Appreciative Advising and First-Generation College Students

Nayland S. Olsen
University of South Carolina

Volume: 11
Article first published online: April 2, 2009
DOI: 10.26209/MJ1161498

Keywords: advising, academic advising, adviser, advisor, appreciative advising, first-generation, college students

Editor's note: This is the twelfth in a series of articles written by students who were enrolled in Jennifer Bloom's graduate class in student affairs administration at the University of South Carolina for the fall 2008 semester. As part of her course syllabus, Dr. Bloom required each student in her class to submit an article to The Mentor or other publications for consideration.

The journey to and through higher education is unique for each student. For students whose parents did not attend college, there are additional obstacles to overcome. These first-generation students are likely to enter college with less academic preparation than students whose parents did attend college (Thayer, 2000). First-generation college students receive less access to information about the college experience from family. These students receive less help from their parents during the application process and are less likely to have asked for help at school (Choy, 2001). First-generation students are especially likely to lack specific types of “college knowledge.” They often do not understand the steps necessary to prepare for higher education, including knowing how to finance a college education, complete basic admissions procedures, and make connections between career goals and educational requirements (Vargas, 2004). First-generation students are also less likely to graduate with a college degree than students whose parents did attend college (Nunez & Cuccaro-Alamin, 1998).

Given the challenges that first-generation students face, the purpose of this paper is to advocate that academic advisers utilize the Appreciative Advising model to help these students optimize their educational experiences.

Appreciative Advising

Appreciative Advising is the use of positive-oriented, open-ended questions in an attempt to help students realize and achieve their hopes and dreams. The six phases of Appreciative Advising are Disarm, Discover, Dream, Design, Deliver, and Don't Settle (Bloom, Hutson, & He, 2008). Each phase of the Appreciative Advising philosophy can be fully adopted and carefully adapted to meet the needs of first-generation students.

In the Disarm phase, advisers present themselves as approachable and friendly. In this phase, advisers intentionally use positive body language and vocal qualities to warmly greet students and put them at ease. In addition, the adviser decorates his/her office with personal and humanizing touches to help the student feel comfortable during the advising session (Bloom et al., 2008). The Disarm phase is especially important for first-generation students, because they may not have had appropriate guidance in the past. Thus, the idea of an advising appointment is likely a totally foreign concept and could be rather intimidating to first-generation students. This may be the first formal or informal guidance provider the student has encountered, and advisers should be aware of this fact. Appreciative advisers are explicit in terms of welcoming advisees to their offices and introducing themselves to the students.

In the Discover phase, appreciative advisers use positive, open-ended questions with the intention of eliciting stories from the students (Bloom et al., 2008). Students may talk about their past adversities, triumphs, and successes. Appreciative advisers should recognize the added pressures that first-generation students face just to get to college. Often these students are not even aware of the triumphs they have already achieved simply by attending college. Despite the disadvantages they faced, first-generation students graduated from high school, applied to college, earned acceptances, and took the initiative to attain higher levels of education than their parents did. Appreciative advisers recognize this as an enormous achievement. As students share their stories of achievement, it is important that advisers amplify the strengths and skills they have demonstrated in the past and affirm how they will be able to use these strengths and skills in the college setting. At first, advisers may find that students are shy about opening up, but using positive and open-ended questions that highlight the first-generation student's path is particularly helpful in encouraging these students to share their stories. Examples of questions include: “What was your journey to this institution like?” or “What do you think made you stand out on your application to this university?” (Buyarski, 2008, p. 1) or “What makes you want to get a college education?”

In the third phase of Appreciative Advising, the Dream phase, advisers help their students to identify and take ownership of their dreams (Bloom et al., 2008). First-generation students are likely to have had less opportunity than their peers to discuss their hopes and dreams for the future, especially at home (Thayer, 2000). Appreciative advisers should challenge their first-generation students to dream big and should provide appropriately positive feedback to students' responses. Advisers may need to be creative in their questioning of students who are reluctant to share their dreams, because people in the past may have made fun of those dreams. Questions that appreciative advisers can use in the Dream phase when working with first-generation students include: “What would you do if you knew you would not fail?” (Buyarski, 2008, p. 3) or “If you could start a charity, what would its mission be?” or “If your name and accomplishments appeared in a book years from now, what type of book would it be and what would be the title?”

In the Design phase, appreciative advisers collaborate with students to plan long- and short-term goals (Bloom et al., 2008). The long-term goals should be broken into short-term, achievable goals so as to not overwhelm the student. Appreciative advisers pay special attention to making appropriate resource referrals to first-generation students. First-generation students are less likely to have received knowledge about campus resources and college life in general (Thayer, 2000). Therefore, appreciative advisers need to be very unambiguous in making referrals to other offices. Students need to understand exactly whom they are to meet, what questions to ask, and how to schedule an appointment. Appreciative advisers help their students to understand the importance of referrals and how the particular resource can help the student successfully meet his or her goals. Possible questions that appreciative advisers can use when working with first-generation students in the Design phase include: “What can you do today to help you get closer to accomplishing your goal?” or “What are some strengths that you can build upon now to help your future” (Buyarski, 2008, p. 3) or “What will you do if you encounter road blocks?” (Buyarski, 2008, p. 3).

The Deliver phase of Appreciative Advising involves the student going back into the campus and world to accomplish the goals set in the advising session. The adviser needs to reassure the student that he or she has the abilities to successfully carry out the plan that was co-created during the Design phase. If the adviser believes in the student, it may be just the confidence boost the student needs to accomplish the goals set forth in the plan. First-generation students also need to be encouraged to contact the adviser if they run into obstacles. Afterwards, appreciative advisers should be deliberate about following up with first-generation students to check on their progress and determine if they are running into any obstacles or problems. When following up with first generation students, appreciative advisers can pose questions such as “Can you tell me one thing that has gone well and one that has not gone well as you have been working to achieve your goals?” or “What campus resources are you using to help you achieve your goals?” or “How are you going to celebrate achieving your goals?” (Buyarski, 2008, p. 4).

During the sixth phase of Appreciative Advising, Don't Settle, advisers invite students back into their offices and use subsequent meetings to reinvigorate the students to reach higher toward their dreams and goals. The families of first-generation students are less likely to know how best to emotionally support their children, because they are unfamiliar with the struggles their sons and daughters are encountering (Thayer, 2000). It is important for appreciative advisers to continually remind first-generation students of their past accomplishments so as to solidify their sense of self-efficacy and pride. Autonomy should be given to first-generation students in balance with an understanding that the appreciative adviser is there to reassure, offer suggestions, pose additional questions, and push first-generation students to reach further than they may have ever been encouraged to reach in the past.


Over half of students whose parents did not attend college will enroll in some form of higher education within two years of graduating from high school (Choy, 2001). With this staggering fact in mind, academic advisers should be focused on meeting the previously unmet needs of these special students. When properly advised, first-generation students can graduate with a degree, which increases retention and graduation rates for institutions of higher education and arguably contributes positively to society. The Appreciative Advising model provides an appropriate and highly effective approach to helping first-generation students build on their past successes, unlock their hidden potential, and achieve their hopes and dreams.


Bloom, J. L., Hutson, B. L., & He, Y. (2008). The appreciative advising revolution. Champaign, IL: Stipes.

Buyarski, C. (2008, October 20). Appreciative advising questions. Retrieved from

Choy, S. P. (2001). Students whose parents did not go to college: Postsecondary access, persistence, and attainment. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. Retrieved from

Nunez, A., & Cuccaro-Alamin, S. (1998). First-generation students: Undergraduates whose parents never enrolled in postsecondary education. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. Retrieved from

Thayer, P. B. (2000, May). Retention of students from first generation and low income backgrounds. Opportunity Outlook, 2–8.

Vargas, J. H. (2004). College knowledge: Addressing information barriers to college. Boston: The Education Resources Institute.

About the Author(s)

Nayland S. Olsen is assistant residence life coordinator for Columbia Hall at the University of South Carolina. He can be reached at