Academic Advising Resources


Engage Graduate Students on Your Campus: Tools for Academic and Faculty Advisors
Authored by: Justin Tyler Bernstine, Angela Martin, and Jeffery Peden

A key element of graduate and professional education is the role it plays in socializing newcomers with the knowledge, skills, and values of a given professional field (Weidman, Twale, and Stein, 2001; Austin, 2002).  It is important to note that such a role involves cognitive intellectual development as well as psychosocial development (Gansemer-Topf, Ewing Ross, and Johnson, 2006).  Support for graduate students most commonly falls upon individual departments, their faculty, and their administrative staff.   Historically, leveraging ability and aptitude (i.e. the cognitive intellectual) has been seen as the key to success at the graduate level (Golde, 2000; Lovitts, 2001).  However, as with undergraduate students (Tinto, 1993), social integration and peer relationships (i.e. the psychosocial) also play central roles in graduate student success (Lovitts, 2001).  In light of this, it is important that institutions engage students at a more holistic level.  Effectively engaging graduate students requires efforts from across the campus (Pontius and Harper, 2006).  Therefore, facilitating social integration and peer relationships among graduate students is essential. 

The purpose of this article is to highlight some areas where advising can play a role in facilitating social integration and peer relationships among graduate students.  Specifically, this article will focus on ways that advisors and student service professionals at the Elliott School of International Affairs at The George Washington University in Washington, DC have helped graduate students integrate both the academic and co-curricular components of their graduate experience.  In consideration of the needs of graduate students, we have taken the approach commonly used for undergraduate students and adjusted it to this unique population.  The tools presented are easily adapted by both professional and faculty advisors.

Institutional Context
The Elliott School of International Affairs, a professional school of international affairs with approximately 800 graduate students and 2,200 undergraduate students, is part of The George Washington University, a private research university located in the heart of Washington, DC.  The graduate advising team consists of 3 professional academic advisors serving students in 13 Master of Arts, mid-career professional, and certificate programs.  In addition to professional academic advisors, students work with faculty advisors focusing on the specific content area of their academic program.  As a professional school of international affairs, the majority of graduate students at the Elliott School work or intern in addition to attending classes. 

Community Building and Co-Curricular Activities: Graduate Student Ambassador
The Graduate Student Ambassador (GSA) program was designed to give current graduate students in the Elliott School of International Affairs the opportunity to share their experiences with incoming students, collaborate on program and event planning to support the academic mission, and enhance the sense of community within the school.

All graduate students in the school who have completed at least one semester of coursework are eligible to apply for the GSA program.  The GSA selection process occurs each spring to create the cohort for the following academic year.  Depending on interest and program size, GSAs are selected to represent the wide range of graduate programs within the school.  The goal of the program is to represent the diversity of academic programs, levels of professional experience, and global perspectives present at the school.

GSAs assist the advising office during New Student Orientation each semester by serving as orientation leaders and providing the student perspective during panel discussions.  In addition to participating in orientation activities, GSAs help with other Elliott School events such as recruiting events for prospective students and graduation activities.  GSAs meet as a group at least once a semester for training and planning purposes with the GSA staff coordinator from the Office of Academic Advising and Student Services.

In addition to assisting with office events, GSAs plan at least one event or activity per semester. Some of the events GSAs have hosted in the past include:

• Office hours to help new students with questions about registration and course selection
• Study break events during finals
• Co-hosting events with student organizations on campus
• Ice-skating and hiking excursions
• Trips to museums and sporting events

The GSAs do not have a large budget for events and programs.  Instead, the GSAs maximize use of human resources and free or low cost events around the city. 

The advising office has very few financial resources to put toward the GSA program.  What is lacking in monetary resources is made up for with human resources.  One member of the advising staff coordinates the GSA program and advises the group.  GSAs serve on a volunteer basis but are given some low cost incentives for participation.  At the end of each academic year, the advising office notes the participation of each GSA on their transcript. 

GSAs also receive school apparel and tokens (like pens) which are purchased for orientation.  And, at the end of each academic year the Office of Academic Advising and Student Services hosts a dinner to thank GSAs for their participation in the program.

Advising Syllabus for Graduate Students
Most Master’s programs in the Elliott School of International Affairs require 40 credit hours of coursework, which a full-time student can complete in two years.  The short tenure of a graduate student makes immediate engagement imperative to students' ability to fully immerse in the academic culture and take advantage of opportunities available. As graduate advisors, we recognize that our method of communication and information dissemination must be tailored to the lifestyle of our students.  With that in mind, our goal was to create a comprehensive guide that could serve as a quick-reference to answer common questions, define advisor/advisee roles, and provide students with a generic timeline demonstrating the time-sensitive nature involved with making the most of graduate school.

To facilitate this expedited adjustment to the academic environment of our institution, we created an Advising Syllabus for Graduate Students. With the assistance of industry professionals at the NACADA Advising Institute (summer 2010), we developed a document that mirrors the familiarities of a standard course syllabus. The document contains comprehensive information on the advisor/advisee relationship, illustrates a generic timeline which highlights critical milestones, and presents a glossary of commonly used campus resources. In addition to serving as a quick-reference for students, the Advising Syllabus also supports our advisors by answering many general questions students have. This allows a greater depth and detail to develop in the types of conversations advisors have with students.

Creating an advising syllabus that is applicable to your students is possible, and can be done with minimal resources—you already have access to institutional knowledge, which is the most important tool you need for this project.  When developing an Advising Syllabus for your students, we recommend looking ahead for changes that will inevitably occur (i.e. use general e-mail addresses for external offices to account for staff turnover, do not include specific dates—use general terms instead (summer, spring, fall), etc.).  And, finally, remember that your advising syllabus should evolve overtime to stay relevant to your students and the mission of your office.

Media and Communication Strategies: blog, newsletter, and Twitter 
As a component of our initiative to create community among graduate students, we examined our previous communications tools to determine what would be the most operative way of marketing events and information to students. We recognized that our exclusive use of e-mail only communication was not an effective way of reaching our students. Our monthly newsletters had a low open rate, and of the students who did open the e-mail, many were not fully consuming the literature contained within. We wanted to meet students where they are and use a communication tool that is already part of their daily lives.  As a result, a comprehensive graduate student communications strategy was developed. 

The strategy includes a blog, Facebook page, Twitter account, and a monthly highlight reel e-mail.  (Connections to the various social media can be found on our home page, below the heading, in the upper right corner, by clicking on the icon that is a white cross on an orange square.) The media and communication strategy has allowed us to update information in a timely manner, without flooding the inboxes of our students.  By minimizing the amount of information we push out, we were able to increase our open and click-through rates.  Over the course of the inaugural year of this strategy, our blog has been viewed over 5,500 times in 73 countries.  Our monthly highlight e-mails have a record high open rate of 53% (compared to a low of 23% prior to the launch of this strategy).  We have strengthened connections with colleagues and organizations across campus and in the general community by collaborating on information sharing efforts.  We keep students interested and engaged by running recurring features like the graduate student spotlight, our “Where’s George?” challenge, and the campus resource highlight. While the advantages to this strategy are self-evident, there are challenges associated with maintaining a comprehensive strategy of this nature. 

It is uncommon for advising offices to have a communications specialist, so oftentimes the responsibility falls on an advisor or advisors.  To see success in this undertaking, graduate advisors will need to put time in on the front end to build content before going live to an audience. The time spent may seem frivolous and without reward until the task is complete. Once the strategy is implemented, upkeep is essential to continued success.  Not only will there be a need to create and compile content, someone will need to monitor each outlet to make sure that all comments and interactions are appropriate.  If no time is available, advisors should still be more intentional in their communications.  A plan can be developed to work within any limitations.

Because graduate students must interact with faculty and/or professional advisors, academic advising is well situated to engage graduate students on the psychosocial level important to student success.  This article has looked at ways graduate academic advising within the Elliott School of International Affairs engages graduate students by acculturating them to the practices and expectations of the office as well as facilitates opportunities for building supportive peer relationships.  

The development of an advising syllabus provides a compact compendium of information for graduate students on academic advising, resources, and general advice for their time in the program.  Similarly, an online advising blog and social media allow the advising office to quickly disseminate information to students who work and live off campus.  Moreover, the social aspect of social media helps begin connecting students within the graduate program.  

Finally, a graduate student ambassador program creates a dedicated peer group designed to foster peer relationships within the program for both social and support purposes.These approaches were created with strong consideration for the context and resources available to our office.  As such, these approaches may not properly translate to other programs as “best practices,” per se.  However, we hope they can aid other programs in their efforts to engage their graduate students.  Finally, we see this as an opportunity to encourage further research into advising graduate students, both generally and the in practical assessments that inform best practices. 

Authored By:

Justin Tyler Bernstine
Associate Director of Academic Advising and Student Services, ESIA
The George Washington University

Angela Martin
Academic Advisor, ESIA
The George Washington University

Jeffery Peden
Academic Advisor, ESIA
The George Washington University



Austin, A. E. (2002).  “Preparing the next generation of faculty: graduate school as socialization to the academic career.”  Journal of Higher Education, 70(1), 94-122.  doi: 10.1353/jhe.2002.0001.

Gansemer-Topf, A. M., Ewing Ross, L., & Johnson, R. M. (2006).  “Graduate and professional student development and student affairs.”  New Directions for Student Services, 2006(115), 19-30.  doi: 10.1002/ss.213.

Golde, C. M. (2000).  “Should I stay or should I go? Student descriptions of the doctoral attrition process.”  Review of Higher Education, 23(2), 199-227.  Retrieved from

Lovitts, B. E. (2001).  Leaving the ivory tower: The causes and consequences of departure from doctoral study.  Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield.

Pontius, J. L., & Harper, S. R. (2006).  “Principles for good practice in graduate and professional student engagement.”  New Directions for Student Services, 2006(115), 47-58.  doi: 10.1002/ss.213.

Tinto, V. (1993).  Leaving college: Rethinking the causes and cures of student attrition (2nd ed.).  Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Weidman, J. C., Twale, D. J., & Stein, E. L. (2001).  Socialization of graduate and professional students in higher education: A perilous passage?  ASHE-ERIC Higher Education Report, Vol. 28, No. 3. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Cite this resource using APA style as:

Bernstine, J., Martin, A., & Peden, J. (2014). Engage graduate students on your campus: Tools for academic advising and faculty advising. Retrieved from NACADA Clearinghouse Resources web site.

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