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Katherine Carlman, University of La Verne

Katherine Carlman.jpgWhen I was a child, one of my favorite books was P. D. Eastman’s Are You My Mother?  The uncertainty of the baby bird coming into the world alone, the irony that he passed by his own mother because he did not know what she looked like (“She’s right there!” I would exclaim, pointing at the mother bird pulling a worm from the ground as her baby bird passed by, unawares), and the sheer terror of the “Snort!” all captivated me.  Imagine, his mother was right there—right there—ready to help and guide, but he did not even know it.

I often read that story to my own children, and after years of being a full-time mom and a part-time adjunct, I was hired as an academic advisor.  My master’s degree and years of teaching in colleges and universities certainly made an impact on my director’s decision to hire me; however, my experience as a mother truly shapes and informs my role as an advisor.  

I have witnessed adult learners, lost in a confusion of terminology and requirements, freeze and retreat. Open and frequent communication is necessary, but hovering can be problematic.  Much like letting young adults spread their wings, an advisor needs to be alert, offering assistance when necessary, but knowing when to let the student “learn the ropes” of academic life to ensure they become strong, independent learners.  

Walking with the non-traditional student through the tangle of regulations regarding the admissions process is the first step to their successful future.  For adult students, who have often been away from an educational settings for years, the jargon in college catalogs, the computer systems that deliver course content, and the mailings from campus offices can appear foreign and confusing.  Let’s face it—wading through the morass of baccalaureate degree requirements is a daunting task.  My students remind me of this when we meet for advising sessions.       

Cassandra first came to us with hesitation and a dream.  With a faltering voice and a self-deprecating laugh, she admitted that when she had taken classes at a community college years ago, she had not realized how important grades were. 

“I was young,” she said with a shrug, “and I partied too much.” 

As a working adult, she had recently decided on a future: she wanted to become a teacher.  Working as an aide in a middle school classroom, she had grown to love working with children.  Cassandra was full of ideas about how she would approach teaching, and she realized she wanted to be a head teacher with a classroom of her own.  She had the drive to succeed, but when she approached us about moving forward, she learned her GPA did not meet our university’s minimum requirement.

Cassandra knew her GPA for past coursework was low, but she never thought it would be a barrier for her if she wanted to achieve her goals.  Cassandra saw a roadblock and started to think her future would never happen, but with encouragement, and reminders about how passionate she really was about becoming a head teacher herself, she began to consider options.  Since she had already earned many college units, and her GPA was not far below the minimum requirement, I suggested she move forward with an appeal to university policy.  

Letting students know we here to help and guide them is the first step.  Finding a way to navigate around institutional barriers is a key component of an advisor’s role.  Filing an appeal, as we did for Cassandra, is one approach that can work, but there are other avenues that lead to positive outcomes.

After years spent taking classes (some successfully, others not so successfully), at a number of community colleges, Ted stopped by our campus, armed with various transcripts and one question: Could he earn a bachelor’s degree in our accelerated adult program?  He had puttered around enough, he felt, and now, with real resolve, he was ready to begin a bachelor’s program.  Was the university willing to overlook his low GPA and give him a shot at success?

In Ted’s case, the numerous transcripts were riddled with failed classes and course withdrawals.  He had not earned a solid foundation of units, and his GPA was very low.  Undeterred, I began to talk to him about returning to the local community college, this time under my advisement, so that he could get back on track and raise his GPA enough to qualify for our bachelor’s degree programs.  Since he had decided that he wanted to go into business, we crafted a clear path forward—with courses in accounting and economics—courses that interested him and that he would need for his bachelor’s degree. 

It is a boon to adult students when a university is flexible in accepting testing units through CLEP or DSST or when they allow students to earn general education and lower-division units at community colleges.  Portfolio assessments for prior learning offer incredible potential as well, and for adult learners who are trying to do it all, having an advisor guide the way is essential.

Katherine Carman with students.jpgAdult students who have their “Eureka!” moment often appear in our advising office, ready to dash off to realize their goals.  Fueled by a new sense of purpose, and a realization that they have waited a bit longer than others, they are sometimes over-eager to get started.  Reminding the students to pace themselves is important.  Since adult learners are often working parents, there are work and family demands that must be met.  Advising a student to start off slowly, with just one course, maybe two, during their first term back can be difficult.  The passion to move forward is real, but a potential setback from an overburdened course load can be a catastrophic failure for an adult student.  While a younger, traditionally aged undergraduate may shrug off a bad semester, adult learners will often give up and stop trying.  Just like a parent keeping an eye on things from a bit of a distance, the advisor should be watching and guiding their adult learners to ensure success.

And when thing are very broken, can an advisor fix them?  Jose approached us after being academically disqualified from another university.  A few months had passed since he had first received the news, and the ramification of the finality of disqualification had settled in by the time he came to us.  Jose’s plans for his future had been cut short by his admittedly immature attitude toward his studies.  There had been a few family issues that had cropped up that distracted him from his grades, but he had not realized how significantly his GPA would be affected, nor how the action of disqualification would impact him over time.  Would we consider admitting him to our adult program?

Time was necessary for Jose.  Being patient and waiting out a year was a challenge, but learning patience is a virtue.  Time helped him understand the value of a college degree.  While in the past he had been dismissive of his degree program, his year of waiting solidified in him the knowledge that a bachelor’s degree was something he really wanted.  After a year of waiting and then going through the admission process, he came to the advising office so I could help him register for his first class in his new degree program.

“Yes!” he said softly as he pumped his fist in the air.  He was back.

That is the goal, isn’t it?  To help adult learners not just earn the degree, but to have a new-found sense of self?  It is a lot like what a mom does; I am convinced of it.

Katherine Carlman
Academic Advisor
University of La Verne
Ventura County Campus
[email protected]

Cite this article using APA style as: Carlman, K. (2017, December). Are you my advisor?: Essential insight into adult learners. Academic Advising Today, 40(4). 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.