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Voices of the Global Community

Mark C. Rehfuss, Regent University
elissa Mentzer, Ashland University

Typical advising sessions can quickly turn into crisis points when students' conversations lead to disclosure of personal concerns and struggles (Butler, 1995). Students trying to deal with issues related to major career concerns, disabilities, pregnancy, mental health issues and thoughts of suicide are clearly overwhelmed and in need of additional assistance. When mundane advising issues are pushed aside with student crisis, advisors must know how to effectively refer those students for help (Shane, 1981; Kuhn, Gordon, & Webber, 2006). Effective advising referrals usually involve the following three steps:

  • Try to put yourself in the students' shoes and communicate understanding.
  • Think what resources are available to help with this issue and normalize the service.
  • Transition from the advising office to other resources.

Effective referrals start with trying to put yourself in the students' shoes even if you have heard the issues many times before. This involves listening, understanding and then communicating your understanding back to the students. This is often referred to as empathic listening or listening for understanding (Rogers, 1961; Egan, 1998). This skill involves linking the students' feelings to their experiences or behaviors: "I hear you saying that you feel... (the emotion expressed by the student) because ... (the experiences or behavior that has given rise to the emotions)." For example, an advisor might suggest, "It sounds to me as though you feel frustrated because of your poor grades."  Or, the advisor might say, "I hear you saying that you feel overwhelmed because you still have not declared a major" or  "It seems to me that you feel confused and isolated because your friends cannot help you any longer."  When advisors accurately use these types of statements, students feel understood. The key is to link students' current emotions to the reasons behind them and communicate true understanding.

Thinking means taking the time to identify the individual resources that can assist students in working through their current struggles. This means having available the names and telephone numbers of known professionals at the Counseling Center, Career Center, Student Disabilities Center, etc. It is more effective to say to students, "I know Pat, and she has really helped a few of my students who were dealing with very similar issues; why don't I give her a call?" than to say, "Why don't you just call the counseling center when you get back to your room?" Thinking also involves normalizing or explaining the referral resources (O'Hanlon and Weiner-Davis, 1989). Help the students understand that their struggles are often a normal part of personal development and maturity; in fact, their challenges are common enough that the university has developed resources designed to assist them. Here are two examples of possible statements:

Student Disability Services can let you know the accommodations that could be available to you and that may help you be more successful in your academics. Sometimes it involves more time on tests or an environment without distractions. The whole reason they exist is to level the playing field for all students so that everyone has an equal chance at success.

The Counseling Center may be able to help you process what is going on in your life currently. It seems like everything that is going on right now is making it hard for you to feel like you are still in control. I think talking to a professional who is trained to help could assist you in getting some perspective. The Counseling Center provides a variety of services from addressing study skills and relational problems to successfully handling very personal issues like yours.

Transition is the third and final step; it moves students from the advisor to other specific resources. This referral is effectively accomplished by first summarizing what students have been sharing and then thanking them for being so open with their concerns. Once advisors have affirmed students in this manner, they can transition with a statement such as, "As an advisor I can help you with many things, but I'm not really trained to help you with what is going on in your life currently. However, I do know some others on campus who could really provide the assistance, encouragement, support, and help that you need.'" Advisors can then mention the name of the referral or suggest a call right then: "Why don't I give Sue a call and see if we can set up an appointment for you?" These effective transitional statements communicate personal understanding and concern, but are also somewhat directive. While direction is needed, advisors must remember that the goal of referral is not to pressure students, but rather to educate and inform them of their options. Here are two examples:

You know, the issues you have been sharing are really important, and it sounds like you may want some help and support in processing what you are currently going through. I have found that the Learning Center can be a great resource for students. I know Fred Smith over there, and he has assisted many of the students that I advise to work through their concerns and successfully finish college.

Sometimes there are things that your friends or parents cannot help you with, especially when you are here at college. It may be helpful to get another source of support, such as meeting with a counselor or speaking with a physician about your concerns. Debbie Jones, who runs the Campus Counseling Center, is a personal friend of mine. Why don't I just give her a call and see if we can get you in to meet with her?

The foundation of any effective referral is the advisor's ability to understand and to connect with the student through basic empathy skills. Once this has taken place, the advisor can think of and transition the student to the needed resources. Taking the time to develop an effective referral framework will equip you with a needed skill and empower your students to be more successful, both personally and academically.

Mark C. Rehfuss
Regent University
[email protected]

Melissa Mentzer
Ashland University
[email protected]


Butler, E. (1995). Counseling and advising: A continuum of services. In R. Glennen & F. Vowell (Eds.). Academic Advising as a Comprehensive Campus Process. Manhattan, KS: NACADA Monograph Series Number 2, pp. 107-114.

Egan, G. (1998). The skilled helper. Pacific Grove, CA: Brooks/Cole Publishing.

Kuhn, T., Gordon, V., & Webber, J. (2006). The advising and counseling continuum: Triggers for referral. NACADA Journal, 26 (1), 24-31.

O'Hanlon, W., & Weiner-Davis, M. (1989). In search of solutions: A new direction in psychotherapy. New York: Norton.

Rogers, C. (1961). On becoming a person. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin.

Shane, D. (1981). Academic advising in higher education: A developmental approach for college students of all ages. NACADA Journal, 1(2), 12-23.

Cite this article using APA style as: Rehfuss,M. & Mentzer, M. (2006, September). How to make effective referrals: A three step framework. Academic Advising Today, 29(3). Retrieved from [insert url here]


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