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Shea Ellingham, Mount Royal University

Shea Ellngham.jpgThe transition to post-secondary education is challenging, which is why so many post-secondary institutions are focused on student engagement.  The first years of post-secondary are critical to a student’s long-term engagement in the learning environment.  The emergence of retention as a focus area for student affairs is indicative that not every student who starts university will graduate.

Student success can be broadly defined as retention, graduation, and educational attainment (Kuh, 2004).  For an institution to be focused on student success, effort must be invested in programming to help students graduate.  But there is much more to student success than simply graduation.

Students are not blank slates that arrive at institutions fully prepared to be engaged in the learning process.  They bring with them educational skills, cultural expectations, and the emotions around the transition into adulthood that post-secondary education represents.  And our job as academic advisors is to develop a relationship with these students to help them understand their expectations of both themselves and their institutions and guide them to a successful experience.  For some students, the transition to post-secondary education is an easy one: they are fully supported by their families, they know exactly what they want to study, and they are well prepared academically.  But for other students, their transition to post-secondary is not seamless at all, and for many of these students, it is not their fault.  These are the students who may not be as well prepared academically, or they are unsure of what they want to study, or their family is struggling to support them financially, or they have to work long hours just to be able to afford to go to school, or they are the first one from their family to pursue a post-secondary degree, or perhaps they are the first one from their family to go to a North American post-secondary institution (Miller & Murray, 2005).  Each of these factors adds to the challenges of transition to post-secondary education.

Academic advisors are strategically positioned to help students, and perhaps especially at-risk students, make a successful transition to post-secondary education.  Academic advisors can make a difference in their advisees’ lives (Miller, 2016), and their work is essential in student persistence and success (Klepfer & Hull, 2012).  As Drake (2013) writes, academic advisors may be the only person students encounter who demonstrate a genuine interest in their success.  Good academic advisors take the time to make connections with their advisees, to dig through the layers of expectations and challenges that students present, and to help students find their path through post-secondary education.  The work of academic advisors contributes to students’ development of their self-awareness with respect to their education, career, and personal goals and objectives. Through a developmental approach based on a close advisor-advisee relationship, advisors can help students achieve educational, career, and personal goals (Grites, 2013).

Nash and Jang (2013) agree that student affairs professionals, and among them, academic advisors, are central to helping students engage in the meaning-making process as it relates not only to their education, but to their life.  To accomplish these goals, advisors must be aware of the needs of their advisees, which can be gained through a grounding in student development theories (Jordan, 2016); the institutional requirements students must meet; and the institutional services and resources available to help students accomplish their goals (Grites, 2013; Miller 2016). 

Strayhorn (2015) challenged advisors to become the cultural navigators responsible for educating advisees about the culture of higher education.  Academic advisors, and by extension all student affairs professionals, are uniquely positioned to guide students in the culture of higher education and help them to make the transition to their new environment.  It is not enough to simply admit the students to post-secondary institutions, there is also an implied obligation on the part of the post-secondary institution to provide supports and services to help these students succeed. 

Post-secondary education has its own traditions, policies, systems of organization, regulations, and in short, its own culture.  Academic advisors have the opportunity to share this knowledge with their advisees and help them understand this new culture of post-secondary education. The reward for taking on this role is witnessed through student retention and ultimately success.  "[T]he moment students feel they belong, they stay in college” (Strayhorn, 2015).  The advisor-advisee relationship is critical to student retention and persistence and has been well documented (Habley, 1983; Klepfer & Hull, 2012; Light, 2001; Tinto, 1993).

Advising at Mount Royal University (MRU) has evolved over the years into a hybrid, decentralized model where some program advisors report through a central academic advising office and others report through to their own departments.  With a decentralized approach to advising, there is no unified approach to the roles and responsibilities of advising across the institution.  When I joined MRU in 2009, one of my first projects was to work on a communication plan to raise awareness of the roles and responsibilities of academic advisors with the goal of educating students, faculty, staff, and administrators about the work that advisors do.  The relationship building process with internal stakeholders is a dynamic process where shared information not only informs but also creates a common ground for understanding and conversation about the importance of academic advising within the realm of student success.

In order for advisors to be able to take on the role of cultural navigator, they must be aware of what services are available on campus and also how and when students can and should access these services.  In response to the ever-changing environment in higher education, new campus services are being implemented and it is critical for advisors to be aware of changes to student services.  Through a campus advising community, all advisors at MRU, no matter their program or reporting structure, are invited to gather and learn about student services at the university in order to better equip themselves when working with their advisees. Representatives from campus departments and related services are invited to present to the campus advising community. The benefit is twofold in that internal stakeholders also learn about the important work that advisors do at these community meetings.

By establishing a community for advising at MRU regardless of reporting lines, my goal was to establish a common language and foundation for a professional approach to academic advising on our campus.  The three components of advising practice as established by Habley (1983) and developed in the NACADA Academic Advising Core Competencies (2017), namely the conceptual, informational, and relational components, are the foundation upon which the campus advising community at Mount Royal has been intentionally established.

A solid foundation begins with information: the specifics of the job that advisors must know in order to do their jobs competently.  A core component of the campus advising meetings is the communication of policies and procedural updates that are critical to an advisor’s role.  It is the what of the job of advising that becomes a focus of the campus advising community meetings, because only an informed advisor can truly be of service to advisees.

The second key component of advising is the relational aspect of the interaction between advisor and advisee.  It is often the case that a student may be afraid to talk about the issue at hand, and the real reason for the visit to an advisor’s office might be revealed in an off-hand comment at the end of the appointment.  It is only through establishing rapport with advisees that the advisor may be able to discover the real reason for the appointment.  Every advisor has a different way of connecting with students, but not every student will respond the same way to the same approach.  A skillful academic advisor uses a variety of approaches to develop rapport with their advisees.  Adding a variety of approaches to one’s own advising toolkit requires a level of interest, and an opportunity to explore and develop.   Through our campus advising community meetings at MRU, we explore different advisor-advisee scenarios and discuss different approaches to working with students to establish rapport and add to the relational component of the advising relationship.

The final component of advising is the conceptual aspect, which really demands that the advisor take a broader view of the field of advising and understand how advising fits within their institution and the importance of the work that advisors do overall.  In higher education, we all work within organizational structures which will, from time to time, be a challenge for students to navigate and find their way through.  This is where the advisor can work for the greater good, helping their advisees work through a challenge, but also bringing those challenges back to the advising community on their campus and work towards minimizing the barriers on behalf of their advisees (Miller, 2016).  This is the greatest challenge for us at MRU in our campus advising community discussions.  How can we effect real change that will help our students achieve success and minimize the challenges they encounter?  To me, this is the role of the advisor as cultural navigator, where the advisor can see that there may be barriers in place, but for the sake of their advisees, will work to enhance the student experience.

Building upon these three components of academic advising, knowing how to build rapport with students through different approaches to advising, understanding the higher education culture of the institution, and working to address and remove barriers to student success aligns with the concept that an academic advisor is the cultural navigator: directing, educating, and providing insight into the path through higher education.  Acting as the hub of the wheel (King & Kerr, 2004), the academic advisor can help their advisees adapt to the culture of their higher education environment and empower them to take an active part in their journey to success.

Shea Ellingham
Manager, Academic Advising Services
Mount Royal University
[email protected]


Drake, J. K. (2013). Advising as teaching and the advisor as teacher in theory and practice. In J. K. Drake, P. Jordan, & M. A. Miller (Eds.), Academic advising approaches: Strategies that teach students to make the most of college (pp. 17–32). Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons Inc.

Grites, T. J. (2013). Developmental academic advising. In J. K. Drake, P. Jordan, & M. A. Miller (Eds.), Academic advising approaches: Strategies that teach students to make the most of college (pp. 45–59). Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons Inc.

Habley, W. R. (1983). Organizational structures for academic advising: Models and implications. Journal of College Student Personnel, 24(6), 535–540.

Jordan, P. (2016). Theory as the foundation of advising. In T. J. Grites, M. A. Miller, & J. G. Voller (Eds.), Beyond foundations: Developing as a master academic advisor (pp. 21–42). Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

King, M. C. & Kerr, T. J. (2004). Academic advising. In M. L. Upcraft, J. N. Gardner, & B. O. Barefoot (Eds.), Challenging and supporting the first‐year student: A handbook for improving the first year of college. San Francisco, CA: Jossey‐Bass.

Klepfer, K., & Hull, J. (2012). High school rigor and good advice: Setting up students to succeed. Retrieved from the National Association of School Boards’ Center for Public Education website.

Kuh, G. D. (2004). Student engagement in the first year of college. In M. L. Upcraft, J. N. Gardner, & B. O. Barefoot (Eds.), Challenging and supporting the first‐year student: A handbook for improving the first year of college (pp. 86–107). San Francisco, CA: Jossey‐Bass.

Light, R. (2001). Making the most of college: Students speak their minds. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Miller, M. A. (2016). Building upon the components of academic advising to facilitate change. In T. J. Grites, M. A. Miller, & J. G. Voller (Eds.), Beyond foundations: Developing as a master academic advisor (pp. 43–64). Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Miller, M.A. & Murray, C. (2005). Advising academically underprepared students. Retrieved from NACADA Clearinghouse of Academic Advising Resources Web Site: http://www.nacada.ksu.edu/Resources/Clearinghouse/View-Articles/Academically-underprepared-students.aspx

NACADA: The Global Community for Academic Advising. (2017). NACADA academic advising core competencies model. Retrieved from https://www.nacada.ksu.edu/Resources/Pillars/CoreCompetencies.aspx

Nash, R. J., & Jang, J. J. (2013, September/October). The time has come to create meaning-making centers on college campuses. About Campus, 18(4), 2–9.

Strayhorn, T. L. (2015). Reframing academic advising for student success: From advisor to cultural navigator. NACADA Journal, 35(1), 56–63.

Tinto, V. (1993). Leaving college: Rethinking the causes and cures of student attrition (2nd ed.). Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.


Cite this article using APA style as: Ellingham, S. (2018, September). Advisors as cultural navigators: A strategy for student success. Academic Advising Today, 41(3). Retrieved from [insert url here] 


# Kailynn
Monday, September 10, 2018 9:34 PM
I really love the concept of cultural navigators. A student's need to understand and navigate the organizational and cultural mazes at a university will not disappear once they leave post-secondary education; new jobs and career environments will present similar challenges! If the academic advisor can educate and guide a student in this way throughout their educational journey, one could wager that the student will then carry those skills in their own toolkit for when they join the workforce.

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