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Editor's Note: NACADA and The National Collegiate Honors Council (NCHA) are developing a partnership in order to provide the highest quality information and resources to those advisors and faculty who work directly with students enrolled in honors programs and colleges. NACADA Advising High Achieving Students Interest Group Co-Chairs Iona Black (Yale University) and Marion Schwartz (Penn State University) tell us, “It is a delight to introduce Academic Advising Today readers to Joan Digby, director of The Honors Program and Merit Fellowship at Long Island University's C. W. Post Campus, author of Honors Programs and Colleges for Peterson's Guides, and former president of the National Collegiate Honors Council. This spirited article exemplifies her experience and enthusiasm for working with honors students. What a wonderful way to begin our partnership with NCHC!”

Joan Digby, Long Island University -C.W. Post Campus

Over the last several years, honors directors have come to acknowledge the critical role that advisors play in helping our students stay the course in honors programs and colleges. As advisors well know, these are the students who do everything: take a double major, play sports, sing, act, dance, write for the newspaper and—in their spare time—prepare for GREs, LSATs, MCATs, Fulbrights and Rhodes scholarships! Whew! Did I mention that they also have jobs?

As an honors director for over twenty-five years and a past president of The National Collegiate Honors Council, I have looked at the profile of these students for a long time. That is why I am extremely pleased that NACADA and NCHC will now be partnering for the benefit of our students. Honors students need advisors more than they know. I hope that my own perspective on the current generation of honors students can be useful to your important work.

High achievers characteristically appear to know what they are doing and where they are going. But this is often far from the truth. Many honors students have been programmed and pushed from so many different directions that they hardly know what to study and what they really want to do with their lives.

Teachers who noticed how bright they were in the lower grades directed them to Gifted Programs and learning camps. Later in high school, they were urged to take AP courses, honors sections and college courses.

Parents delighted with their achievement collaborated in the pushing, getting them tutors and SAT prep courses, music and drama lessons—everything necessary to cultivate talents and ensure admission to a top college. Play was discouraged unless it involved competitive sports, which looked great on a resume!

“You can do it,” everyone said, not thinking so much about whether they might want to do whatever it was that teachers and parents thought they should be doing. Since these very high achievers associate admiration and love with their achievement, they were afraid to say no or disappoint.

Among new wave immigrant families, parental pushing has taken a slightly different form. Many of their children are the first in the family to go to college. Without the means for tutors, camps and coaching they crack the whip at home, enforcing long study hours and searching for college opportunities that will help their children become teachers, accountants, medical technicians—practical degrees from affordable colleges.

From my perspective, I see the work of advisors as helping these students break away from parental influence so they can find their own desires and professions. Advising high achievers is something like training a thoroughbred. Here are some suggestions I hope will be helpful.

Ease up on the reins. They need to feel their own strength and take charge. All their lives they have been tightly reined in, and many of them have also had blinders put on them by parents and teachers. Thus they can’t see to the right or left of where they are “supposed” to go. Let out the reins and take the blinders off. Encourage them to take courses that really interest them rather than just to complete a degree on time. Let them follow their noses, run with the wind, taste the fresh grass and savor the freedom that comes with enjoyment. Whether they opt for Medieval Philosophy or Japanese Flower Arranging—students should take some courses to create avocations or advance the idea of learning for its own sake.

Encourage them to play. Virtually all the academic decisions that high achieving students have made (often not by themselves) are goal oriented. College should expand their sense of personal choice. Instead of pushing them through traditional sessions and on to summer school, advisors might find out whether they would like to do an internship, study or travel abroad and see what it’s like to live away from home.

You should see the look that parents give me when I make these suggestions! Yet, precisely because these students have been overprotected and over-structured, I believe the best we can do for them is open the barn door and let them run. If they want to act like a camel or a donkey for awhile, let them do it! Play stretches the imagination.

Don’t enter them into too many races. These students have been urged to compete, and many have suffered for it. They are often shy and unable to say no. Advisors should try to sense the personality of the students they work with and help them eliminate the tension that comes from being pushed toward too much competition. Not every good horse is a candidate for the Derby.

Lead them to water but don’t make them drink it. College advisors can make suggestions about what courses to take, but they should not let students simply take courses to fit a work schedule, or complete requirements, to get the easy professor or fill in an empty space in a program. Honors students tend to be “different,” even quirky. Lead them to water but let them drink pomegranate juice if that’s what they desire.

These fine thoroughbreds of ours do need advisement and sometimes a great deal of counseling. Many need to get beyond the idea that they are only as good as their grades. The fear of disappointing themselves and their parents plays an enormous role in their self-image. What do they tell their parents when they get a D in Spanish or decide not to go to medical school? Advisors can play a critical role in teaching them to jump these life hurdles.

Advisors can also play an important role in NCHC. The National Collegiate Honors Council is one of the few academic organizations that encourage faculty, staff and students to participate on equal terms at its annual meeting. It is my personal hope that NCHC and NACADA can build a strong working relationship that will encourage us to attend each other’s meetings and share our experience advising honors students.

Joan Digby
Director of The Honors Program and Merit Fellowship
Long Island University --C. W. Post Campus
[email protected]

Cite this article using APA style as: Digby, J. (2007, September). Advising honors students. Academic Advising Today, 30(3). Retrieved from [insert url here]


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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.