Colleen Rose, Indiana University Bloomington
The student population in higher education is more diverse than it has ever been. Students of color, women, low-income, and first-generation students are enrolled in the highest numbers in history (Krogstad & Fry, 2014; Lopez & Gonzalez-Barrera, 2014; National Center for Education Statistics, 2017). These students come from historically oppressed identity groups that continue to be systematically marginalized. Academic advising is not immune to participation in this marginalization, even if unknowingly. How might academic advisors not only mitigate bias in their work with underrepresented students, but also nurture the NACADA Core Value of inclusivity by showing respect and value for diverse populations (NACADA, 2017)? Strengths-based advising, which is based upon the strengths perspective in social work, offers an opportunity to minimize bias and maximize inclusivity while recognizing the resilience and often overlooked talents of underrepresented students.
Strengths-based advising emerged as an advising approach in the early 21st century (Schreiner & Anderson, 2005). This approach draws heavily from the strengths perspective in social work, which was codified in the late 1980s. The strengths perspective in social work served as a hopeful antidote to the long-entrenched deficit or problem-solving model utilized by most helping professions (Weick et al., 1989). Saleebey, one of the original authors of the strengths perspective in social work, developed the perspective in response to what he saw as the “big business” of victimhood, which describes how the helping professions profit from pathologizing already-marginalized communities (Saleebey, 1996, p. 297). The strengths perspective offered a new lens through which to see the populations that social workers serve. Rather than focusing on the deficits of clients and communities, the strengths perspective challenged social workers to see those they served in terms of their “capacities, talents, competencies, possibilities, visions, values, and hopes” (Saleebey, 1996, p. 297).
In what similar ways has higher education profited from a deficit-oriented model of students? Most often students from marginalized backgrounds are identified by universities as lacking the necessary skills and knowledge needed to be successful in college. Institutions of higher education send implicit messages about these perceived shortcomings when they require students to participate in extra programs, interventions, and assessments. While these programs exist with the important goal of equity in mind, they risk emphasizing what marginalized students lack rather than the gifts, skills, knowledge, and talents they already have that can become the foundation for their success in college. Academic advisors, at least within their realm of influence, can foster equity by using a strengths-based approach with the most vulnerable of students.
How can advisors advise towards social justice by using a strengths-based approach in their work with underrepresented students? First, the strengths-based advisor must believe that students can build upon strengths they already possess within themselves and their environments to achieve their goals. Regardless of where the student comes from (e.g., a low-income neighborhood) or the skills or knowledge the student is perceived to lack (e.g., collegiate-level writing skills), the strengths-based advisor believes that the student has talent and values worth recognition. For example, a student from a marginalized community may have more family responsibilities than their well-resourced peers. The student shares with the advisor that it has been difficult to balance school and family needs at the same time. The deficit-oriented advisor might advise the student to “put yourself first” and avoid distractions from family. While well-meaning, such advice merely attempts to fix the problem while also showing preference towards white middle-class values of independence and autonomy. At its worst, this advice could create a serious ethical dilemma within the student about how to proceed in what has been framed as a zero-sum game: choose family or choose school. The strengths-based advisor, on the other hand, recognizes the value the student places on family and frames that value as a strength. Valuing family can be a strength in that it signifies the student values loyalty, relationships, and community. It may also signal that the student cares about the welfare of those closest to them and maybe even exudes a level of maturity beyond their age in the responsibilities they assume for those they love. After the advisor points out this strength the student may experience a level of trust with their advisor because they feel as though the advisor gets it. This is the building block from which to explore opportunities and solutions that the student and advisor brainstorm collaboratively and that transcend the either/or paradigm.
Second, the strengths-based advisor is self-aware. Self-awareness may be the most important element of strengths-based advising with marginalized populations. The self-aware strengths-based advisor recognizes their bias toward certain skills, values, and talents due to their own upbringing, life experiences, politics, and culture. This is particularly important for academic advisors whose most salient identities reflect historically privileged groups (e.g., white, straight, upper-middle class) because they risk perpetuating the marginalization of the values and talents of underrepresented students. For example, an advisor might recognize in themselves that they have a particular value towards hard work that was instilled in them by their family. They find themselves heaping praise on advisees they perceive to be hard workers and have little difficulty identifying that strength when they see it. That same advisor may find that they regularly feel frustrated by students who tinker, daydream, or doodle, so to speak. It is much more difficult for the advisor in this example to see these seemingly aimless distractions as the basis of strengths: creativity and visioning. Without self-awareness, the strengths-based advisor cannot equitably exercise their strengths-identifying skills and risks overlooking the talents, knowledge, and gifts that each student brings to the table. To advise towards social justice, the strengths-based advisor must cultivate self-awareness of their own values, talents, and hopes and reflect honestly—ideally in a supportive supervisory and/or collegial setting—about the values and skills which are of less value to them and why.
Self-awareness is the foundation for the third skill of the strengths-based advisor advising towards social justice: drawing out and identifying non-traditional, undervalued, or even negatively stereotyped talents and values of students from marginalized populations. This can be a truly challenging task. Advisors and students have experienced messaging their entire lives that includes negative stereotypes about marginalized groups. Some of those stereotypes have been entrenched for centuries. Additionally, some underrepresented students have internalized those messages as true and others have rejected them, while many oscillate between the two at any given time. While it may be challenging for advisors to assess where students are in their critical conscientiousness (Freire, 2000) and, if appropriate, attempt to reframe negative cultural messaging over the course of an advising relationship, the effort is worth the potential gains.
The strengths-based advisor, by striving for social justice, can at least create cracks in that messaging by suggesting that maligned values may be strengths. Schreiner (n.d.) gives excellent guidance for facilitating this challenging but worthy task by suggesting that strengths-based advisors ask the following questions: “What have you sometimes been teased about or even criticized for? How could this be a ‘shadow side’ of something that is actually a strength in you that helps you achieve excellence?” In a trusting advising relationship, the advisor may even be able to identify a strength they notice in their advisee that the advisee speaks about negatively. For example, many female-identifying students interested in social work as their major express a worry that they will “care too much” and therefore be ineffective as a social worker. This is a great opportunity for the advisor to ask why caring too much is a bad thing. Examples of reflective questions that could help to reframe the traditionally female trait of caring as a strength might include: “What does it look like to care too much? What was your experience of expressing emotion growing up and how does that connect to what you think is appropriate for a social worker? Is it possible that caring too much could actually be a talent of yours? How could you harness caring too much as a strength if you were a social worker?”
Last, one of the most common misconceptions of strengths perspective is that a strengths-based practitioner ignores what is going wrong. This is not true at all. In fact, the most powerful application of the strengths perspective is when deficits are presented and the advisor helps the advisee to recognize skills and knowledge, such as resilience, that have helped the student to overcome those deficits in the past. In work with students from marginalized backgrounds, this could be a powerful exercise in validating and re-framing adversity.
Is strengths-based advising towards social justice a magical panacea for eliminating bias and creating equality for all students? No. But it does re-orient an advisor’s perspective to what their advisee is capable of rather than where they are failing. If advisors are to “honor the inherent value of all students” as outlined in the profession’s core values (NACADA, 2017), strengths-based advising, especially with underrepresented students, is one effective way advisors can minimize bias and create positive social change.
The author dedicates this article to Dr. William Patrick Sullivan, one of the founding authors of the strengths perspective in social work.
Colleen Rose, MSW, LSW
Student Services Coordinator and Recruitment Specialist
School of Social Work
Indiana University Bloomington
Freire, P. (2000). Pedagogy of the oppressed. Routledge.
Krogstad, J. M., & Fry, R. (2014, April 24). More Hispanics, blacks enrolling in college, but lag in bachelor’s degrees. Pew Research Center. http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2014/04/24/more-hispanics-blacks-enrolling-in-college-but-lag-in-bachelors-degrees/
Lopez, M. H., & Gonzalez-Barrera, A. (2014, March 6). Women’s college enrollment gains leave men behind. Pew Research Center. http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2014/03/06/womens-college-enrollment-gains-leave-men-behind/
NACADA: The Global Community for Academic Advising. (2017). NACADA core values of academic advising. https://www.nacada.ksu.edu/Resources/Pillars/CoreValues.aspx
National Center for Education Statistics. (2017, July). Table 302.30. Percentage of recent high school completers enrolled in college, by income level: 1975 through 2016. https://nces.ed.gov/programs/digest/d17/tables/dt17_302.30.asp?current=yes
Saleebey, D. (1996). The strengths perspective in social work practice: Extensions and cautions. Social Work, 41(3), 296–305. http://www.jstor.org/stable/23718172
Schreiner, L. A. & Anderson, E. (2005). Strengths-based advising: A new lens for higher education. NACADA Journal, 25(2), 20–29. https://doi.org/10.12930/0271-9517-25.2.20
Schreiner, L. A. (n.d.). Questions for each phase of strengths-based advising. https://nacada.ksu.edu/Resources/NACADA-Companion-Resources/Academic-Advising-Approaches/Strengths-Based-Advising.aspx
Weick, A., Rapp, C., Sullivan, W.P., Kisthardt, W. (1989). A strengths perspective for social work practice. Social Work, 34(4), 350–354. https://doi.org/10.1093/sw/34.4.350
Cite this article using APA style as: Rose, C. (2022, September). Strengths-based advising for social justice. Academic Advising Today, 45(3). [insert url here]