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LaDonna Porter, Eitandria Gatlin, and Tanya Stanley, San Jacinto College

Gatlin, Porter & Stanley.jpbWhy are some students and advisors energized by the challenges of the constantly changing world of higher education and life—swimmers—while others, when faced with similar situations, become frustrated and discouraged—sinkers?

The use of water metaphors is natural for us when describing events because of the proximity of our institution, San Jacinto College, to the Gulf of Mexico.  In addition, a striking parallel exists regarding the way students progress on their journeys toward success: some are easily drawn off course once barriers are presented, while others effectively navigate the obstacles in their way and learn from those experiences.  The trajectory of a student’s journey is not linear.  In fact, there are predictable highs (crests) and lows (troughs) along the way that advisors can guide students through.

Skip Downing (2011) used similar, but less watery, terminology to describe successful and unsuccessful students in On Course: Strategies for Creating Success in College and in Life, which is the textbook used for one of San Jacinto College’s mandatory first-time-in-college classes.  Downing postulated that students can choose to adopt a stance of a “Creator” or a “Victim,” which we explore as it relates to change.

Change can be voluntary or out of one’s control.  Challenges and obstacles can overwhelm students like a tidal wave or energize those with the means to stay afloat.  In Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, Dweck (2008) stated that it is not just abilities or talents that bring success: it is also the mindset that determines if people reach their goals.  With that idea in mind, neither failure nor success is a permanent condition; instead, both are opportunities for growth.

Dweck’s and Downing’s texts create an intertextuality regarding the language people use to describe their responses to adversity.  The response to change takes people down one of two paths—“forks in the road” (Downing, 2011, p. 9).  People can respond to adversity by sulking, losing interest, and, unfortunately, giving up; these people are Victims (Downing, 2011), and they have a fixed mindset (Dweck, 2008).  This response to adversity does not help someone deal with change in a healthy way nor does it move the person up Perry’s (1999) scale of intellectual development.  In contrast, people can also respond to adversity by embracing the problem, maintaining a positive attitude towards change, and changing their behavior; these people use Creator language (Downing, 2011) and have a growth mindset (Dweck, 2011).  Ultimately, these people will move up Perry’s scale of intellectual development.

One approach to student success is as a TEAM: transform one’s mindset upon encountering change; evaluate capabilities, and seek resources as needed; affirm oneself, and listen to the affirmations of others; and master the new behavior or thought in order to negotiate the next change.

Transform one’s mindset upon encountering change.  The TEAM model engages learners of all levels in their personal, academic, and professional roles. If one person’s behavior is positive, it can help others respond to change using their growth mindset.  A member of the TEAM must transform his or her mindset upon encountering change.  If someone’s response to change is negative, that response can cause the TEAM to focus on the negativity instead of accepting the new course of action.  The TEAM may not be able to perform or reach goals with this response to adversity.  Negativity is contagious.  The new normal as a response to adversity takes time and effort—the time and effort to speak like a Creator.

Evaluate capabilities and seek resources as needed.  Members of the TEAM also need to evaluate their own capabilities and seek resources as needed.  The suggestions advisors give students are the suggestions advisors need to take themselves.  Sometimes, people take on one too many projects, assignments, committee workloads, and classes.  Help managing all of these tasks is necessary, but most people do not want to admit two things: they do not know the answer, and they need help.  For many people, these two reactions are in response to fear of being judged and fear of showing weakness.  Most often, these responses to change create an inner roadblock and avoidance of behavior: ignoring emails, not attending meetings, or using sick days more often than normal.  Instead of seeking help, people hope their problems will go away.  However, if someone requests help, that help is often immediate and well received.

Affirm oneself and listen to the affirmations of others.  TEAM members also need to practice affirming themselves and listening to the affirmations of others.  Most people are quick to accept constructive criticism, but they cannot accept a compliment without following up with self-criticism.  Accepting a compliment can be difficult; however, people need to take pride in their work and in their results as part of self-care and validation.  TEAM members can affirm one another while affirming themselves.  Reciting positive affirmations (Downing, 2011) can become a daily habit for everyone.  Daily affirmations become part of an individual’s internal dialogue, and with frequent reminders of these affirmations, they become part of the TEAM.

Master the new behavior or thought in order to negotiate the next change.  TEAM members also need to master the new behavior or thought in order to negotiate the next change.  Again, using Creator language (Downing, 2011) and having a growth mindset (Dweck, 2008) takes learned practice.  People can master their responses to adversity with effort, new habits, and deliberate practice; people must learn how to practice in order to be successful.  It is easy to resort to Victim language when things go awry.  Acknowledging the use of Victim language and the use of a fixed mindset is the first step to becoming a better TEAM member.  People who recognize the need for a cooling off period before they respond to adversity are more likely to use emotionally intelligent responses instead of heated initial responses.  TEAM members need to be aware of behaviors of other TEAM members.  Sometimes simply encouraging each other to think like a Creator or to use the language of someone with a growth mindset can change the dynamic of a stressful situation.  This change can often lead to more flexibility, more creativity, and more positivity in the workplace.

Self-care is the internal and external support necessary for success.  Remember leaning on colleagues, family, and friends for support is essential through tough times.  Most importantly, sharing success stories with professional colleagues validates the importance of one’s work.  Using the language and the behavior of a growth mindset (Dweck, 2008) will help students, advisors, counselors, and professors practice self-care.  Engage in professional development opportunities with like-minded colleagues to re-energize.  Most importantly, continue to have fun.

The TEAM model is timely because students face a changing labor market that constantly requires skill upgrades, usually connected to new technologies.  Helping students move from being a Victim to being a Creator places them in a better position to be flexible and responsive in an ever-evolving world.  The role of advisors in higher education is replete with change and challenges.  Changing to a growth mindset in response to national, state, and institutional initiatives is transformative.  Change is the new normal; it is as constant as ocean waves.  Just remember to keep swimming.   

LaDonna Porter, M.Ed., N.C.C.
Counselor—Educational Planning and Counseling (retired)
San Jacinto College
[email protected]

Eitandria Gatlin, M.A., LPC-Intern
Counselor—Educational Planning and Counseling
San Jacinto College
[email protected]

Tanya Stanley, M.A.
Professor—College Preparatory
San Jacinto College
[email protected]


Downing, S. (2011). On course: Strategies for creating success in college and in life. Boston, MA:Wadsworth.

Dweck, C. S. (2008). Mindset: The new psychology of success. New York, NY: Ballantine Books.

Perry, Jr., W. G. (1999). Forms of ethical and intellectual development in the college years: A scheme. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Cite this article using APA style as: Porter, L., Gatlin, E., & Stanley, T. (2015, March). Sink or swim! How students and advisors navigate the waves of change. Academic Advising Today, 38(1). Retrieved from [insert url here] 

Posted in: 2015 March 38:1


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