask my supervisor to explain to me the difference between Math 105 and Math 107. Most of my advising sessions were interrupted because I had to politely excuse myself to go ask a colleague to clarify a course or university policy. With the help of my colleagues, however, I got through the first semester of advising relatively unscathed. Not only did I get through the semester unscathed, I truly believed that I helped my students. It was a fantastic feeling. I was patient with my students, and I thank them for being patient with me.
I do recall one student, however, whom I feel I faileda student, I believe, who changed my professional life. This student had already been at the university for two semesters but had only completed a handful of credits, because, as an international student, he was required to take several language-intensive courses before gaining full admission to the university. When the student stepped into my office the first time, he told me he had passed his language courses and was ready to take courses for credit. I helped him pick out four classes: an introductory-level psychology course, an ESL (English as a Second Language) composition course, a U.S. history course, and a course on Microsoft Office. After helping him select his courses, I smiled and told him what I told all of my advisees, If you have any questions as you go to register, feel free to e-mail me. He looked confused but ultimately left. Two days later, Joe Mauer was on my wall, and the student was back in my office. He told me he did not understand how to register, and he told me he did not understand how to use our campus registration system.
When he asked me to help him with the actual mechanics of registering, I said I would be happy to. It was a request I had not yet received but something I was sure I could handle. After all, I had been a student at this university for six years. We walked across the hall to a computer cluster, where I then asked him to log in to the computer and the registration system. While he had no trouble logging into the computer, he did have some trouble logging into the registration system. It was here that our communication started to break down. After trying to walk him through the reset password process, I became frustrated and physically took the keyboard from the student. I reset his password and logged into the registration system. I registered him for each course, and we were done within a few minutes. I printed off a copy of his schedule using my identification card and sent him on his way. Admittedly, I was agitated. How did he sign up for his previous language courses? I immediately assumed his previous advisers had registered for him, or he had not listened; and in my frustration with those advisers and the student, I failed in my job. As I look back, I realize I was not upset with the student. I was frustrated that no one had helped this student; or if they had, they allowed him to continue acting like he could not complete the tasks himself. He had, after all, been on campus for nearly a year. After he left, however, I realized I was no better than any of his previous advisers.
While I will never know for sure what this student was told by previous advisers, I still should not have taken the keyboard from his hands. I never should have registered for him. After he left, I realized I was an enabler. Essentially, I was giving bad advice that it was okay not to know or understand this process. I had made a terrible mistake. When I was teaching composition courses, I never would have taken a pencil from my student's hand, and I never would have written a student's essay. Before becoming an adviser, I often tutored ESL students and enjoyed it immensely. It saddened me when some instructors saw a grammatical error and immediately labeled the student as remedial. In the computer cluster that day in early November, as our communication broke down, I was no better. I assumed the worst and labeled this student as incapable or lazy. I am embarrassed to admit that I dismissed him.
After he left that day, I returned to my office and felt sick. I looked around, staring off into space and staring at Joe. If Joe were an adviser, I knew he would never assume his advisee knew how to steal a base or bunt; he would never assume they knew the basics. Why did I assume? Why had I assumed that as an adviser I would quit teaching?
I want to make clear that this story is not about working with ESL students; it is about working with all students. It is about teaching our advisees whatever they need to learn in order to academically survive and succeed at our respective universities. During my first month as an academic adviser, I learned that advising and teaching are both reflective practices; and I learned, most importantly, that advising is teaching. Just because my title had changed to academic adviser, it did not mean I was supposed to quit teaching. Though this student declared a major and I never saw him again, I have applied what I learned to each and every advising session since that day nearly two years ago. If I forget, Joe reminds me.