Even after the coronavirus pandemic shattered patterns, academic adviser found ways to connect and guide

By the time I arrived at the NACADA Region I Conference in Mystic, Connecticut, on March 11, all but two of the opening afternoon sessions were canceled. Most presenters’ home institutions had started to restrict travel in light of the looming U.S. COVID-19 crisis. NACADA, The Global Community for Academic Advising, is the pre-eminent association for academic advisers. Its strength lies in its multiple conferences, institutes, events, continuing education and online resources.

By the time dinner was over, the World Health Organization had declared a pandemic, and the national office of NACADA canceled the entire event. It ended following the breakfast awards ceremony on the day the conference was to start. Although it canceled multiple events, NACADA leadership switched gears to offer support and now reaches out regularly to its membership and offers weekly online discussions and seminars.

My husband, Rowly Brucken, is a history professor at Norwich, and he had traveled with me because it was spring break. While my conference was canceled, we saw no reason to rush back to Vermont. That day, nestled in our sun-filled Airbnb in quaint downtown Mystic, we listened to our local Vermont radio station, WDEV. We watched as information emerged and essentially watched the semester and our immediate working lives change. In the prespring chill, walking the quiet streets by the Mystic River, we contemplated what our new life might entail.

I pictured myself in my office on campus and thought, “Well, what would I be asking if they could still come see me?”

Academic advising is part science and art. As a full-time adviser, I work with students for one to four semesters when they start at Norwich. The quantifiable part of advising is to guide students to take classes in a sensible way so they can graduate on time. Since I advise undeclared majors, my job is to help them transition to a major and a new adviser having already traveled on a good path to get their degree. Understanding the mechanics of credits, grades, cumulative GPAs, prerequisites, registration, transfer credits, petitions and academic policies are part of the “curriculum” I teach students. At its core, academic advising means being an expert guide for a student in their curriculum and academic choices.

Lisa Brucken

The art of advising is subtler. At its heart lies the intangible, unquantifiable essence of being a trustworthy and safe person — someone who has correct information but also listens, supports, questions and guides. I get to know their background, what they like to do, their sense of humor and how they approach the world. Sometimes, I “hear” what is never actually said aloud, such as: “Am I good enough or the only person who feels that I can’t do this?” or “Everyone else seems to know what they are doing, why don’t I?” As I guide students to a major best suited for them, it is not always what they originally wanted. I consider myself a “realistic cheerleader” and try to offer myriad options. All of my students are filled with potential — much of it as yet untapped as they transition to college.

I love my job because I work with students one-on-one in my office at Norwich. As a naturally introverted person, I have never been a fan of video chat. Now I was looking at the need to reconnect with my students through a medium that made me uncomfortable. In the second week of spring break, the university worked on switching to online and I made sure that my students all had the latest, accurate official information from the administration about how the online semester would work. No doubt they also received a multitude of emails from administrative offices, professors, peers and student leadership. In response to these updates, only a few students responded to me.

Taking the check-in online

When academics resumed March 23, I was newly established in my home “office” (aka my bedroom) while listening to my husband record lectures downstairs in his “office” (aka our living room). In this new, odd, reality I missed just talking to students. I pictured myself in my office on campus and thought, “Well, what would I be asking if they could still come see me?” So I sent a simple email: “I am checking in to see how you are feeling now that the semester has gone online … how are things going where you are? Do you have everything you need? How can I help you?” My inbox filled with immediate responses. Some students were fine; others needed guidance. All seemed grateful for the simple communication. Within a week or so, I was mostly used to connecting in GoToMeeting and being able to talk to them again was a reward for pushing past awkward feelings about video chat.

My first class of advisees started at Norwich in 2016, and many are set to graduate this year. I am heartbroken that this is how their college experience is ending, yet they are a resilient group and sure to make a difference in their world. I had planned to hold an open house as semester ended, but had to settle for email.

In my parting email I wrote: “I have learned a great deal myself as an adviser in the 4 years since we all started together. I am so blessed to have found a job I truly love, but to get here was far from a clear path. The journey, however, was fascinating and led me to where I was meant to be. If nothing else, I have learned that you should pursue whatever truly sparks your interest — even if you do not know ‘what good’ it will do or ‘what kind of job’ it will get you. That ultimately does not matter, because you cannot possibly know. Be open to surprise and wonder. They are often your best teachers.”

Maybe, despite all of the unknown and chaos in our current COVID-19 world, that summarizes it relatively well. And yes, I received heartfelt responses to my email.

Lisa Brucken is a transition and academic success coach at Norwich University.

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