Receiving another person’s story is always a privilege. Whether in therapy, confession, interview, or conversation, when one person willingly shares a part of their narrative, they are offer vulnerability and intimacy along with their history. It is a privilege to be offered such a human connection.
Recently my institution held its once a semester Advising Day wherein students have the opportunity to meet one-on-one with a faculty advisor. Ostensibly, the purpose of the meeting is to help an advisee figure out what classes to take the following semester. I think that students often come to the meeting worried about the awkwardness of a one-on-one meeting with someone they might not know well. They come to the meeting because (at least at my institution) it is required for registration. They come hoping for help with the bewildering complexities of the master course schedule. They sometimes come wishing that this meeting could offer vocational clarity.
Chatting with my colleagues would suggest that faculty rarely look forward to back-to-back meetings that will last the better part of a day. I had seventeen “20 minute” meetings with students, and I know colleagues who held far more. Trying to find creative solutions to course scheduling conflicts for transfer students who have now changed their major twice but really want to graduate on time is always difficult, and it is no easier six hours in. It is an exhausting day.
But I love it.
At my institution and many others, we cancel classes on Advising Day. It offers a brief intellectual and emotional reprieve from the churn of the semester. It forces every student to look up from their laptop, their homework, their reading assignment, their to-do list… and reflect. My advisees come ready to discuss four questions:
- How is the semester going?
- What courses would you like to take next semester?
- What is your plan from here to graduation?
- What is your plan for after that?
Those questions, innocent and practical as they appear, are able to break students down to the soul. “How are things going this semester?” is a dangerous question when asked by the person who sees your midterm grades. The story the student had been using with everyone else—the story of how they are doing their best to keep up that ends with a rueful laugh, doesn’t work. Instead, they get real. Students talk about grief at the loss of a loved one. They tell me about the isolation and loneliness of COVID restrictions. Some share about the struggle of trying to work enough to help with their mother’s mortgage payments. I do not demand these stories; I just ask how the semester is going. Their willingness to share is a gift. My ability to receive them is a privilege.
When I ask advisees “What is your plan from here to graduation?” they sometimes tell me they are studying biology because their parents want them to do something practical. Others tell me they have always wanted to be a physician, but they are starting to wonder if that is even a possibility with the grades they have earned so far. Some look me in the eye and start to shed tears because they are consumed by the uncertainty of having no idea what to study, and they have no clue what they want to do with their lives. Again, I did not ask for such intimacy. My advisees sit in my office and my questions lead them to vulnerability. My opportunity to support them in that vulnerable state is a privilege.
I am not the ideal academic advisor. I know that some institutions employ professional advisors who are able to master the full course catalog, memorize the course schedule, and read the latest scholarly research on vocation. I know just enough to recognize how damaging poor advising can be while being certain that I have made mistakes that harmed my students. In the face of my limitations, I can only offer an apology and work to make things right.
In short, Advising Day could be seen as an administrative burden, a bureaucratic intrusion into the academic project of the semester. Instead, I see in it nothing but gifts. The gift of a moment of reflection on the path we have taken. The gift of an opportunity to contemplate vocation and meaning. And most importantly, a gift to both advisee and advisor of our shared humanity.