Secret Relationships in the Advising Office

Brian Taylor for The Chronicle

February 13, 2013

One of my advisees, "Ashley," just experienced that thrill that makes all advisers giddy. She graduated. Equally exciting, she got an immediate payoff from it. The chief at her firehouse has already shared that her degree in fire science is coming with a bump in pay and a promotion. So when Ashley showed up at my office unexpectedly "just to say thanks" and share the news, you could say I was one happy adviser.

Ashley and I had worked together closely for almost two years. There were some bumps, a couple of collisions, and one full-blown breakdown when her 14-year-old cat died during finals week. But she pushed through and has come out the other side with a jump on her career that would turn any millennial graduate into a green-eyed monster.

In the course of our relationship, I felt deeply connected not only to her but also to her success. But as she left my office on that happy day, an unnerving guilt swept in. I was plagued with a feeling that I had not served her well. I had cheated her. I had not facilitated long conversations in my office punctuated by the pregnant pauses that lead to college's life-changing moments.

Why? Because until then, we'd never met.

There it is—my dirty little secret. A confession that may strip all credibility from my decade of work in higher education: I had an entire adviser-advisee relationship with Ashley via technology—phone, e-mail, the adviser worksheet in her student portal. That was our communication; that was our relationship. Not once in two years had she sat across from me in my office languishing or blooming before my eyes. Really, not once.

And there are other Ashleys: the university students who only enroll in my college's courses during the summers; the moms and dads busy with their day jobs and after-work duties. But there are also the students who want our relationship to be at a distance. Just today, I exchanged five e-mails with a freshman while she sat in a student lounge listening to karaoke.

Somehow, I've fallen prey to a gradual shift from strong, relationship-based contact with students to a disjointed, ping-pong style of text-talk mess. It's become my most guarded professional secret, a byproduct of shame and guilt instilled by my own mentors who were trained in the art of one-on-one advising.

Maybe it's a deep-rooted psychological need that drives me to placate my advisees in that way. Or perhaps it's nothing more than my willingness to reciprocate an initiated form of communication. They e-mail, and I reply with an immediate answer instead of giving them my office number and a curt "make an appointment."

But my face-to-face exchange with Ashley left me wondering about my approach, and invited curiosity where only guilt had tread.

I thought back to my relationship with my own undergraduate adviser. I recall feeling resentful about our forced contact. It was an inconvenience to chase her down every four months to get her signature on my chosen course schedule. I'm sure the only thing on my mind at our last meeting was, "Goodbye cluttered desk and stale cigarette breath."

Did our face-to-face contact help me? Change me? I'm willing to give an open-minded maybe. But I am positive that our most fruitful conversation was when she told me that prescription medication existed for cold sores. That, I thought, was useful. And I guess it wouldn't have happened if we weren't in the same room together.

So if that was my experience more than 10 years ago, why would I assume my advisees today—who own multiple devices and think communication via the Internet has always existed—would want anything different?

Thinking back to my technology-based relationships with Ashley and other students, I have to admit how grateful they always seem. It's scores above what I hear from students who come to my office. Reflecting on that, something finally clicked. The mental tape of a dear professor from graduate school started playing in my head: Meet students where they are, and they will follow.

While that professor was talking about where people are emotionally, I think the statement applies here, too. Technology offers simplicity and convenience. That's where many of our students are, and they want and expect us to be there with them. Maybe not every student wants technology-based interaction, just like not every student wants face-to-face interaction. Some may want equal amounts of each, while others want a dash of one and a fistful of the other.

It shouldn't be up to me to decide how students should get my help. I should follow their lead and respond in a way that's most helpful to each student. After all, our relationship depends on it.

Angela Ogburn is an adviser and general student-development instructor at Elgin Community College.