August 2004

First Appointments

This month I began seeing students. For the most part, these students were transfer students who had been accepted quite late in the game and who had to register for fall 2004 classes. In late July, I had taken part in adviser training, which was roughly a two-hour session that included various case studies. We also went over the general education requirements and some frequently asked questions. I had already spent many hours going over the information during the previous month, so the new adviser training just reinforced the basic policies.

My first transfer student appointments went okay insomuch as I was able to explain what the student had taken at his or her previous institution and how it transferred to EWU. After that, I realized that my month of studying campus literature and visiting departments had barely scratched the surface of what students would ask me. “What are the best dorms? What exactly do you do with the engineering technology degrees? What's the difference between an LPN, an RN, and a BSN? I heard you have a branch campus in the nearest city, can I take classes there? How old are you?”

Respectively, “I don't know. I think I know, but I'm not completely sure. I don't know. I think so. And 25.”

Appointment after appointment, question after question, I would scour the catalog, student handbook, and the Internet looking for acceptable answers. Sometimes I wished I could just make something up to appease the student and impress him or her with my knowledge of the campus. Yes, student development theory supports challenging students to find information for themselves, but it was hard to feel good about being an adviser when the majority of my answers were, “I'm not sure about that, but here is where to find the information.” I was positive that students could sense my lack of confidence, and I became flustered if I did not have a single answer they were looking for.

Also, because the students were transfers, they appeared to get frustrated with me more quickly if I didn't know anything and everything they were asking. Many of them had preconceived notions of what an adviser should do, as opposed to first-year students who have never had an academic adviser. I had to leave my appointments often to ask questions of other advisers. However, I slowly began to pick up the bits of important information that can't be found in written form. I constantly had to remind myself that becoming a good adviser was a lifelong process and that there would never be a day when I could say, “Well, I know it all now!” Instead, I just tried to make sure that I was more knowledgeable each day regarding advising issues than the day before.

This month I was also required to submit my yearly goals to the director, along with measures to prove that I accomplished what I set out to do. Even though I had only been out of my master's course work for a few months, I was already beginning to miss reading. For me, being able to read theory and current literature is essential as I feel that part of becoming a professional is using a theoretical framework to inform practice. Luckily, my director was fine with my setting aside a few hours a week to read. I planned to create an annotated bibliography of my readings for future reference. Another goal that I had for myself was intentional networking. I put an hour in my schedule every week to meet with someone new on campus. I would then input their name, contact info, and a few notes about them into a spreadsheet. I don't know how much I've actually used this file, but I found that just typing their names helped with memorization. I don't have the best memory, and I anticipated that I'd need several techniques to recall information as the months rolled on.

On Fridays in August, our office was involved in new student orientation. These orientation sessions began at 7:30 in the morning, and we would quickly describe the general education requirements to an auditorium full of sleepy-eyed students and parents. I decided to observe the first orientation session, which showed me how to explain the entire degree process in less than ten minutes.

Lesson learned from trying to explain the entire degree process in less than ten minutes: students rarely understand how general education requirements work when the requirements are only explained verbally. I found as the month went on that most students need to have a general education worksheet or checklist in front of them in order to fully understand the explanations. Furthermore, I started having students write everything on their worksheets and degree checklists. This step reduced the number of times I had to repeat myself and also saved me time and energy. I would hand a student a pencil and say, “Go ahead and write these things down as we talk. First, put your name here. It looks like you got X on your math placement test and Y on your English placement. You can write your scores in the appropriate spaces.” And so on.

After the orientation attendees had been given a brief general education overview, they took their English and math placement tests and then came back to the advising office for group advising and registration. My first few groups lacked structure, it seemed, and we kept getting off topic. I found that I was giving out too much information too quickly and assuming that the students had more knowledge of higher education than they actually did. After talking with my coworkers, I found that I had to start with extreme basics and slowly build from there. Many of our students are first-generation, so an explanation of what makes up a bachelor's degree was a good place to start. I then moved on to credit hours, full-time versus part-time status, where to start when trying to select classes, and how to determine how long it's going to take to graduate. Using advice from coworkers, I also added to my presentation a piece regarding what I'm responsible for and what the students are responsible for.

The rest of my month was taken up by hour-long appointments for those first-year students who couldn't make it to summer orientation. I quickly learned that, after developing rapport with the student, I had to assess how much knowledge the student had about the degree process. It was also imperative to understand why the student was coming to college in the first place. Stere (2001) provides a helpful list of introductory advising questions to lay a foundation for future sessions. Because each student is a unique individual, every advising appointment requires a different starting point.

Oh, and parents! During my graduate advising internship, I had very few advising appointments in which a parent was right there with the student. That changed quickly at EWU, and I wasn't quite prepared for it. The first time it happened, I walked out in the lobby to call Jen, a new first-year student, back to my office. First Jen stood up, and then the woman beside her stood up. “I'm Jennifer's mother,” she said. “Jennifer's going to be a Spanish interpreter, as she's been learning Spanish since she was young.”

“Great,” I thought to myself. “Extremely involved and excited parent paired with a degree plan that I'm not extremely familiar with yet. Let the games begin!”

In the end, I don't know that I pulled the appointment off graciously, but I did manage to trudge through it. I had to leave the appointment twice to ask about foreign language placement for students with previous experience, but I prefaced my leaving with, “I'm 99 percent sure that I know who Jen should talk to, but I like to be 100 percent sure. It costs a lot of money to be here, so it's my belief that you should have accurate information.” That line made Mom happy, and I'm still using it today.

The one area I needed to work on was keeping the interaction focused on Jen. Her mother liked to control the conversation, and Jen seemed shy. It was difficult for me because I felt like I was getting more information out of Jen's mother, and, every time I asked Jen something, Jen would give a very brief response. Then her mother would fill in the gaps. We finally got Jen set up with fall quarter classes, and I told her to make sure to set up another appointment once classes started. That would give us some one-on-one time and hopefully allow for more of Jen's own personality and goals to come forward.

As August came to a close, I felt that most of my appointments had been successful. I define successful here as (1) students were taught the basic structure of the general education requirements; (2) students learned how to use the catalog, the quarterly schedule, and online registration; (3) students were able to verbalize why they came to EWU and what their interests were; and (4) students felt comfortable in my office as rapport was beginning to develop. The last criterion is essential because it made the others easier to accomplish!

Some of my most challenging appointments during the month were those in which I just couldn't connect with the student. I'd ask questions and get shoulder shrugs and “I don't knows.” I'd crack a joke and get a look back like “This guy is such a dork!” I'd ask more questions and finally stop when I began to feel more like an interrogator than an adviser. I'd say that, on average, these appointments were happening once or twice a week, and they would really take a toll on my confidence! But again, my wise and experienced coworkers assured me that these experiences are quite normal. They said that these interactions would decrease as I gained experience but that they will never go away. So, I try not to beat myself up over unfruitful appointments and instead view them as a challenge. I am beginning to develop a more professional mentality (versus short-term job) wherein I realize that my time as an adviser is long-term and that expertise is developed, not accomplished. It will be a slow movement along a continuum in which I develop specialized skills through increased learning, practical application, and reflection.