During my first year working at Augusta University, I was approached by a first-year student about wanting to start her own student organization.
Bolawatife, or Tife for short, was a proud Nigerian who wanted to connect with other African students on campus and needed guidance on how to create a new African student association (ASA).
I wanted to help, so I referred her to the office of student involvement, showed her where to find the required documents, and wished her good luck in finding an advisor. So, you can imagine my surprise when she came back to my office a few weeks later to ask if I’d like to serve as ASA’s new advisor.
I was confused. It wasn’t because I was unwilling or incapable. I just didn’t know if I’d be the right fit because of my identity as a Filipino-American who didn’t share their African ancestry or culture.
But after talking with my supervisors and mentors, I realized that being a good advisor doesn’t mean you have to hold the same identities as your students. You just have to be willing to work with them, encourage them to make their own decisions, and help them learn from their mistakes as they grow.
Here are five ways that can help you be a fantastic student org advisor!
1. Know your role
Learn the difference between supervising and advising.
Supervisors take direct charge and instruct their student staff on what to do. Advisors offer feedback and advice to their student officers and organization members, but ultimately, they encourage them to make the final decisions.
Additionally, advisors create an environment in which student orgs can learn from their mistakes. It may seem hard not to intervene when projects or programs seem too important to fail, but, as their advisor, you should be able to discern when the appropriate time is to step in and assist.
For example, my ASA members wanted to host a welcome-back pool party and cookout. They asked me to reserve the pool at one of our housing communities. This request was reasonable and communicated to me well before the date of the event.
However, they made a not-so-reasonable request on the day of the event, upon realizing that they forgot to purchase certain food items. They began stressing out and asked if I could make a last-minute grocery run. I had to tell them to make do with what they already had. It was a lesson in event planning, time management, money management, and inventory.
It’s important to take off your supervisor hat and understand that advising is a more hands-off role
2. Set expectations early
Contrary to most students’ beliefs, student affairs professionals have lives outside of our offices.
So, be sure to develop clear expectations by asking the group what expectations they have of you. You can’t read minds and within any group, some drama is bound to occur. Ask questions like “What does support look like for you?” and “How would you like me to address issues?”
Getting their feedback will help you manage overall group cohesiveness.
By talking about these expectations early on in your role as an advisor, you’ll model boundary-setting and self-care to your students.
3. Foster clear communication
Students should feel comfortable talking to you, but they should also understand that you cannot be accessible 24/7. Make sure your members know what appropriate communication looks like.
While emails are great for official business, your students are probably going to do most of their communication via text. Group chats make checking in with a large number of folks easier and keep conversations in one place.
However, I’ve found that important information can get lost in the sauce when group texting or using GroupMe. Opt for free tools like Slack, in which users can create different channels to better organize their topics, tasks, and communities.
You can create a private channel for officers to discuss executive-level matters, a channel for all members to share important announcements and a watercooler channel where members can invite each other to lunch, complain about a grade they received, and talk about whatever else they want.
4. Be a resource
Much like Bran Stark’s role in Game of Thrones, an advisor serves as a resource with as little interference as possible.
A strong advisor will be familiar with institutional, state, and local policies. And, they’ll ensure that rules are being followed by all of the org’s members.
As their advisor, you may be liable for students’ actions. So, you should have ongoing conversations about rules, liabilities, and consequences and devote time to answering students’ questions.
And goodness gracious, did my students have a lot of questions! By breaking down difficult policy language and helping students understand what liability means, they will begin to understand why ax-throwing is not a viable fundraiser activity or why getting waivers signed for a field trip is so important.
Advisors also have to be ready to keep the organization in check when it comes to all financial procedures. It’ll probably be many students’ first time creating and managing a budget.
A few questions I asked my ASA members when they were discussing the budget of their new org were: Will members have to pay a fee? And if so, what items will it be used to purchase? Does your org have a bank account?
Sit down with your executive board to discuss how money will be raised or requested, then distributed and used.
Your role as an advisor is to make sure money is not only being handled appropriately but also being monitored judiciously.
5. Be present
All student affairs professionals get busy — juggling committees, last-minute emergencies, meetings, and so much more.
What sets great advisors apart is that they’re truly present with their organizations. This may sound simple in practice, but when life gets hectic, going to an after-hours meeting may be the first thing to fall by the wayside.
Show your commitment to your students by attending meetings regularly, checking in with your executive board often, and doing your best to learn everyone’s name.
Another cool way you can be present for your student org is by attending a few events every semester. Whether you are helping to set up or just stopping by, the amount of time doesn’t matter as long as your investment is intentional.
Your desktop calendar or planner is your best friend when trying to be a present advisor. Write down meetings, events, and set reminders. Communicate when can’t be at a meeting or event and be sure to schedule a follow-up meeting or email to see how things went.
Students want their efforts to be appreciated, and showing up can go a long way. Think about all those cheesy, emotional moments in movies where a character’s busy parent finally shows up to their baseball game, theater performance, or talent show. Be the parent that shows up, and your students will be so grateful they have such a rad advisor.
Being an advisor doesn’t mean you have to be perfect. There will be plenty of times where you will be learning new things right along with your students. But, if you stick with it, you’ll find that advising a student org can help you feel even more connected to your campus and to your students.
What tips did we miss? We’d love to hear your humble brags about being a great advisor. Tweet us @HelloPresence.