Editor's note: This is the first in a series of articles written by students enrolled in Jennifer Bloom's graduate seminar on academic advising at the University of South Carolina during the spring 2009 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.
In tight financial times, academic advisers look at a variety of creative advising methods that will meet the needs of students without costing much money. Peer advisers are one such advising delivery option under consideration by some advising offices. As faculty and professional adviser loads continue to increase, thus leaving less time to spend with advisees (Stockwell & Zahorik, 2006, p. 4), it is likely that peer advising programs will continue to grow in popularity. Peer advisers involve students helping students (Smith, 2004, ¶ 2), and this activity is not a new concept. Since the nineteenth century, peer advising has been present on many college campuses and has ranged from informal programs pairing upper-level students with first-year students, who orient them to a university's culture and traditions, to more formal initiatives in which academic advisers train students to be professional, certified peer advisers (Smith).
The advantages of utilizing peer advisers are numerous. Peers are more available to students during critical times of need (outside traditional 8:00 a.m.5:00 p.m. office hours), they are easier to access and/or locate (in residence halls, living-learning communities, or through social networking websites or instant messaging), and they are more sensitive and aware of students' needs, since they have more recently experienced similar situations (Koring, 2005). These benefits can add to an institution's overall effectiveness and increase student satisfaction. In turn, peer advisers benefit from the opportunity to develop leadership skills, form close mentoring relationships with their supervisors (Koring, ¶ 8), and, in some instances, receive academic credit or financial compensation for their contributions (Koring).
However, there are also disadvantages associated with utilizing peer advisers. Wesley R. Habley (as cited in Bertrand, 1999, ¶ 3) noted the main disadvantages, which include lack of proper training, supervision, and evaluation by professional (faculty) advisers, difficulty in balancing the roles of both adviser and friend, and the inability to master all the necessary information to function as such. How then can institutions take advantage of the tremendous benefits of peer advisers while minimizing the disadvantages? The purpose of this article is to advocate reframing the use of peer advisers as student engagement specialists by encouraging them to become involved in co-curricular opportunities both on and off campus. While the role of peer advisers may also include narrow and well-defined responsibilities, such as helping students develop academic plans, the newly defined role of student engagement specialist would take precedence. This article will highlight the importance of encouraging students to become engaged in the university, explain why peers might be more effective than professional or faculty advisers in helping students become engaged, and suggest a framework for training student engagement specialists.
Why Focus on Student Engagement?
The student engagement literature shows that there is a connection between a student's level of engagement in an institution and his or her satisfaction with that institution (O'Keefe, 2009, ¶ 1). In addition, as Astin's theory of student involvement states, students learn by being involved ... and ... involvement in ... activities positively contributes to a range of outcomes including persistence, satisfaction, achievement and academic success (as cited in Krause, 2005, p. 3). Finally, because student engagement has garnered increased attention in higher education, and as institutions strive to be more competitive (Krause), higher education professionals need to be aware of the needs of students. There is concern that first-year students do not feel a sense of belonging to a university (Krause), and the way to remedy this issue is by providing opportunities for students to get engaged on campus. How better to learn of these opportunities than from their peers?
Peer advisers should be utilized because of the impact they can have on students' academic success as well as their willingness and motivation to engage in the campus environment. The advantage of this is that peer advisers are ideally positioned to encourage other students to become involved by sharing the benefits they themselves received from participating in organizations and activities outside the classroom. Their firsthand experiences and knowledge allow them to preach what they practice, giving students more in-depth and valuable information about campus activities than a faculty or professional adviser could. In addition, if the peer adviser inadvertently gives incorrect information about a student organization, the repercussions are far less crucial than if they had misadvised a student about a course requirement.
Allowing peer advisers to take on this new and improved role of advising students about engagement opportunities benefits both peer advisers and academic advisers. The arrangement allows these students to acquire leadership and counseling skills, both of which can be helpful to them in any future career (Koring, 2005), and permits faculty or professional advisers to learn more about the vast array of co-curricular opportunities. While it is perfectly appropriate for faculty or professional advisers to discuss engagement opportunities with their advisees, it is much more efficient and effective to allow peer advisers to play the role of student engagement specialists.
Strategies for Training Peer Student Engagement Specialists
In their new roles as student engagement specialists, peer advisers will engage in more in-depth and exploratory conversations with students than they likely will as sources of information about course and major selections. They will be apt to engage in conversations with students on topics such as life and career goals, hobbies and interests, and concerns about transitioning to college and finding balance in their new environment. Because of these new areas of discussion, peer advisers will need to be more adequately trained in effective advising strategies to enhance students' knowledge about engagement opportunities and help them develop plans to become involved on campus.
One advising model that would be of great benefit to peer advisers is the Appreciative Advising model developed by Bloom, Hutson, and He (2008). This model uses positive, active, and attentive listening and questioning strategies to build trust and rapport with students ... uncover students' strengths ... encourage and be inspired by students' stories and dreams ... co-construct action plans with students to make their goals a reality (Bloom et al., p. 11), among other things. The six phases of Appreciative Advising are Disarm, Discover, Dream, Design, Deliver, and Don't Settle (Bloom et al.). In working as student engagement specialists, peer advisers would best serve students by utilizing strategies specific to the Discover, Dream, and Design phases.
In the Discover phase, in which the peer adviser learns about the student by asking positive, open-ended questions (Bloom et al., 2008, p. 43), advisers could help students identify their strengths, passions, and skills (Bloom et al., p. 43) through questions such as, What were your favorite extracurricular activities in high school? What did you enjoy most about those activities? or Tell me about a time when you really felt you made a difference in someone else's life? These questions will allow peer advisers to help students disclose stories that will reveal their interests and passions. Peer advisers will then be able to connect students to the appropriate interest groups or clubs on campus.
The Dream phase allows peer advisers to stimulate creativity in their students and help them create a positive vision of the future (Bloom et al., 2008, p. 55). Peer advisers should encourage students to think big and avoid being restricted in disclosing their dreams with thoughts of the amount of education it takes, the probability of it happening, or other people ... telling [them] it is impossible (Bloom et al., p. 56). Useful questions during this part of the session include, If you were on the cover of a magazine 20 years from now, which one would it be and why? or When you were a child, what did you want to be when you grew up? What is your answer to this question now? (Bloom et al., p. 56). These questions will help peer advisers direct students toward specific campus organizations they may want to join, such as professional society clubs or honor societies.
During the Design phase, peer advisers can aid students in creating a plan to make the dream come true, which will consist of concrete, incremental, and achievable goals (Bloom et al., 2008 p. 65). Peer advisers can brainstorm with students about ways that they could become involved on campus. The student engagement template (O'Keefe, 2009) is one tool that peer advisers can use to help direct students to the variety of experiences available on campus. Peer advisers, using their own experiences, can model good decision-making skills, including how to research getting involved on campus. In addition, peer advisers can discuss issues such as time management, effective study strategies, and academic support resources that are available. Though the title of student engagement specialist may seem limited, it does not replace the peer adviser title or the role that these students have in positively impacting other students' academic success.
Peer advisers possess a wealth of knowledge about getting involved on campus and engaging in the campus environment. This knowledge can help encourage students to become involved on campus and allow advisers to focus on the academic needs of students, thereby better utilizing the expertise of both academic and peer advisers. By highlighting the roles of peer advisers as student engagement specialists and utilizing the effective phases of the Appreciative Advising model to gauge students' interests, peer advisers can assist students in becoming engaged and well rounded both in and out of the classroom.