Advising from the Out-Group

Dustin K. Grabsch

December 4, 2017

Who belongs and who doesn’t? These two questions I have been asking myself in a variety of professional and personal contexts since my first year in graduate school. Most recently, while serving as the primary advisor of a recognized fraternity on campus.

As a student affairs professional I have had considerable advising experience of hall councils, residence hall associations, programming boards, queer student groups among other formal and informal student groups. I was perplexed when I heard the word “yes” fall out of my mouth when a colleague - who was transitioning roles to another university - wanted to know if I would take on the role of primary advisor.

What was I thinking? I was not a member of a Greek Letter Organization (GLO), plus during my undergraduate experience I stayed away from these groups as my perception of the culture was not one in which I would belong. Even now, Greek Life is rocked almost daily with issues of hazing, alcohol, other drugs, and student deaths. I remember asking myself, “is this something you really want to be getting into when most student affairs professionals are getting out?”

After three years of advising this fraternity, I am glad my past self didn’t overthink it.

Going into my first year of advising a GLO, it was a bit of a culture shock. I found myself leaning on lessons from a study abroad pre-departure orientation I once facilitated for cohorts of students who were ready to go abroad for the first time (see recommendations below). Even armed with this knowledge, I often found myself in the out-group. Often, as a leadership educator, the conversation of belonging presents itself in the language of in-group and out-group.

Simply put, an “in-group” is a group you are part of (genetically, culturally, or ideologically); while an “out-group” is a group you aren’t part of. For advisors, it is not important we belong necessarily but it is important to be a member of the in-group to positively influence the functioning of the organization. For me, four reasons cemented my position in the out-group: (1) not having a GLO experience myself made me part of the out-group, (2) working for the university made my part of the out-group, (3) in my head, being a queer man made me part of the out-group, and (4) being above the age of 23 made me a part of the out-group.

Everything seemed to be working against me as I took on this new role. The first of which I was not expecting; since I was not a member of this particular GLO, I was not permitted to partake in significant portions of chapter meetings where ritual was being performed. This causes quite a quandary for an advisor. How does one advise a student organization when you cannot witness the primary space where organizational business occurs? I quickly learned after some rapport building and one-on-ones with the executive team that this really was not as big of an issue as I had first thought. The real organizational happenings occurred within the executive meetings and I eventually found my way on the invite list.

Even in this executive team, communication remained an issue in my ability to advise effectively. Arguably, communication and information are the quickest indicators of in-group status. The student’s communication structure was very informal and relied significantly on in-person communication at the chapter house or brotherhood events. Balancing my full-time position and part-time Ph.D. student status made attending many of these events difficult and thus I often missed some key in-person decision-making. This organizational communication style was a stark contrast to my advising of previous recognized student groups though it paralleled styles of student activist organizing. Often I felt like I was last to know things; case and point being when I showed up for an executive meeting at the agreed upon time and place but did not receive the GroupMe changing the location last minute to the other side of town.

Not only did communication keep me in the out-group, but learning how the Greek Councils functioned and advising a student organization which allows alcohol at events were other obstacles. Both systems and structures were new to my professional practice. Admittedly, I wanted to exert a lot of control over things to be able to catch up, but I also was mindful that this would feed into my out-group status of working for the university and slow down the students in their efforts to grow the brotherhood.

In the end, some of the out-group aspects still remain for me with my advising. For instance, I do not share some of the topics of interest (women, hunting, and sports), but the students have come to understand that my involvement with them demonstrates my investment. It does not matter if my own undergraduate experience is replicated with them. It is not about me. The gentlemen I work with are creating and shaping their own – much different but just as valuable – college experience.

In the end, demonstrating my care and investment in them trumped any of my out-group statuses. It didn’t happen overnight mind you, but as Arther Ashe once said “trust has to be earned, and should come only after the passage of time.” Who knows, one day you may find a picture of yourself on the chapter’s composite with the word advisor under your name. Suggesting, just maybe, that you can be an effective advisor from the out-group.

For those of you thinking about advising a GLO or a student organization whose culture/structure is very different from your own undergraduate experience I would say do it! It truly has been a rewarding professional and personal development experience during my mid-level professional career.  A few of my lessons learned from that pre-departure orientation turned advising recommendations, which could be posts on all of their own, include:

  1. Learn Why Culture (and Ritual) Matters
  2. Learn the Language 
    • Language Minimums
    • The Greek Alphabet
    • Colloquial Usage
  3. Prepare to be Understood and to Understand
    • Degree of Directness
    • Giving and Accepting Communication
  4. Find a Mentor
  5. Stay Curious
  6. Watch for Culture Shock
  7. Keep a Journal or Notebook
  8. Chill Out
    • Cultivate Your Sense of Humor
    • Will Seem Unbelievably Short in Retrospect

My hope is some of these tips aid you in transitioning from an advisor in the out-group to proficiently navigating alongside the in-group.

Do you have thoughts on this blog post? Share them with us on Facebook @NPGSKC, on Twitter @npgs_kc, or on Instagram @npgs_kc!

Dustin K. Grabsch serves students as the Coordinator for Academic Support Initiatives and Assessment within the Department of Residence Life at Texas A&M University and the Co-Chair for the New Professionals and Graduate Students Knowledge Community. He also is a Ph.D. student whose research centers social identity and leadership. 

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