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.

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Care for the Whole Person

St. Ignatius of Loyola
(Painting by Francisco Zurbaran)

Catholic institutions spin vocation and identity in unique ways for their students. Many with a cursory knowledge of Catholic higher education are aware of its general missionary zeal for social justice. Some also may be aware that Jesuit-Catholic colleges operate, by mission, according to the Ignatian principle of cura personalis. Translated as “care for the whole person,” the idea behind cura personalis is to move beyond pure intellectual concerns to notice, learn about, and attend to the whole of a person’s life—the head, the heart, body, and soul.

How might these things come together to inform relations between staff, faculty, and students? How do they help foster a vocation? By sharing my perspective and experience I hope to provide a partial answer to these questions. I will recap how I came to weave cura personalis into my work and recount how it has remained an important part of my philosophy of education and professional life in secular institutions, beyond a formative period. Cura personalis offers an old way of seeing problems and issues that feels timeless, and highly relevant in today’s environment.

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