How to Advise When Things Fall Apart

Silver Lining

As an advisor, the best part of my job is guiding students toward that coveted nexus of skill, passion, and focus. When it happens, it’s hard to miss. All the pieces fit. The puzzle is solved. Magic abounds.

But there are also days when things don’t go as planned. In fact, there are days when things completely fall apart. Applications get rejected. Closed classes don’t get overrides. PNMs don’t get bids.

And truth be told, it’s easy to dwell on the bad stuff. It’s easy to turn one failure into “I’m a failure.” And maybe that’s because we define ourselves by what we accomplish. Instead of congratulating and rewarding ourselves for the plaques and trophies that adorn our rooms and offices, we stare at said paraphernalia and think, “I’m only worth something because I have these. Without them, I have no value.”

But this is when I like to remind students that what they accomplish is not indicative of their self-worth. Just because someone Christmas-trees an exam and scores a B+ does not mean that person is a great test-taker. Just because someone accomplishes 300+ hours of community service does not mean they’re a servant-leader at heart. Just because someone studies endlessly and only receives a C does not mean they are a mediocre student. Circumstances are always at play, and often times, they’re beyond our control. What’s always in our control, however, is our perspective. We can always choose to see the silver lining, no matter how small it may be.

  • A D+ is disappointing, but learning how to prepare for that professor’s exams is a lesson worth its weight in gold
  • Not getting accepted into that fellow’s program feels awful, but application and interviewing practice is invaluable for future pursuits
  • It’s hard to not join your friends for a night out, but the relief you’ll feel after submitting that assignment will make up for it
  • When things don’t go as planned, it can be devastating. But now you’re a more flexible and creative problem-solver

Granted, gaining and keeping perspective is not so easy, and some students are determined to dwell in the darkness. However, as their advisor, I feel it’s my obligation to show them the light. Every mistake is a learning experience, and it’s only by learning that we adapt and become more capable, more successful, and more fulfilled.

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What’s Enough?

Just the other night, I co-facilitated a Historic Neighborhood sponsored workshop with Amber McCraw, Career Advising Fellow. We titled it “Find Your Fit: bELONg Anywhere,” making ourselves available to discuss best practices regarding resumes, cover letters, and interviewing. Almost 20 students were in attendance, many of whom were working on Tour Guide applications. Understandably, they wanted advice regarding what to put on a resume, how to draft a cover letter, and what to expect in an interview. What shocked me, though, was the lack of confidence that lurked just below many of their questions. Some students had difficulty even making eye contact as they said, “But I’m only a freshman. I’m not really involved in anything.”

Amber and I assured them that being a freshman was not a crime, though many seemed hesitant to believe us. After all, they’re at Elon. The place where students double-major, triple-minor, and hold leadership positions in at least 3 different organizations while also volunteering twice a week. They feel the pressure to be remarkable the moment they set foot on campus, forgetting that their role models have had 2+ years to find their rhythm and set the world on fire.

To help them cope with these feelings of inadequacy, Amber and I focused on the importance of “framing,” of answering questions in such a way that lack of experience does not suggest lack of capability. For many students, not holding a leadership position in an organization is akin to not being in that organization at all. Somewhere along the way, students got the message that holding a leadership position is all that matters, and that couldn’t be further from the truth.

As Amber reminded one student, attending meetings is an exchange of ideas, and someone who actively and intelligently contributes to conversations is an asset to any work environment. Similarly, I helped one student embrace the value of “strategic phrasing” on both resumes and cover letters. It’s one thing to write “I helped with inventory.” It’s another to write “I managed and supervised all inventory related to X company.”

Hopefully, with Amber’s and my help, these students will complete their applications and interviews with confidence, remembering that campus involvement – regardless of the form – highlights a commitment to engaged and experiential learning. These students are more than ready to serve as the face of Elon for prospective students and families. Here’s hoping the skills they learned will help them on the way to becoming tour guides and who knows what else. There are lots of ways to live the Maroon life, and these students have plenty of time to discover them!

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Make Time for What Matters

Quite often, I’ll hear students say, “I just don’t have time.” And some days, I actually believe them. Because I’ve been there. I’ve had those days where it goes from 8 am to 5 pm in the blink of an eye, and despite my productivity, I’m still staring at a checklist that’s mostly unfinished.

But more often than not, I think “I just don’t have time” is code for “I’m not using my time as wisely as I should.” And I wonder why that is. I wonder why – when given the opportunity to use time to our advantage – we often trade or squander it. For many, the answer is Netflix. For others, the answer is sleep. My answer is probably a combination of the two.

What I’ve found, though, is that making time for what matters is actually quite easy, the finished product a color-coded Outlook calendar of carefully-crafted perfection. But a calendar is a lot like a gym membership: great in theory but often difficult to maintain. Because let’s face it, just because I say I’ll brainstorm marketing ideas from 2-3 PM doesn’t mean inspiration will actually hit during those 60 minutes. As we’ve all come to realize . . . just because we write it down doesn’t make it true.

But what about deadlines? What about those non-negotiable tasks that must happen? The unavoidable ones that make procrastination as desirable as it is deadly?

Truth is, there’s no universal answer. But here are a few tips and tricks I’ve learned along the way . . .

1). Write It Down (you won’t remember everything you have to do, but your calendar will)

2). Set Reminders (if you don’t look at your calendar, you won’t remember what’s on it)

3). Be Realistic (if you can’t do something in half an hour, give yourself more time)

4). Plan Ahead (set multiple deadlines for really important projects; pace yourself)

5). Use The Weekend (out-of-office brainstorming is the BEST brainstorming)

6). Ask For Help (if you’re stuck on something, talk it out with a colleague over coffee)

7). Get It Done (sometimes it’s about the destination, not the journey; make it happen)

8). Reward Yourself (go see that movie; buy that outfit; go for that run; you’ve earned it)

9). Research (if it’s not your forte, prep yourself before diving in)

10). Do *Your* Best (do what’s expected while meeting your own standard for success)

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Social Media, Unrealistic Expectations, and Appreciative Advising

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The one-upping starts as soon as students arrive on campus. After hauling in carloads of linens, appliances, clothing, décor, food and any other college essentials, tired and swollen hands take to social media, furiously posting, tweeting, graming, and snap-chatting the beginning of a brand new adventure.

As per usual, social media becomes the platform for playful narcissism and competition.

“I have the best roommates ever!”

“I absolutely LOVE my dorm room!”

“So excited to be a _______!”

“Going to the best school in the country! Be jealous!”

“I’m so, so lucky! #blessed”

Truth be told, I don’t doubt any one of these posts. I felt similarly when I started at Stetson back in 2006. But I also remember participating in the aforesaid social media frenzy to disguise a few other not-so-appealing thoughts . . .

“I’m terrified of eating alone in the cafeteria.”

“What if my roommate and I end up hating each other? Will I have to move out?”

“What if I dislike all of my classes? Or my major?”

“Am I going to be able to make the life-long friends everyone keeps talking about?”

“What if I love my major, and I can’t excel at it? Will I be able to find something else?”

“I already feel homesick.”

“I am going to get so, so lost.”

And that’s the short list.

What concerns me, though, is a ubiquitous hesitation among most first-year students to share their concerns and frustrations. They’re so busy trying to convince themselves and others that college life is #flawless that they hold off on addressing the completely valid concerns that pepper those first few weeks at a new institution.

But I can’t really blame them. They’ve been conditioned to believe that who they are online is who they are in life, and if their social media sites don’t reek of happiness and validation, their real life seems devoid of these same things as well.

After all, social media is the new ego boost. Along with getting good grades, students are eager for more than scholastic recognition. Their validation – while some of it still comes from a grade book – most largely comes from the acceptance and approval of friends, family, and even perfect strangers.

For example, it’s not enough to study in the library for finals. One must post about the event on a multitude of social media sites so as to 1). prove it’s happening, 2). evoke pity, compassion, commiseration, encouragement, etc., and 3). validate the experience

“Slaving away in the library for the next 5 days… #finals #school #library #thisbetterbeworthit”

Because let’s face it… if no-one sees this student studying in the library, h/she becomes like the proverbial tree in the forest. Aka, did the studying really happen if no-one was around to witness it? Furthermore, if this student doesn’t share his/her struggle with the world, how will others know to offer commiseration or support? How can all that work possibly be worth it without such recognition?

For many students, it can’t. It isn’t. It won’t be. Because to validate their own work isn’t enough. Others must believe they can be successful before they believe it themselves.

But students must learn to validate themselves. They must study in the library for the sake of personal achievement, whatever form it may take. They must look past the overwhelming and deceiving onslaught of “virtual perfection” that saturates their various social media accounts. And appreciative advising can help since it encourages students to focus on their strengths and validate themselves from within.

It asks questions about what invigorates, motivates, encourages, rewards, and sustains student success. It supports student agency as individuals work through moments of opportunity and capitalize on personal achievements. It cultivates personal definitions of success so students can create lives that rest on foundations of their own skills, own values, and own goals.

But most importantly, it places this process in the hands of the student. After initial guidance, appreciative advising becomes a student-led journey that celebrates the growth and progress of an actual human being, not a one-dimensional caricature. It’s one mechanism for helping students celebrate who they are and become who they want to be. It’s about fostering growth and compassion for oneself, the kind that jump-starts a life so fulfilling and satisfying that it needs #nofilter.

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“Midterm Madness” Survival Guide

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The Value of Co-Curriculars and Professional Development

On Friday, September 5th, Elon hosted its annual Fall Organization Fair with over 200 campus organizations represented. As expected, hoards of first-year students (along with quite a few upperclassmen) ventured through a maze of tables, gathering flyers, brochures, and various other handouts while also enjoying assorted candies and baked goods (courtesy of eager organizations looking to attract new members)!

In my Elon 101, I made attendance at the Fall Organization Fair mandatory. But why? Why would I encourage my students to get involved in organizations, clubs, sports, Greek Life, and a cappella groups when studying should be their #1 priority? Well, it’s because college is about so much more than the classes you take. It’s about networking, becoming a leader, building tolerance, engaging new ideas, discovering hidden talents, and the list goes on. And though classes certainly touch on each of the aforesaid things, students spend the majority of their time in college *not* in a classroom. However, strategic involvement on campus that cultivates leadership and tolerance and skill development is the perfect antidote to “too much free time.”

Moreover, employers and graduate schools are looking for students who were active members of their collegiate community because involvement begets involvement. Those students who actively engaged with their campuses are likely to engage with their workplaces as well, and no one wants to hire an employee who couldn’t care less about their environment or the people who inhabit it.

Similarly, I’ve been engaging in a few co-curricular activities myself. You see, back in April I attended my first NACADA Conference, co-presenting with Jason on the value of Elon 101 and how it makes advising a part of every first-year students’ classroom experience. Also valuable, though, is the professional development of advisors. Because if we aren’t proactively assessing our work, researching avenues for improvement, and contributing to the advising community at large, we’re sacrificing the opportunity to grow in our profession and impact our campuses in meaningful and lasting ways.

For that reason, I applied to be a reviewer for NACADA’s upcoming publication Beyond Foundations, and I must say the experience was a very taxing but undoubtedly rewarding one. I was able to put my transferable skills to good use, making both my degrees in English very proud. But at the same time, I was able to actively engage in the very advice I share with first-year students on a daily basis: get involved, use your skills, take a chance, and make a difference.

And truth be told, it’s amazing how such simple advice can have such a huge impact.

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Drop/Add Survival Guide for First-Years at Elon

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  • At least attend the first-day of class (getting your hands on that syllabus is crucial)
  • Many “Intro” courses are misleading; for example, “Intro to Marketing” requires completion of ECO 111, BUS 202, and sophomore standing 
  • First-Year Foundations do not have to be finished in the first semester; if you’re not in a math course, it’s okay… you’ll take one in the spring
  • ENG 110 and COR 110 aren’t taken in the same semester; that’s why you’re in one or the other
  • In language courses, 121 is only ever offered in the fall; 122 is only ever offered in the spring
  • If you place into a language course number 200 or above, you’re proficient by Elon standards; however, taking that 200+ course is the only way to a). obtain 4sh of credit and b). satisfy half of your Civilization requirement
  • You’re in charge of your education; don’t change classes based on aggrieved rants on ratemyprofessors.com
  • Keep your schedule balanced (2 classes on MWF and 2 classes on T/TH is best if possible); 3 classes on MWF and 1 class on T/TH might sound great until you have 1 paper, 1 exam, and 1 group project all due on the same day 
  • Not all classes are created equal (some are 1sh/2sh or only half a semester); some art classes and music lessons come w/ additional fees
  • Generally speaking, do not take anything at the 300/400 level; professors don’t want first-year students in those classes and trust me, you don’t want to be in those classes either (we’re talking Junior/Senior level work)
  • You must take the World Languages & Cultures placement exam by October 1st; NO exceptions! (Visit Carlton to take the exam) 
  • You’re free to move up or down ONE level in any language without having to speak with a language coordinator 
  • It will be most difficult to change your COR 110 or ENG 110 classes; these courses are residentially linked for most of you, so I’d make changing them a last resort
  • 8am and Friday classes are not the enemy; you can use these 4 years to make your transition into the real world a smooth one, or you can use them to make that transition one of the most painful experiences of your young adult life 
  • Do not drop a class until you’re certain a replacement is a). open and b). works with the rest of your schedule
  • If you want an override into a closed class, email the Department Chair of that discipline (but do not drop your current class until you get approval from that Department Chair)
  • The Core Curriculum is not a peripheral, obligatory checklist; it’s a strategic way to explore your interests, determine what you value, build human capital, and develop transferable skills
  • A standard load is between 16sh and 18sh; if the 19th semester hour on your schedule is Elon 101, you’re totally fine!
  • You must meet with your academic advisor to make changes to your schedule (email doesn’t count).
  • Drop/Add lasts an ENTIRE week
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