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Liz Freedman, Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis

Liz Freeman.jpgEveryone grieves, yet when encountering a grieving student, academic advisors may feel helpless.  Since most advisors are not counselors, tackling grief in 30 minutes may seem overwhelming or even harmful.

Grief is not limited to the death of a loved one.  Reynolds (2004) writes that students who are not admitted to competitive programs grieve, and advisors must provide a safe space and time to do so.  The tendency is often to refer the student to career, counseling, and academic resources, and forces such as retention pressure may encourage advisors to focus on parallel planning.  However, supporting a grieving student may require advisors to defer parallel planning until the student is ready.

Grief Tools for Advising

For three years, I volunteered for Brooke’s Place for Grieving Children facilitating groups of youth and adults who are grieving the death of a loved one (Brooke’s Place, n.d.).  After advising many students who are not competitive for programs such as nursing, I realized the four Brooke’s Place facilitator tools can translate into 30-minute appointments (J. Pierce, personal communication, October 26, 2016).  Like Peer Group Facilitators, academic advisors are not typically counselors, but wish to provide support to grieving students.  The tools are meant for students who are not ready for parallel planning and can be used regardless of where the student is along their grief journey.

Tool #1: Reflective Listening (RL).  Advisors understand reflective listening, but it is essential to use this tool with no agenda, as grieving students need time and space to grieve uniquely.  Validate the student’s feelings by repeating exactly what they say; do not make assumptions about their comments, and learn to be comfortable with silence.  For example, here is a conversation between a student who is not competitive for nursing and their advisor:

Student: I don’t think I’ll get into nursing.  I have no idea what I’ll do.

Advisor: You are not sure if you are competitive for nursing, and if you aren’t admitted you don’t have a parallel plan.  Is that right? (RL)

Student: Yes.  If I don’t get in, I’ll start over and graduate late.

Advisor: Choosing a parallel plan concerns you because you may not graduate by the date you had planned, which is important to you.  (RL)

Student: Yes.  I need to graduate on time because my scholarship will run out after four years.

Advisor: So graduation, your scholarship, and nursing all sound like things that are stressful right now.  I wonder if there is anything else that is concerning you? (RL, IW)

Student: No . . . getting into nursing is the main thing.

Advisor: That sounds like a lot.  I’m here to help you navigate these concerns and deal with the most pressing one, which it sounds like is nursing.  Should we start with that?

Student: Sounds good.

Tool #2: “I Wonder” Questions (IW).  When using this tool, the advisor poses open-ended questions to the student to allow time for reflection and to gage where the student is in their grieving process.  This language is non-threatening and lets the student decide if and how they want to respond.  The advisor should also continue to do reflective listening.  To continue the previous conversation:

Advisor: I wonder how it would feel if you weren’t admitted? (IW)

Student: I guess I’d feel like I failed.

Advisor: You would feel like you had failed if you were not admitted.  (RL)

Student: Yeah.

Advisor: I wonder if you’ve ever considered other careers? (IW)

Student: Not really . . . I’ve always wanted to be a nurse.

Advisor: You’ve always imagined becoming a nurse.  I wonder what attracted you to nursing? (RL, IW)

Student: I don’t know.

Advisor: I wonder what would happen if you explored other careers? What would it feel like to think about choosing a new major? (IW)

Student: I don’t know . . . I’ve never thought about choosing another major.

Advisor: If we could find another major you are excited about and you could graduate on time, I wonder if you would be interested in exploring that option? (IW)

Student: I don’t think there is anything I will like as much, but I guess I would consider it.

Tool #3: Metalevel Communication (MC).  Advisors can be transparent about competitiveness while balancing reality with positive encouragement.  Remember, if the advisor is telling a student they are not competitive, they may not be mentally prepared to immediately begin parallel planning.  Furthermore, when possible, share statistics from their program, use GPA calculators, and suggest online resources for the student to reference later.  Be clear about what the advisor can and cannot do, and connect to outside resources as needed.  To demonstrate, below is a continuation of the conversation:

Advisor: I wonder if you are ready to talk about parallel plans? (IW)

Student: Honestly, I don’t know.

Advisor: It sounds like you need some time to adjust to possibly changing your major, and I want to respect that.  However, I also want to help you prepare for fall classes and for making a plan that will allow you to graduate on time.  With that in mind, I wonder what would need to happen for you to be ready to talk about other majors? (MC)

Student: I’m not sure.  Maybe if I knew for sure I was not getting into nursing I could choose something different.

Advisor: So right now you feel like you may not be competitive, but until you know for sure it would be hard to consider other options. (RL)

Student: Yeah.

Advisor: That makes sense.  You should hear back from nursing sometime in December. How would you feel about setting up a time to meet after you find out?

Student: That would be good.

Advisor: Then let’s schedule an appointment when we can talk about other options.  However, if you decide that you’re ready to parallel plan before then, would you let me know? (MC)

Student: Yeah.

Advisor: Good.  When you are ready I’ll tell you about resources like online career assessments, career advisors, other students who have changed their majors, ways to get involved on campus, and other healthcare careers.  Does that sound like a plan? (MC)

Student: Yes, that sounds good.

Advisor: Great. In the meantime, I wonder what else is on your mind? (IW)

The advisor does not ignore parallel planning, but does not force it since the student said they are not ready.  Introducing the idea of a parallel plan may be enough to allow the student to feel some discomfort, ultimately leading to self-discovery and personal growth (Shaffer & Zalewski, 2011).

Tool #4: Rule Breaks (RB).  The final tool at the advisor’s disposal is to employ “rule breaks” when the advisor or student are not safe.  Advisors should follow protocol set by their campuses, including referring to counseling services or contacting campus police if needed.  It is important to establish relationships with counseling staff and practice their preferred referral process.  Conversations when “rule breaks” are needed can take many shapes, but below is one example of this tool:

Student: Um . . . nothing else is really going on.

Advisor: I hope this is ok, but I want to tell you some of the things I have observed during our appointment.  You seem very tired and like you aren’t able to focus very well on our conversation.  Do you notice that, too? (MC)

Student: Well, I am not really sleeping well right now.

Advisor: I wonder why that is? (IW)

Student: I’ve been really stressed about all of this, and since I am so tired it’s hard to get up and go to class.

Advisor: So the fact that you are unable to sleep has been affecting your performance in classes.  (RL)

Student: Yeah.

Advisor: I wonder if you have ever considered meeting with one of our mental health counselors? (IW, RB)

Student: No . . . I have never thought about that.

Advisor: A counselor can meet with you individually like this meeting, but they can talk to you about what you can do outside of class in order to be more successful academically.  For example, if you are having trouble sleeping, they may be able to give you some ideas as to why that may be happening and how you can fix that.  A deeper conversation like that is not something I am equipped to do, but I would love to give you the phone number for their office so that you can make an appointment with someone who can.  Would you be open to that? (MC, RB)

Student: Yeah, I guess I would.

Advisor: I really care about your wellbeing and think they could be really helpful, but ultimately it is up to you if you want to make an appointment.  Would it be alright with you if I emailed you next week to see how you are doing? (MC)

Student: Yeah, that would be fine with me.

Advisor: Ok, I’ll do that.


One challenge is that college structures are not always conducive for students to take time to parallel plan.  For many programs, students must apply to a competitive program in their first or second semester, and if not admitted they risk delaying graduation.  Therefore, in addition to using these tools, advisors should be proactive about parallel planning by introducing it as early as new student orientation and by creating a culture where parallel plans are normalized.

Liz Freedman
Student Success Advisor
Health and Life Sciences Advising Center
Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis


Brooke's Place for Grieving Children. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.brookesplace.org/

Reynolds, M. M. (2004). Now what? Some thoughts on advising students in selective majors from a faculty member with no training as a counselor. Retrieved from http://www.nacada.ksu.edu/Resources/Clearinghouse/View-Articles/Advising-students-for-selective-majors.aspx  

Shaffer, L. S., & Zalewski, J. M. (2011). “It’s what I have always wanted to do.” Advising the foreclosure student. NACADA Journal, 31(2), 73.

Cite this article using APA style as: Freedman, L. (2017, June). When not to parallel plan: Advising academically grieving students. Academic Advising Today, 40(2). Retrieved from [insert url here] 

Posted in: 2017 June 40:2


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