Back to basics: holistic mentoring in times of crisis

In a recent essay in Inside Higher Ed, Eric R. White, associate dean for advising emeritus at Pennsylvania State University and former president of NACADA, called upon his colleagues to begin to re-imagine a new model for academic advising, one that takes into account the realities that higher education will inevitably confront in the coming years. As with the shift to on-line teaching this spring, academic advising also had to pivot to relying upon online communication forms. White argues that such a shift was almost “second nature” to many, given that in recent years “academic advising was one of the first higher education endeavors to embrace technology as a way to supplement its work.”

The sanguine picture White paints may not align with the reality for many advisors this spring. Being comfortable with online technology is one thing but getting students to respond to offers for help and support is another. During a NetVUE-sponsored Zoom gathering in April, people described texting with individual students as an effective way to simply inquire about how they were doing, their family situation, and overall well-being. At another meeting, Student Affairs administrators described the importance of getting in touch with every student over those initial weeks of anxiety, bewilderment, and grief—an “all hands on deck” endeavor. I came away from those Zoom meetings reaffirmed about the passion and commitment of NetVUE colleagues from across the country. Even in a state of exhaustion, they operate from a deep sense of calling; they are “nimble” because they know how to stay connected to fundamentals.

White underscores the important role of academic advisors during this time of “disorientation and isolation” for students:

It quickly became clear that students needed to be in contact with their advisers more than ever. Questioned relating to whether or not to drop courses, how to handle new grading systems, whether or not to maintain enrollment for the current semester and when to return had to be dealt with…

It is at crucial times such as these that students question the very value of their education. Is it worth it? Is online education equivalent to residential education? Should I pay the same for both modes of instruction? What am I missing when I cannot be in residence at my campus? Will online education adequately prepare me for my chosen future, be it a future job or graduate education? All such questions must be sorted out. This sis the work of the academic advising community.

Eric R. White, “Academic Advising in a Pandemic and Beyond,” Inside Higher Ed (June 16, 2020).

White then offers a proposal, one that, perhaps not surprisingly, elevates and expands the role of the academic advisor at the expense of others who also mentor students from within their domain on campus: mentors (presumably but not necessarily faculty members), academic coaches, and career counselors. White sees these roles as redundant and no longer viable “in an era of fiscal constraint.” White’s future academic advisors would potentially also teach in the classroom, somehow side-stepping concerns about an under-paid, expendable work force. “The value of an institution having a vibrant academic advising program, able to pivot quickly when the circumstances demand, cannot be underestimated,” White concludes.

This current moment of crisis indeed challenges us to stop and re-consider our old assumptions and practices. As with moving a course online, the need to shift to online forms of communication raises fundamental questions for advising. By thinking in terms of holistic mentoring that emphasizes students’ larger sense of meaning and purpose, NetVUE institutions have already moved into a new paradigm. This is a good time, then, to review what we already know to be true about vocation-centered mentoring, and to ask how we can continue to support students using online formats.

Carter Aikin’s Ten Touchstones for advising about vocation is a good place to start. Based upon his many years visiting and consulting with a variety of NetVUE campuses, Carter reminds us of the importance of well-integrated programs and his suggestions point in the opposite direction of White’s advice. Robust, vocation-centered advising involves many different people from across campus, and yet, nothing in what Carter suggests requires face-to-face meeting.

In a similar vein, Younus Mirza offers some observations for how faculty can better connect to Career Services, and most of his suggestions can also be implemented using on-line formats. Indeed, it is likely easier to invite an alum into your class using Zoom or other on-line technology. Inspired by a workshop many years ago with pedagogy-guru Peter Frederick, in “Well begun is half done,” I offer some suggestions for how to start the academic year well, with some specific strategies for how to reach out to students and begin vocation-inflected conversations.

Moving beyond practical tips and strategies, several essays on this site offer thoughtful reflections about holistic mentoring and the nature of the mentoring relationship. Tim Lacy considers the Ignatian commitment to cura personalis in “Care for the Whole Person.” In “Mentoring for Vocation: a Form of Friendship,” Younus Mirza shares what he learned from the NetVUE faculty seminar with Paul Wadell about the nature of friendship and what it means to develop that form of relationship with students. Taking the approach of humanistic psychology, Rachel Pickett applies those insights to mentoring in “Lessons from Humanism: Mentoring that Fosters Vocational Discernment.” In a slightly more philosophical vein, Tom Perrin looks to virtue ethics as an important avenue in “Vocation for Atheists.” Finally, I explore the difference between advising and mentoring in “Beyond Problem-Solving: The Mystery of Mentoring for Vocation,” drawing upon a distinction made by the Catholic existentialist Gabriel Marcel.

Meaningful, robust mentoring is fundamentally about developing a relationship. It is an unfolding process, one that takes time and depends a great deal upon a foundation of trust and mutual regard. In the panic of crisis, which often leads to poor decisions based on desperation, let’s not forget what we already know to be true about students, and about teaching, learning, and mentoring.


Hannah Schell was a professor in the Department of Philosophy and Religion at Monmouth College in Illinois from 2001-2018. She is the author of “Commitment and Community: The Virtue of Loyalty and Vocational Discernment” in At this Time and In This Place: Vocation and Higher Education, ed. David S. Cunningham (Oxford University Press, 2015). Currently the Online Community Coordinator and the editor of this blog, she is also a campus consultant for NetVUE. Click here to see other blog posts by Hannah.

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