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Freedom Nguyen, University of Illinois at Chicago

Freedom Nguyen.jpgI attended the NACADA Annual Conference in Minneapolis last October, where hundreds of administrators and academic advisors convened to discuss their work and approach to student success.  I discovered there was a collective consciousness around the struggles of our college students and a profound desire among advisors to revolutionize how higher education serves students.  I thought critically about my role as an academic advisor and was reminded of my responsibility also as an agent of change.

Prior to higher education, I worked in community based programs serving youth and families with immediate and often complex needs.  In many ways, this experience paralleled my work in advising and student services—dropping everything to help a person in crisis.  Often these crises would not have long-term solutions, and for many clients, their struggles became systemic and cyclical in nature.  Reacting to support and serve just one person in crisis left everyone emotionally taxed and drained, but serving multiple clients with high needs left everyone at our community center burned out.  That’s when I realized the difference between direct-service work and advocacy.  My colleagues and I were not spending adequate time thinking strategically about the problems our clients faced or how to address them systemically.  

As an academic advisor, I sometimes feel reactionary and prescriptive in working with students.  I provide answers only when students ask questions about the curriculum, or a campus service, or a specific need.  When I don’t attempt to address why students are asking what they do, or not understanding the context behind their issues, I not only feel reactionary, but I am perpetuating a normative advising model, feeding into a routine or cycle.  This may not necessarily be a bad thing, and at the very least we are still serving student needs. But I think of other areas in advising like academic probation and dismissal policies: To what degree have we normalized student failure?  I remember one particular conversation at the conference in which advisors felt universally powerless in reaching these students on academic probation.  How do we address problems at the root?  How do we build long-term change in advising, student services, and in higher education?

When we advocate (whether in a community center or at a university), we look for opportunities to connect and share not only concerns but proposed solutions to leaders within our department, division, and college.  It is relationship building at its best with the key leaders and stakeholders that can implement change within our learning environments and communities.  It is taking a step up to inform our leaders and building lasting partnerships that will benefit all of our students.  

Sometimes I confuse advocacy for referral of services, or connecting students to additional resources, or networking, or expressing challenges with other departments.  This is important, but it is not advocacy.  Advocacy serves as a vehicle for change and is the difference between complacency and leadership.  I don’t claim to have all the answers, but I think striving for balance between advocacy and advising will help us feel like we are making progress, and in the long-term working toward some measurable form of success.  Here are some general ongoing tips in making advocacy a part of my everyday work:

  • Finding the patterns in reoccurring student issues, searching for the data to support my concerns, and identifying how I as an advisor can better approach the problem
  • Building in time each week to reflect on the students I serve and then sharing with my supervisor
  • Creating meaningful ways to engage the institution’s leadership, pathways to learn more about their roles and how I can meet with them (consistently) to express student needs or concerns
  • Hosting quarterly meetings and inviting the institution’s leadership to serve as guest speakers
  • Being solution based, innovative, and willing to learn more about the issue by doing my own research
  • Volunteering to be on committees related to outreach, student or campus life, and/or policy development

As an advisor, I am in a unique position that regularly interfaces complex student needs.  I believe that advisors understand the wide range of challenges and issues that impact student success and that they should use their roles to promote institutional changes to support all students.  I aspire to be both an advisor and an advocate.

Freedom Nguyen
Academic Advisor
UIC College of Business & Administration

Cite this article using APA style as: Nguyen, F. (2015, June). Academic advising or advocacy?  Academic Advising Today, 38(2). Retrieved from [insert url here]

Posted in: 2015 June 38:2


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Academic Advising Today, a NACADA member benefit, is published four times annually by NACADA: The Global Community for Academic Advising. NACADA holds exclusive copyright for all Academic Advising Today articles and features. For complete copyright and fair use information, including terms for reproducing material and permissions requests, see Publication Guidelines.