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Mercedes Gonzales, University of Houston-Downtown

Dedicated to my late father, Pedro Gonzales, whose lessons nurtured a lifetime passion for learning

Mercedes Gonzales.jpgOne of the most vivid childhood memories that immediately materializes for me with any conversation on higher education and its goal of nurturing critical thinking is the role that a set of World Book Encyclopedias, circa early 1970s, played in my education. An encyclopedia, for younger readers, was the equivalent of Wikipedia without the wiki option, volume after volume of white, grainy hardcovers with deep red binding and gold lining and letters. For a pre-teen new to the world of higher learning, they were analogous to a set of War and Peace sized volumes but bigger, smarter, and much more intimidating. Nonetheless, they set the stage for my journey and continuing discovery of the intellectual world. 

I was a curious child, and as curiosity would have it, I asked many questions. As a first-generation student, I began my bilingual (English/Spanish) studies in elementary school a year late because of language barriers. After a few years under the caring tutelage of my teacher, Mrs. Wren, I managed to excel in the English-speaking world and applied my learning effectively and successfully. In high school, I placed in an Honors program and graduated with honors with a Bachelor of Arts (BA). I am much older now, but I still check my reading, writing, and speaking, always aware of my English as a Second Language (ESL) heritage. I use the dictionary, google any subject at any time, research topics I hear in passing, and purchase books that spark my interest with a single word. The answers to my never-ending questions are no longer in hardcover volumes, but luckily for me, are now accessed by an instinctive press of a few keys on my iPad.

My late father was not an angler, but he knew how to cast a line. Orphaned early in childhood, he never attended high school, much less an institution of higher education. My father’s appearance, his deep-bronzed skin color, high cheekbones, and deep black hair and eyebrows, confirmed his Latino/Aztec/Native American birthright. One would expect a Spanish accent, yet his superior English had none and he was my go-to for all my intellectual endeavors. His go-to, however, was that set of encyclopedias. I asked a question and he would cast his line with a smile and a glance in the direction of the shelf where they stood, tightly packed; at the time, I was unaware of the process he had set in motion. I was frustrated and confused by my father’s deliberate (as I deemed it to be) denial of answers, and it was only late in life that I wondered if my father knew he only had answers the size of minnows to offer and I was asking for the big catches. Thus began my fishing for answers as I began to “conduct inquiry and analyze, evaluate, and synthesize information” (University of Houston–Downtown, 2018).

My greatest fear, alarming as it may be, is not of misadvising, not of student complaints, or even of not connecting with a student. My greatest fear is of the possibility of a graduate navigating the world without ever casting a line and remaining dependent on others to provide a catch. I am continuously assessing the effectiveness of my advising in nurturing fisherfolk. I vehemently adhere to the learning theory of advising by guiding students through the process of recognizing a bite on the line, reeling in the catch, and feeding that curious, intellectual mind for life. Alternatively, Confucius (as cited in Quotes, n.d.) would say:

I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand.

First and foremost, I recognize that there are as many variations of First Year students as there are fish in the sea. Every student casts differently, and thus learning may take many different paths to the eventual catch. Second, casting and waiting for a bite is a time-consuming effort; give a person a fish and your task is brief—teach a person to fish and your task is lengthy.

Reynolds (2010) discusses incorporating learning theory into academic advising via six principles that rely on a partnership between the advisor and advisee: active learning, goal-oriented planning, high expectations, motivation, feedback, and interaction. I utilize each of these principles in every advising session.

  • Active is “being able to do something physically or mentally (Active, n.d.). Active learning, for example, is consistently demonstrated when a student sits at my desk with their degree audit in hand. More often than not, a student sits and lays their degree audit on the desk and turns it around to face it in my direction. Without hesitation, I turn it around to face them and assure them that I can read upside down and want to ensure they are able to read it themselves. 
  • A goal is “an aim or purpose (Goal, n.d.). Goals for the advising session include conducting a thorough review of the degree plan, making plans to maximize their career options pre- and post-graduation, and ending with a projected graduation date: plan A and plan B. Goals begin with an initial assessment of current skills; thus, I begin by asking, “How comfortable are you with understanding the degree plan?”
  • Expectation is “the feeling or belief that something will or should happen (Expectation, n.d.). At an institution of higher education, the expectations are, by default, set high. My first advising session tends to be lengthy, because I assume a new student enters our institution with a learning curve present in any new environment. The sessions are detailed, slow-paced, repetitive, questioning, engaging, etc. While the second session may have remnants of the first, the third session has expectations. By the third visit, I expect a student to be able to explain the majority of the degree audit, address specific questions, and engage in future planning with concrete goals and verifiable progress.
  • Motivation is “the willingness to do something” (Motivation, n.d.). Perhaps the most challenging of all the principles is motivation. Generally, l do not provide answers but instead assist the student in finding the answer. A regular occurrence is to give the student my keyboard, turn the computer screen in their direction, and have them do the research. Motivational statements are routine; I often say to them that we have a user-friendly website and I myself bookmark all my commonly used pages. 
  • Feedback is a reaction to a process or activity (Feedback, n.d.). Every session is an opportunity to evolve academically, personally, and professionally. It requires Q&A, tangible results, follow-up, encouragement, praise, etc. I apply all of these aspects of feedback when I advise students on probation, and I have them use an online GPA calculator to project their GPA. As I turn over the keyboard and guide them through GPA projections, I witness in real-time the student’s realization that they have control over their academic success. The discovery is indeed powerful.  
  • Finally, interaction is “when two or more people or things communicate with or react to each other” (Interaction, n.d.). The most critical component of any relationship is interaction. With sincere and deliberate interest in the success of a student, advising will naturally produce a mutually successful outcome: a well-rounded professional. A student that moves beyond a discussion about the degree plan and engages in a spontaneous conversation about summer travel plans, for example, is acting on the assumption that the advisor’s actions create a nurturing environment for such discussions, just as the student turned professional is able to move from boardroom to breakroom dialogue with similar ease.

At an institution dealing with high-risk students, the application of learning theory is a challenging endeavor. A student may ask for the grade posting date. When I provide the link to the academic calendar to fish for the date, the student may or may not receive the bait well. Some will not click on the link (as evident in their responses), and some respond with an exclamatory "thank you". Yes, that sense of excitement when there is a bite at the end of the line happens both in and out of the water. Yet another challenge is that of the student that circumvents all university processes, expecting numerous exceptions to the rule.

I often wonder if they will be able to fish and feed themselves, always expecting bites in rough waters. The teach-a-person-to-fish philosophy supports the notion of challenging our limitations; asking unprompted, imperfect questions; and relentlessly seeking answers to simple as well as complex questions. 

I expect a student to enter the advising session with a rod and reel in hand and carry that academic tackle box of indispensable tools that are available to all students: catalog, degree plan, institution’s website, advisor’s full contact information, etc. If necessary, I will drift along with the student while casting, I will be their life jacket should they ever feel overwhelmed by the deluge of time and effort required of a student, and I will untangle their lines of inquiry, with the single presupposition that the student actively participates in the adventure. 

I wish all students a lifetime of casting and an Instagram full of big catches.  

Mercedes Gonzales
Academic Advisor II
Department of Criminal Justice
College of Public Service
University of Houston-Downtown
[email protected]  


Active. (n.d.). In Cambridge Dictionary. Retrieved from https://dictionary.cambridge.org/us/dictionary/english/active

Expectation. (n.d.). In Cambridge Dictionary. Retrieved from https://dictionary.cambridge.org/us/dictionary/english/expectation

Feedback. (n.d.). In Cambridge Dictionary. Retrieved from https://dictionary.cambridge.org/us/dictionary/english/feedback

Goal. (n.d.). In Cambridge Dictionary. Retrieved from https://dictionary.cambridge.org/us/dictionary/english/goal

Interaction. (n.d.). In Cambridge Dictionary. Retrieved from https://dictionary.cambridge.org/us/dictionary/english/interaction

Motivation. (n.d.). In Cambridge Dictionary. Retrieved from https://dictionary.cambridge.org/us/dictionary/english/motivation

Quotes. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.quotes.net/quote/9115  

Reynolds, M. M. (2010). Learning theory in academic advising: An advisor’s half dozen: Principles for incorporating learning theory into our advising practices. Retrieved from http://www.nacada.ksu.edu/Resources/Clearinghouse/View-Articles/Learning-theory-inacademic-advising.aspx

University of Houston – Downtown. (n.d.). General education & common core requirements. Retrieved from http://catalog.uhd.edu/content.php?catoid=1&navoid=69.

Cite this article using APA style as: Gonzales, M. (2018, December). The fisherfolk class: A first gen-ESL-BA’s attempt to nurture intellectual curiosity in her advisees. Academic Advising Today, 41(4). Retrieved from [insert url here] 


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