Building a Better Student Affairs Professional [3/3]

September 26, 2016

Learn to Fly by Hitting the Ground; Why Mentorship can be Dangerous but Necessary. 

A couple of years ago I “had” to go to Las Vegas to give an academic presentation on student reflection and civic engagement. The great thing about a conference in Vegas is you have time at night to explore this crazy, wonderful city. The bright lights and opulence are captivating. I ate great food, placed a bet for my Miami Dolphins to win the Super Bowl (did not happen), and took in a show by the world renowned Cirque Du Soleil. The show was The Beatles Love and it featured two things I love, the music of The Beatles and amazing stunt choreography of the Cirque performers. I marvel at their light as air performances and the fact it is all done with few nets. There are, of course, harnesses and other safety devices but generally the artists are in charge of their own performance.

Sometimes being a good student advisor can feel a bit like performing in a Cirque show. You are thrust into a crazy environment where nothing stays still for very long and you are often flying without a net to save you. This can result in an uneasy feeling and worry that if you make a mistake that can be career altering. Students come to you with the craziest stories, ideas, plans, and requests. They will pour their hearts out to you and let you know when they are in love, sad, or excited. Students look up to us.

I have a growing concern that in the midst of all of this craziness we have lost a bit of what makes this opportunity to mentor so great. Many grad students whom I interact with and interview for jobs are presenting an advising style that is far more controlled and scripted and less Cirque. From their first graduate class, students are told to treat all students the same way and watch everything you say and do around your advisees. There is a fear that seems to be growing that the more open and venerable we are the greater the chance we will do or say something that will put us in hot water. And there is a little bit of evidence of that in popular culture and social media. With terms like helicopter parents, the media backlash on safe space discussions, and open records laws it can seem like a world full of obstacles. 

Well, I am here to implore you to fly without a net. Take a chance and become a mentor of purpose. Our careers are not great because of the reports or the course catalogs, they are great because of the opportunity to give to our students what was likely given to us, mentorship. Mentors are more than advising or taking a student leader to lunch, they are a chance to become a lasting friendship for you and the student. One that is built on trust and honesty. And the data seems to support this as well. One of the major findings of the Gallup-Purdue Index was that students who felt at least one person at the university cared about them and served as a mentor to them were nearly 3X more likely to be happy and feel productive in their work lives. Triple!

Before I go any further, notice I said friend. There is an important distinction. Back in the dark ages the tendency was to take mentorship in the wrong direction. During the 1990s it was not uncommon for students and young advisors to socialize at the bar or even have relationships that were flat out inappropriate. That is more the definition of a buddy and not a friend. Friends hold each other accountable, want to see each other succeed, and push each other to be their better selves.

So how does one fly without a net, without hitting the ground? How do you Cirque Du Mentor? The secret is in your approach. Most students do not get involved because they are looking to learn anything or gain any type of insight. Most students get involved because they want to meet other people, because being involved is fun, or it’s comfortable to them. A majority of students who get involved are trying to fit in. So when you start off in a clinical way you then get coldness back from them. Try to avoid early meetings that are scripted, learning focused, or targeted. Make your first couple of meetings more about the student. What do they like and dislike, where do they come from, what experiences have they had that you can connect to, do they like macaroni and cheese, and do they like sports? These are all traditional icebreakers but also help to set up an expectation that is light and airy.

Once the student is comfortable, introduce the topic at hand and get the full version of how they feel, what they want to accomplish, and what success looks like. Make the student the center of attention and try to schedule meetings that are not rushed for the first few times. Think about what would make you comfortable. Future meetings will slowly evolve into less informal and more work focused but that is okay. Just remember to revisit those early conversations and ask for updates on ideas, last night’s episode of So You Think You Can Dance, and how is the student’s mom doing. Crack a joke if the mood is set for it. But most of all, relax, you got this.

The result will be a deep and substantial relationship that will last long beyond the initial advising assignment. In time, go and grab some lunch in the Union or check in with them during a football game tailgate. Keep the interactions informal and not too long. Just enough to say, “I got you.” But understand that you will also befriend hundreds of students so it’s impossible to get to them all. But start with a few students and see what happens.

The greatest example of how this balance of friendship works that I can point to happened about ten years ago. A student of mine and I were in the union noshing on some food and talking about our love for Depeche Mode. She then, out of the blue, said, “You know Preston, you’re a good friend. You like the same music I do, you have a good sense of humor, and you’re cool to hang out with. But you also know how creepy it would be if you showed up to the club. I like that about you, friends with boundaries. I never have to worry about being embarrassed I know you.” I was floored. All the feels.

Lastly, it is important to note that it is not always going to be perfect. Students can get too attached, may not like you, or you may not like them. The best advice is to let things happen organically. The good part is by being cool with it, there is a chance the student will make the mentor connection with another staff member. After all we are human too. So take a chance, make a friend, and fly without a net.  

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