James Creech, University of Notre Dame
In the ten years I’ve worked as an advisor for first-year students at the University of Notre Dame, I’ve frequently questioned the purpose of advising. “Helping students” is the easy answer, irreproachable, vague, and not untrue. Advisors do help students, practically, personally, and intellectually. To what end, though?
The shrunken life of the Covid era has given me much time and occasion to consider this question. Suddenly in March 2020, my job was reduced to its essence. Gone were the commute, the office chit chat, the professional development goals. What remained was my relationship with my students, now scattered across the globe. I don’t know if I was a good advisor in the second half of the first Covid semester. I was used to guiding students through personal crises. I had no idea how to guide them through a global crisis. Panicked and confused, I stumbled to the end of the semester along with everyone else. Amidst the chaos of an epochal tragedy, however, I gained clarity about the purpose of my work. Advising is my contribution to the common good. Like wearing a mask or staying home, it is a small, individual act, essential yet meaningless without countless other small, individual acts.
Before the pandemic, I’m sure I would have said that advising served the common good, but this idea wasn’t truly part of how I conceived of my work. My official advising philosophy makes no mention of the world outside of a student’s own head. I write instead about cultivating critical faculties, opening minds, and teaching students how to make choices. Worthy goals all, but, as I now see, insufficient.
This time of isolation and loneliness has revealed humanity’s interconnectedness. We have only survived this pandemic because of the heroic labor and specialized knowledge of our neighbors—delivery drivers, warehouse workers, nurses, the list is endless. Advising does not directly support us during the pandemic in this way, but advisors have a part to play nonetheless. We wear masks, we stay home, we help the future health care workers and researchers get through chemistry so that they can cure the next pandemic.
I have long believed in the intrinsic and extrinsic value of higher education for society. This belief is one of the reasons why I chose a career in academia. I am proud to work for an institution with a strong commitment to improving the world. In the words of its mission statement, the University of Notre Dame (n.d.) seeks “to create a sense of human solidarity and concern for the common good that will bear fruit as learning becomes service to justice.” Similarly, the mission of the College of Science, where I am embedded, is “to prepare tomorrow’s scientific leaders . . . to share their knowledge and discoveries in ways that encourage collaboration, advance learning, and contribute to the common good” (University of Notre Dame College of Science, n.d.). While I find these words inspiring, it can be difficult to see how advising is connected to this greater mission.
Advising is a wonderful job. Advisors have the privilege of accompanying students as they pursue profound intellectual and personal journeys. Advising can also be monotonous, frustrating, and mired in detail. Some days, you feel like your job is to drop the marble into the Rube Goldberg machine of bureaucracy. Other days, you feel like your job is to keep everybody (students, parents, professors, administrators) happy. But then, just as you’re dusting off your resume so that you can find a less aggravating job, you have a luminous moment. A student marvels at what she’s learning in her theoretical math course or beams with pride when he finally passes a chemistry exam. You put your resume away and recommit yourself to serving the students.
These moments, while invigorating, are personal, and their connection to the common good isn’t immediately apparent. Advising is by design focused on the individual. Nearly all my meetings with students are one-on-one. Our conversations are about their experiences, needs, and wants. The effectiveness of advising is judged (perhaps wrongly) by quantifiable individual achievements such as grades, persistence, and graduation. Unquestionably, all students deserve personal attention as they try to understand themselves and their education, yet a conception of advising limited to individual student success undervalues the work of advising and the project of higher education.
Advising can feel like working underground. Our labor as advisors is often unseen, and its fruits may take years to grow and ripen. This invisibility is especially true if you evaluate advising for its long-term social value rather than its effect on individual success in college. Nevertheless, I am confident that advisors prepare students to contribute to the common good in numerous ways. We guide students as they discern the best program for their interests and abilities. We connect them to resources when they encounter academic and personal challenges. We help them find purpose and meaning in their education. We give them pep talks, listen to their hopes and fears, and cheer their successes. All of this work is in service to learning, and we hope that students choose to use this learning to make the world a better place.
Bernie Sanders famously used the slogan “Not me, us” in his most recent presidential campaign. If I didn’t think I would get some disgruntled emails from parents, I would tell my students “Not you, them.” I’m not advising just for your benefit, I’m advising for them, for everyone you can help with your intelligence, knowledge, and hard work. I’m advising for the common good.
Associate Advising Professor
Center for University Advising
University of Notre Dame
University of Notre Dame. (n.d.). Mission Statement. https://www.nd.edu/about/mission/
University of Notre Dame College of Science. (n.d.). About. https://science.nd.edu/about/
Cite this article using APA style as: Creech, J. (2021, June). Finding purpose during the pandemic: Advising for the common good. Academic Advising Today, 44(2). [insert url here]