Advising the Undecided: A Model for Engaging Students in the Major Exploration Process

Deirdre Mooney

Deirdre Mooney is an Academic Advisor, Exploratory Students at the University of Calgary in Calgary, Alberta.

Advising undeclared or undecided students can be challenging. When we first started doing this work, we lamented on how non-linear and unstructured conversations about choosing a major can be. Not to mention students expect us to tell them which degree to choose – that’s fortune telling not advising!

The key goal of exploratory advising is to provide an explicit framework to help students move through exploring their options, decision-making, and educational planning. To facilitate this goal, we created the Major Exploration Process Model, the How to Choose a Major Workbook, and the How to Choose a Major Workshop to support students individually and through group advising. While the work focuses specifically on choosing a major, we stress that students can use the process and skills throughout their lives to make better informed decisions. 

Major Exploration Process Model Image
The Model uses a semi-circle shape to highlight the iterative nature of the exploration process.

Framing the Process

Students who seek exploratory advising know that they need to make a decision, but often don’t know where to start. How do we help them take action? Largely, it depends on where they are in the process.

Truly undecided students will need to start with serious self-reflection about the things driving their decision. Others may have a good sense of who they are and what they want, but need help discovering the options available to them. Still others may have narrowed their options and need support evaluating them before making a choice. In all cases, we use the Major Exploration Process Model to situate students’ experience of exploration and lead the way forward. Individual advising appointments become coaching conversations full of open-ended powerful questions to get students thinking. Although these conversations are still not linear, the Model and Workbook give them a lot more structure!

Reflect and Connect

Choosing a major starts with self-reflection. The activities in this stage help students explore their motivators, personality traits, interests, and academics:

  • Motivators – students consider and rank the things they deem important about their education and what they want to get out of their experience;
  • Personality Traits – based on Holland Codes the traits provide students with a guidepost to better understand themselves and what they may be looking for in a degree;
  • Interests – students categorize and prioritize interests to consider what they want to discover, learn, and develop through their education (hobbies vs academic pursuits);
  • Academics – students reflect on academic strengths and challenges, how they learn, how subjects are taught, the approaches of fields of study, and available academic supports.

First students reflect on these components separately and then are encouraged to make connections between these pieces to prioritize the role each component plays in their decision-making.  

Major Pathway graphic
Some key questions to help students consider their motivators, personality traits, interests and academics.

Information and Options

This stage requires students to conduct their own research into the various degree options available to them. Students gather information on:

  • Programs Offered – consider what is available and determine which programs are non-options to narrow choice from everything to potential or realistic possibilities;
  • Academics – consider whether the types of learning required to study specific disciplines fit personality traits, academic strengths, and interests;
  • Admission Requirements – review criteria to determine if possibilities are realistic and discover pathways for becoming admissible;
  • Program Structure – find out how current courses fit within possible programs (or don’t fit) and what requirements are left to complete;
  • Career Options – explore the careers that alumni with desired degrees are doing and consider the transferrable career skills gained from each program;
  • Experiential Learning / Extra-curricular – explore opportunities for building an educational experience beyond academics.

The aim is for students to get more familiar with campus resources and opportunities, and to connect the information gathered about programs to the learning gleaned from the Reflect and Connect stage.

To facilitate this part of the conversation, we demonstrate how students can use a variety of key university online resources and chart their learning in the Workbook. Sometimes this initial review of resources within the appointment will help a student establish a few possible programs to further explore on their own. This is often paired with a lot of referrals to other campus offices.

Evaluate and Decide

Once a student has reflected on their motivators, personality traits, interests, and academics, and has gathered information about potential options, it’s time to evaluate!

We created a rank-order chart where students assign five points per category across the degree options they are weighing. The tallies should illuminate whether a program choice is realistic, and help a student determine a pathway based on what is most important to them. This stage is all about critical thinking and prioritizing, which advisors support best through strong coaching questions. 

Take Action

After deciding on a program of study, a student’s next step is to develop an action plan to make it happen! This may mean submitting an application to a realistic program of their choosing, or taking incremental steps like completing prerequisite courses or improving a GPA for admission. Whatever the next steps are, our role is help students map out their upcoming educational journey.

Final Thoughts

Advising undeclared or undecided students is undoubtedly challenging. We, as advisors, have the benefit of hindsight when we talk about our educational experiences. It is easier for us to articulate the process of becoming decided because we’ve already done it. The benefits that work to our advantage in supporting undecided students, however, are the knowledge we have about our programs, our toolkit of advising skills, and the resources developed within the advising community.

So, please try out the Model and Workbook activities! Let us know how it goes so we can continue to improve our exploratory conversations to help students become comfortable with exploring!  


Baxter Magolda, M.B. (2009). The activity of meaning making: A holistic perspective on college student development. Journal of College Student Development, 50(6), 621-639.

Burnett, W., & Evans, D.J. (2016). Designing your life. New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf.

FabLab. (2012). The STEM Fab Studio design process. [N.DiGiorgio, Instructor]. Cleveland, OH.

Freeman, L.C. (2008). Establishing effective advising practices to influence student learning and success. Peer Review, 10(1), 12-14.

Lowenstein, M. (2000). Academic advising and the “logic” of the curriculum. The Mentor: An Academic Advising Journal, 2.

Lowenstein, M. (2009). If advising is teaching, what do advisors teach? NACADA Journal, 25(2), 65-73.

McKenzie, D., Tan, T.X., Fletcher, E.C., & Jackson-Williams, A. (2017). Major re-selection advising and academic performance. NACADA Journal, 37(1), 15-25.

Michelozzi, B.N. (1998). Coming alive from nine to five: The career search handbook (3rd ed.). Mountain View, CA: Mayfield Publishing.

Miller, B., & Woycheck, S. (2003). The academic advising implications of the self-directed search and Holland’s theory: A study of Kent State University exploratory students. NACADA Journal, 23(1 & 2), 37-43.

Mitchell, K.E., Levin, A.S., & Krumboltz, J.D. (1999). Planned happenstance: Constructing unexpected career opportunities. Journal of Counseling and Development, 77, 115-124.

Morris, H., & Warman, G. (2015). Using design thinking in higher education. Educause Review. Retrieved from https://er/

Razzouk, R., & Shute, V. (2012). What is design thinking and why is it important? Review of Educational Research, 82(3), 330-348.

Sharf, R.S. (2010). Applying career development theory to counselling (5th ed.). Belmont, CA: Brooks/Cole, Cengage Learning.

Swanson, J.L., & Fouad, N.A. (2015). Career theory and practice: Learning through case studies (3rd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, Inc.

Watson, A.D. (2015). Design thinking for life. Art Education, 68(3), 12-18.

Improve your Interactions and Outcomes with Students: 3 Advising Situations Utilizing Emotional Intelligence & Perception

Terina Mailer
Manager, Academic Advising

Terina Mailer is the Manager, Academic Advising at University of British Columbia’s Okanagan campus, in B.C.

I love it when a student leaves my office expressing gratitude that they saw me. I’m grateful for feeling useful, valued for the information I’m able to share, and inspired by the conversations that develop when I’ve provided a tailored service to each individual student.

I’ve learned to challenge myself to see what’s under the surface – for both students and for myself – to see more than the questions I’m being asked.  Why? Because my interactions with students are undeniably richer and outcomes more gratifying when I do.

Here are three advising situations for you to consider around exercising and developing your emotional intelligence and perception.   

Is it really about the academic question?

Don’t ignore the red eyes (insert any sign of distress here). Don’t ignore your intuition that something else is going on. Name it: “I’m very happy to answer your question – but I can’t help notice that you look upset. Are you okay? Is there something else going on?”.   As Gordon (2007) stated,  “questions can lead to a better understanding of the student’s needs and concerns” (p. 197).

Your student will appreciate that you’re noticing – that you care. You may not be told what IS going on – and that’s okay. It’s an opportunity to make referrals to your campus partners (Health and Wellness/Counselling) who may be able to help further. You can always revisit and circle back to the academic question, but that student feels that YOU cared and YOU were paying attention. You looked after the person first leaving lots of room to take care of the student later.  Crockett’s (1978) research found students want an advisor who demonstrates a caring attitude toward them. In addition, Nadler and Simerly (2006) suggested the relationship between advisor and student can be built on trust and mutual respect when the student “perceives the advisor as being concerned with his or her specific situation” (p. 216).

It’s everyone else. It’s the prof. It’s the group. It’s the lab tech. It’s not me.

Well, maybe. Maybe not. But how can we work together to get you to a better place from here? Acknowledge the concern and their feelings around it. Again, look after the human being first and then the student. Begin to ask questions that empower them. They can’t change their prof or their lab tech, TA, assigned groups, or the assignment. But they have power over their actions in the situation: “What can YOU do here? Yes, it may mean more work than you think is fair – but then what’s the priority – a good mark or fair allocation of work?”. Align their current situation with future challenges they will undoubtedly face. In every work environment, they’ll find situations where they feel they’ve been treated unfairly by bosses or coworkers. Encourage them to use this as a training ground for coming out of it successfully no matter the actions of others – because they have no control over that. They have control over what THEY say and what THEY do. Empower the student to hunt for their own solutions to their concerns and challenges. Ask questions that enable them to see their own power and help them to see how valuable these creative skills will be in future. According to Howey (2008), this self-regulated learning and problem-solving approach helps to move the student away from blaming others, and for the student to be “more involved in the process of coming up with their own strategies for addressing a problem” (para. 20).

A student and/or parent(s) walk in angry. What can we do to de-escalate the emotion of the situation to clear a path for developing solutions?

First, listen. If they’ll let you. And usually they do because often someone else didn’t. Really listen. Hughey (2011) highlighted how “active listen­ing to responses inspired by challenging questions leads to advisor insight into the experiences, feel­ings, and emotions of their students. An appropri­ate response to these feelings requires accuracy in reading the type and intensity of the emotion” (p. 25). There’s lots of additional research on the effectiveness of active listening– but it’s sometimes hard to do when you may be triggered by the heightened emotions of your students or parents. Ali and Johns (2018) recommended using mindfulness to help advisors be aware of their emotions, thoughts and behaviours. So do a check-in with yourself. Are your cheeks flushed? Are you uncomfortable with anger and have butterflies in your stomach? That’s okay. Take a second to acknowledge they’re there – but also recognize these physical and emotional discomforts won’t last forever. Settle in to your own feelings of discomfort – acknowledge them silently – and then get down to the business of listening. What’s happening for the person or people in front of you? Every situation is different and there’s no magical formula to address each and every one. Ask a few questions of clarification to ensure you understand the situation. Then start clearing paths to what they can and cannot do, what YOU can and cannot do along with next steps. When we feel heard, the next steps are easier. It doesn’t mean anyone gets exactly what they want – and students certainly don’t always get information they love to hear – but allowing space for the person first in turn helps the student. 

I hope this challenges you to pay more attention to the subtleties of your day-to-day interactions with your students for the purpose of improving their experience as well as deepening your own personal and professional fulfillment. What I’m proposing we do here is not easy. And it doesn’t happen overnight. It takes work and the willingness to constantly and consistently self-reflect. But in doing so, I believe that not only will your interactions with students improve in meaningful ways, but your personal fulfillment may also reap residual benefits.


Ali, M. & Johns, S. (2018, December). Compassion fatigue and self-care for academic advisors. Academic Advising Today, 41(4). Retrieved from

Crockett, D. S. (1978). Academic advising: A cornerstone of student retention. New Directions for Student Services, 1978(3), 29–35.

Gordon, V. A. (2007). Undecided students: A special population [monograph]. NACADA, 17, 187-233.

Howey, S. C. (2008). Factors in student motivation. Retrieved from

Hughey, J. K. (2011). Strategies to enhance interpersonal relations in academic advising. NACADA Journal, 31(2), 22-32.

Nadlery, S., & Simerly, R. L. (2006). Effect of listening on the formation of students trust and commitment in academic advising: A study at a United States university. The International Journal of Management, 23, 215-221.

Making the Most out of Email Communications

Photo of Sara Neziol, M.Ed, Hons B.A.
Sara Neziol
M.Ed, Hons B.A.

Sara Neziol is the Manager, Educational Advising at Wilfrid Laurier University in Brantford, Ontario.

Email is the most used tool in my Academic Advising Office used to communicate with students.  It is efficient, accurate and easy to access.

Email communication is available for students to connect with their Academic Advisor 24 hours a day, from most devices.  It serves the non-traditional student well in that they can ask their questions at a time that works for their schedule- which may not match up to our office’s business hours.  We receive emails 24 hours a day 7 days a week.  Email also allows students to bypass an in-person meeting.  In-person meetings can cause anxiety in some students- from a busy waiting room to discussing a potential embarrassing situation with an advisor- it breaks down some barriers that these students may had typically avoided, perhaps avoiding academic advising altogether. Gaines (2014) asserted that “academic advisors need to assess the advisees’ personality types to choose the variety of interaction opportunities that best fit” (p. 44).

Email is an efficient method of communication in academic advising.  In the same amount of time that I can spend in an in-person appointment, I could probably solve three complex email questions.  Advisors may find they have a bit of extra time by finishing a project early or from a “no-show” appointment- with this extra time they can easily jump onto the email queue and help a student or two.  Advisors can also work on e-mails anywhere- slow-drop in’s in residence, hop on email.  Presentation ended earlier than expected? Log on and answer a couple more.  Email is efficient for both the student and the advisor.

Email also provides students and the advisors a written record of advice.  It is important to be as accurate as possible.  Be clear and concise.  Choose words wisely.  Take the time to cite your advice as this will teach the student where to find information on their own.  For example, do not just tell a student their minor requirements; also add the academic calendar link.  Is a student asking about the last day to drop a course?  Do not just tell them the date; also include a link to the academic dates.  This will provide the student with a clear understanding of where the university holds this sort of information, but also how they can self-service in the future.  As Pellegrin (2015) suggested, advisors should respond to email inquiries the same way they would if the student were asking the question during an in-person advising session.  Advisors should anticipate further questions to reduce the amount of back and forth. Emails should also include an interpersonal exchange (e.g. “Congrats on being halfway through the semester”) and probing to generate additional considerations of the student (e.g. “Have you spoken to your financial aid advisor to understand the impact of dropping this class will have on your government funding?” or “Do you know how to search to find when a class will be offered again?”). This is similar to what an advisor would do during an in-person advising session.  Email questions should prompt the advisor to provide further information the student may not have thought of (e.g. “How are you doing in your math class? I see it is your second time taking it, please let me know if you are having any trouble so we can discuss strategies for your success”).

In our office, we try not to email students from our personal work accounts.  The reason being is that if an advisor takes a leave, changes position, or has a prolonged absence, the emails and record of emails are only found in that individual’s mailbox.  By using a generic email (i.e., it ensures constant monitoring of the account and that records are accessible at all times.  We use a colour coded tagging system to assign emails to particular advisors.  This is especially useful when a history of advising is evident between a particular advisor and a particular student.  E-mail management systems also provide coding and a history of communications with an advisor and a student.

To be successful with email, academic advisors need to place value on the importance of it.  Resources need to be devoted to monitoring the inbox.  During our most busy times, we ensure an advisor is dedicated to monitoring emails, just as we ensure there are advisors available for walk-in appointments.  We usually are able to respond to an email within one business day- most are answered same day. A quick response time avoids the student contacting multiple areas with the same question, resulting in multiple staff members working independently to answer a question- costing valuable time and causing confusion.  Updating an automatic response with an approximate response time can also mitigate a student contacting multiple areas for assistance.  Students expect a quick answer so we try our best to meet their expectations. As discussed by Joslin (2009), students have become accustomed to 24/7 access to online resources and information, and this expectation transfers to their academic advising. It is important to remember students who reach out via email do not have a visual cue as to why there is a delay in response, which can lead to frustration and feeling unsupported (Ohrablo, 2010).

Email in academic advising can be overwhelming at times.  Busy periods can send hundreds of emails from students into the Advising Office inbox. I have found that by making email a priority and devoting resources in ensuring that it is constantly monitored, email is an effective communication tool in my office. 


Gaines, T. (2014). Technology and academic advising: Student usage and preferences. NACADA Journal, 34(1), 43-49.

Joslin, J. (2009). Voices from the field: Veteran advisors. NACADA Journal, 29(2), 68-75.

Ohrablo, S. (2010). Developmental advising in an on-demand world. Retrieved from the NACADA Clearinghouse of Academic Advising Resources website:

Pellegrin, J. (2015). Advising online. In P. Folsom, F. Yoder, & J. Joslin (Eds.), The new advisor guidebook: Mastering the art of academic advising (2nd ed., pp. 289-296). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Transition Programming for First Year Students at Niagara College

Katherine Gottli
Cynthia Manzo

Katherine Gottli & Cynthia Manzo are both Academic Advisors at Niagara College in Ontario, Canada.


The new reality of post-secondary education, particularly in one and two-year institutions, is one that no longer welcomes a homogenous demographic of students every intake. Post-secondary students represent a wide spectrum of identities in every sense of the word, which can make implementing effective, responsive programming challenging for student services professionals. To find the common denominator in a flurry of inconsistency as a starting point for program development, however, we can rely on clichés: the only thing you can count on is change.

Incoming post-secondary students are all navigating a change in their life. Transitions can transcend, but also complicate a student’s identity. To address this, and establish a student-centered community of support, Niagara College has adopted a wrap-around transition program that includes pre-Orientation activities, Predictive Assessment, and 6 weeks of outreach and engagement opportunities at the beginning of a student’s program. The use of these early intervention strategies has allowed for meaningful student-centered transition programming that addresses student persistence, community, and identity.

Academic Advising Group Sessions & Kick Start

In the summer of 2016, Niagara College piloted the delivery of academic advising group sessions for new students starting classes in the fall. Academic Advisors were extremely busy during the first weeks of the term, meeting with students who had questions that could have been easily answered ahead of time in a group session. It was determined that by providing students with key information before classes started, they would be better equipped to make informed decisions at that stage of the term without the need of consulting with an Academic Advisor. Therefore, it was time to design and put into action a new early intervention strategy, one based on a more intrusive advising model to address the high volume of inquiries that a first-year student would typically have in the first couple of weeks. This programing would also ease students and their supporters into “NC Life”, including developing relationships with their advisors and peers, with a focus on academic success. The academic advising team fortunately had the institutional support to move ahead with this new initiative. Niagara College recognized the value and importance of activities like this and the impact it would have on student success. As Garing (1993) mentions: When these strategies are integrated as necessary components of the institution’s advising system, not only are the efficiency and effectiveness of advising enhanced, but the retention of students is ultimately affected in a positive way due to the solidness of this critical student-adviser link” (p. 97).

Students were invited for a two-hour group advising session in the month of August. Each individual session was delivered by the Academic Advisor assigned to a given program of study. According to Kuh (2008), the advisor plays an important role in establishing an early connection with those new students whom they will be working with throughout their time at college. He also suggests that it helps them navigate the college system to overcome barriers until they graduate. Some of the topics included in the group advising session were the key dates in the term, the progression policy, and the student services available, such as the Health, Wellness and Accessibility Office, the Test Center, and the Library. Students also learned about how their Program of Instruction (POI) is structured and they identified if there were pre-requisite courses in their programs. Academic Advisors also wanted students to be familiar with Blackboard, which is the learning management system used at Niagara College. They learned about where and how to locate information related to their courses and how to communicate with their instructors through the platform. The implementation of the academic advising sessions in the summer was very well received by the new students and their parents/supporters. However, it was decided that there would have been a better outcome if the advising sessions were part of the pre-orientation program Kick Start, which also takes place in the summer.

Since student success is Niagara College’s top priority, Academic Advisors wanted to make sure that the transition for new students was as enjoyable, smooth, and comprehensive as possible for them. We are well aware that sometimes students will be more receptive to new information if this comes from different parties that recognize that the responsibility of student success lies not only on Academic Advisors, but also on Faculty, Co-op and Career Consultants, Counselors, and other staff members. This is what Kuh (2008) describes as the “tag team approach.” Therefore, in the summer of 2017 we formally integrated the advising group sessions with NC’s Kick Start pre-orientation program. Kick Start is a 1-day transition based program offered to all incoming students to give them the opportunity to get familiar with the college environment before they start classes. This program offers campus and residence tours, a Blackboard session, and the opportunity to pick up their student ID card and program materials ahead of time. There are also some parent/supporter sessions, students are able to meet their classmates, and their Academic Advisor during the advising session. The newly designed and more fulsome Kick Start has yielded great success and positive feedback. It has served to bring resources together, has achieved improved efficiencies and mirrors NC’s integrated service approach.

Student Strengths Inventory (SSI)

With student persistence and retention as a goal, Academic Advisors utilize Early Alert strategies to best allocate time and resources.  Connecting with students as early and as meaningfully as possible in their academic career at Niagara College has become the foundation for our advising philosophy. To achieve this, the Student Strengths Inventory (SSI) is facilitated within the first two weeks of each term for incoming students. Within a predominantly two-year institution, the ability to predict the possibility of retaining a student if curated supports are provided is significant given the short time advisors or other student services have to make an impact (Napoli & Wortman, 1998). The SSI allows Academic Advisors the ability to gain key insights directly from students on how they view themselves and their learning. This approach creates a common measure across all student demographics and allows for differentiation by program/program cluster. The SSI assess non-cognitive or psychosocial attitudes and behaviors that are present in successful people (Gore et. al., 2019). It measures two main indicators; academic success and retention probability through a series of 50 questions on personality and motivational habits and attitudes that facilitate functioning well within a post-secondary setting (Campus Labs, 2012).

The SSI is administered in all first year first term classrooms. Academic Advisors typically attend the classroom themselves to facilitate the assessment, which doubles as important face time with the class, establishing the Academic Advisor as key contact on campus (O’Keefe, 2013). Immediate, curated feedback to the student is presented as ‘Next Step’ statements to students, dependent on their ranking in the following categories: Academic Engagement; Academic Self-Efficacy; Campus Engagement; Educational Commitment; Resiliency; Social Comfort (Campus Labs, 2012). This information bridges the gap between the administration of the SSI, and any initial meeting with an Academic Advisor. The hope is that students begin to access these resources within their first weeks on campus to better develop their Niagara College identity and affinity to the NC community, academically and socially. Providing this information to students recognizes the holistic nature of the role of Advising on campus – we view students as a “whole package”, understanding that partitioning student needs into ‘Academic’, ‘Health and Wellness’, ‘Social’, etc., diminishes the effectiveness of any kind of interventional strategy, and can complicate their transition.

Students are sorted into ‘Low Risk’, ‘High Risk’, and ‘Target’ groups based on their Academic Success and Retention scores, and individualized interventions are facilitated with the groups. The Target group (High Academic Success, Low Retention) receives the most aggressive interventions in the form of an individual meeting request from their Academic Advisor within the first month of the semester. Often, this meeting will result in follow up meetings over the course of the student’s academic career, as it can establish the Academic Advisor as a teacher who understanding the greater narrative of that particular student’s education (Lowenstein, 2005). Academic Advisors are able to link student concerns to supports on campus, furthering the wrap-around approach to student success Niagara College has employed.

First Six Weeks Programming

Niagara College’s approach to connecting and engaging with a diverse student population has evolved over the years. The Center for Student Engagement & Leadership has made extensive efforts to maximize the effectiveness of its programs. Working under the premise that student engagement plays an important role in student success and retention (Kuh, Kinzie, Schuh, & Whitt, 2005), it has been necessary to re-think the delivery format of the orientation program for first year students. In the past, the orientation program was structured in a way that all welcoming activities – including campus tours, welcoming parties, program sessions, and the student services fair – were all scheduled to take place over the course of a couple of days. A more comprehensive and strategic model, however, was implemented in the fall of 2019.  

Matthews (2009) suggests that the first six weeks, in college or university for new students, will contribute significantly to solidify a trusting relationship between the student and the educational institution, “It is the make-or-break period for many students regarding their academic, social and emotional engagement with their chosen institution” (para.12). Based on this idea, a group of different activities and information on college resources, programs and services was put together to address academic, financial, and personal areas to achieve student success. The Six Weeks Program was designed to provide the relevant information students need to avoid feeling overwhelmed in the early part of the semester. Details on the scheduling of activities were disseminated via email, promotional boards, and social media channels, such as Instagram. The participation received through Instagram was very positive since students felt quite comfortable connecting with staff by using a platform that they typically use to engage with their own friends. Obtaining immediate responses to their questions helped them feel connected and heard which contributes to making transition to college smoother.


Student success, academically, socially, and professionally, is the reward Student Services professionals can all hope to experience with their students. This success planning starts from the moment a student connects with any member of our student services team at Niagara College. As we guide students through their transition to post-secondary, the Niagara College tag-team approach has had a real impact on a first-year student’s affinity to the Niagara College community. First year students can rest assured that they will be connected with suitable support to navigate their new home. It is imperative for staff at Niagara College to encourage and empower students to utilize the resources available to them, which starts with pre-orientation, early intervention, and first six weeks programming. 

Academic Advisors consistently revisit and adjust the program goals of transition programming, and continually collaborate with other areas to emphasize that we see our students as a whole package. Moving forward, as we assess these programs term to term, the hope is that students will continue to validate our assumptions of the impacts of these initiatives. Providing students with the tools to persist and develop resiliency are skills that are applicable throughout their lives. If Academic Advisors are a piece of that personal development, then we validate the role of Academic Advising in post-secondary institutions. 


Campuslabs. (2012). “Using the Non-cognitive Factors of Beacon in Advising” [PowerPoint slides]. Retrieved from

Garing, M. T. (1993). Intrusive academic advising. New Directions for Community Colleges, 1993(82), 97-104. https://doi:10.1002/cc.36819938211

Gore, P. A., Leuwerke, W. C., Metz, A. J., Brown, S., & Kelly, A. R. (2019). Measuring Noncognitive Factors Related to College Student Outcomes: Development and Initial Construct Validation of the Student Strengths Inventory. Journal of Career Assessment27(1), 47–60.

Kuh, G. D. (2008). Advising for Student Success In Academic Advising. A Comprehensive Handbook (pp. 68-74). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Kuh, G. D., Kinzie, J., Schuh, J. H., & Whitt, E. J. (2005). Student Success in College. Creating Conditions that Matter. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Lowenstein, M. (2005). If Advising is Teaching, What Do Advisors Teach?. NACADA Journal. 25(2), 65-73.

Matthews, B. (2009, November 2). Retention Matters. Retrieved November 29, 2019, from

Napoli, A. R. & Wortman P.M. (1998). Psychosocial Factors Related to Retention and Early Departure of Two-Year Community College Students. Research in Higher Education, 39(4). 419-455.

O’Keffe, Patrick. (2013). A sense of belonging: Improving student retention. College Student Journal, 47, 605-613.

Cue Vitamin C Graduation Song

Allison Scully (that’s me) is Lead Hand, Career and Student Success Advisor at Humber College. She (aka me) is also a proud member of the NACADA Canadian Advising Steering Committee.

The Countdown Begins

In 14 days and 4 hours and 59 minutes (not that I’m counting), I will have completed my masters degree. I have been waiting three and a half years to say that. Well, if I’m being honest, I’ve been waiting 12 years to say that.  My journey to a masters felt a bit like a temper tantrum: I felt I should get it but I also really didn’t want to go back to school, and couldn’t feasibly see how I could while working.

I knew I had to find a masters program that I was truly passionate about if I was going to commit the time and money.  After a career change (goodbye digital marketing), I made my way into the post secondary world. Here it became even more obvious a masters was the route I needed to take to develop into the professional I wanted to become. In the PSE world, the two masters programs that kept tapping me on the shoulder were masters in counseling and higher education/student affairs. But I still wasn’t convinced.

Aha Moment!

Then one magical day, my manager at the time recommended I look into the masters program through NACADA.  I had no idea that was even a thing. I did my research and – aha! – I knew immediately I had found the program for me. It was a Masters of Science in Academic Advising at Kansas State University (KSU), in partnership with NACADA. And, even better, it was completely online. This meant I could study something I was passionate about and everything I learned in school I could apply to my job (and vice versa). Added bonus, KSU’s football team are the Wildcats. Yes, that’s right, I would be living my own version of High School Musical. Dreams do come true!

I frantically wrote my letter of intent and applied. Spoiler alert: I got accepted. I was excited and nervous at the same time. Did I even remember how to write an essay? I was used to the no homework life; would I still have time to nap on weekends (one of my guilty pleasures I wasn’t willing to give up)?

Reality Time

Here are the realities of being in a masters program:

  • You will have moments of wanting to take the semester off. Don’t do it. Your future self will thank you;
  • If you’re like me and do most of your assignments during the weekend, you will start to dread weekends. But take the power back and still find time to do fun weekend things, just bookend it with schoolwork; and
  • Whoever you live with will feel ignored. Remind them daily it’s for the greater good and it won’t last forever (unless you do your doctorate, then it might).

Being a Student is Hard

The biggest thing I learned from my masters? No matter how good of a student you are, all of the things you advise your students not to do, you will do yourself:

Why Specializing Your Studies on Advising is 👍💯

Many of you reading this may already have a masters or may be considering your options. Let me tell you why the KSU MSc. in Academic Advising is, in my opinion, the best masters program for advisors (Note: All opinions are my own, NACADA is not paying me for this, but I will accept the honour of being valedictorian if that’s available 😉) :
  • Your professors are the experts in the world of advising. When you read about research and theories in advising, you say with pride “that’s my teacher, I know them”;
  • You learn alongside other advisors from all levels of their career and are exposed to their experiences, lessons learned and best practices; and
  • You take a deep dive into student development theory, students with special needs, multicultural aspects of advising, learning principles, career development, research methods, interpersonal relations, student athletes and assessment of advising.

Sappy Reflection

The greatest gift the masters program provided me is my newfound confidence. I’m no longer afraid to do or say the wrong thing. I use theory and research to back what I do as an advisor rather than relying on my own experience and bias. And if I am stuck on how to help a student, I have the resources and community to support me.

Moral of the Story

Why did I want to share this with fellow Canadian advisors? If you are looking for that sign to push you to continue your education, this is it. Do it. Now’s the time.  It will be hard; it will be tiring and you will want to quit. But I guarantee, it will be one of the best things you will do for yourself both personally and professionally.!!-:strip_icc-!!-/2015/03/20/836/n/1922283/4d38b4e63ad74df1_bFG4Emq/i/Finally-She-Gives-Epic-Graduation-Speech.gif

If any of you have any questions about the MSc in Academic Advising at KSU, I’m always happy to chat. You can reach me at

Three Ways to Face Academic Adversity

Shehna Javeed
Academic and Learning Strategist
University of Toronto Scarborough
Shehna Javeed

Note from Editor: This was originally posted on Shehna Javeed’s LinkedIn and she has kindly allowed us to share it on the Canadian Advising Community blog.

Shehna Javeed is a higher education professional who works as an Academic Advisor and a Learning Strategist at University of Toronto Scarborough. She is also a TEDx speaker and an actively engaged citizen who volunteers and encourages civic engagement.

What a week!

We just passed the first week of classes as students return to continue their journey in higher education. It can be filled with eager anticipation, or dismal disappointment. Some students will proceed smoothly, forging ahead to the next year of their studies, while others have just come up against a devastating obstacle – academic failure.

Sitting face-to-face with students who are going through the painful realization that they must pause, detour, gather a wellness toolkit, change, maneuver, yield, reevaluate, I see their vulnerability and unyielding commitment to continue on the journey with strength and resolve.

What are some Skills Needed to Succeed at this Crossroad?


The examination of the self is very important at this point. And it is most important to be honest with oneself. No one knows you like you do.

What are the factors that may have contributed to being at this juncture? The reasons can be multi-layered and could include relationship issues, family and financial difficulties, physical health or mental health, procrastination or lack of motivation, lack of degree direction or simply a lack of engagement with the material. Honestly identifying which of these factors or others, may have gotten in the way, and then creating an action plan. The action plan can include small steps, of how to work towards working through these concerns and seeking realistic solutions. Developing a growth mindset (Mindset, The New Psychology of Success by Carol Dweck, 2006) that is open to learning, and willing to savour the challenge of the change may be needed. This is easier said than done but without a critical analysis of the situation it will be difficult to change directions. A person with a growth mindset can begin to see the learning that happens in failure. This can be a monumental and powerful realization.

Acceptance and Decision-Making

In order to create an alternative plan of action, one must be able to make some choices which require making some difficult decisions. Perhaps in order to make a sound decision the individual might actually need a break to clear their head. Academic suspensions can sometimes be this painful but much needed break. Often, we roll from one thing to the next because it is what is expected and everyone else seems to be doing so. In this hustle and bustle we do not “pause” to reflect if the next thing is the right thing for us. A short break may be needed before sound decisions can be made with a clear mind.

Making decisions also requires an acceptance of the adversity at hand. It is not an acceptance of failure but it is an acceptance of the reality of the situation. It is acknowledging that this is an adversity that will need to be worked through. Karen Reivich and Andrew Shatte, in their book the Resilience Factor (2002) discuss ways to lay the ground work to cultivate resiliency. Advising students is a delicate and authentic relationship where the advisor respects the humanity of the experience but the reality of situation must be worked through.

Reaching Out For Support

It may seem like no one will understand your situation or truly understand your challenges, but it is important to reach out and ask for help. Yes, asking for help requires courage and being vulnerable can be the hardest position to be in. But you are not alone.

Perhaps others may not exactly feel your pain, but people can be genuinely helpful and willing to help if you ask. Service-providers and professionals who provide support can help to be partners in your progress. Meaningful change can only come from a desire to reflect and take steps towards the goal.

There are many self help and mental health tools available online that can also be helpful. Big White Wall ( Bounceback by the Canadian Mental Health Association ( are examples of two mental health resources in the community that may be helpful in this journey.

Finding a partner such as a friend, a sibling or a parent, who can keep you accountable in your goals can also be a powerful motivator to keep on track. You can build check points with your partner that are weekly with preset markers and short-term goals. For example, if you procrastinate with gaming, you might want to schedule some reasonable gaming time and let your partner know when and how long you have set these for, and you can create mechanisms of checking in with each other on whether or not you are keeping to the plan.

Some Concluding Words

Be ready to recognize your own strengths. We are all good at some things but we are not all good at the same things. Identify your strengths and that which inspires a passion in you – some solutions may lie therein.

Remember that things can change and they often do. There is always hope because there are always many possibilities and alternatives as long as we are open to seeing them.

It is important for academic institutions to remember that when we celebrate students with high GPAs and beautiful accomplishments, we must also remember the extraordinary and untold stories of resilience and commitment that resonate throughout these institutions. These stories remind us that education is also about building character and strong citizens who can face adversity and emerge successful on their own terms and as a student development professional, I thank you for trusting us to be part of this transformation.

TEDxUTSC talk titled “Do you see people for who they are”

Pics credit to Ali Javeed, Shehna Javeed, and puzzle pieces pic from

Creating Community in Academic Advising and Student Affairs & Services

By Michelle Lynch

Community is about doing and feeling. It’s about people coming together to solve a problem, to share in an experience, or to help or care for others.  Community is also the feeling of acknowledgement and belonging. There are a variety of operating theories, models, and methods related to community development like sustainable, pragmatic, unnamedsocial action, and social planning.  I particularly like to integrate a kind of asset-based community development into my work in higher education. An asset-based approach appreciates and recognizes the many talents and resources individuals already possess and helps them navigate where they want to go.

Generally speaking, the goals of community development are empowerment and social justice.  Bill Lee (1999) wrote that empowerment is “the sense in people that they have the ability and right to influence their environment” (p. 43).  Within these goals are five objectives: involvement or participation, a sense of community, organization development, concrete benefits, and social learning.  Examples of these are all around us in higher education. We intentionally create opportunities for our students to experience community through our services, programming, clubs, events, and residence.  We have initiatives and programs for students to further their skill development outside the classroom such as service learning, work integrated learning, and research partnerships. Academic staff and faculty are working together with service departments to launch student success programming, share research findings, collaborate with program advisory members, and host events.

There is ample literature related to community development in academic advising and student affairs and services.  There is even a chapter dedicated to community development in Students Services: A Handbook for the Profession (Roberts, 2011). In it  the author writes that developing community is at the core of helping students prepare for their “interdependent and global” future (p. 448).  There are relevant books and articles describing ways that academic departments and service departments can collaborate together (some are listed below). In “The Recipe for Promising Practices in Community Colleges” (2010) the authors’ research findings suggest that there are four characteristics that played key roles in improving achievement rates in community colleges: cohesion, cooperation, consistency, and  “connection—the ability of program personnel to sustain interdependent relationships with internal and external entities, such as other departments within the college and industry representatives” (p.31).  Community is forged in the connections between students and students, students and staff/faculty, and all stakeholders and the institution.

We can choose the level of our individual participation in our communities and, to some of us, it can be taxing to ‘do more’, especially financially.  But, seemingly small gestures can help create a sense of community and do not have to cost extra money. Here are a few:

#1 Acknowledge People:

  • Sometimes, I do not meet up with a colleague the entire year, even though we work on the same campus! Once or twice a year I like to visit other departments (sometimes I bring treats) and say ‘hello’.  It is that brief interaction with some people I know and meeting people I don’t yet know which are moments that build community.  Sometimes when I visit, I take a few moments to thank someone for helping me with solving a problem or answering a question.  And, if I can’t do a visit, I phone or email them.


  • We train our new Student Learning Centre staff over a two-day workshop.  The coming together of new student staff and returning student staff provides an excellent opportunity for community building.  I was invited to facilitate a session to this group on the topic of giving and receiving feedback. While I delivered the fun, engaging, experiential, and collaborative exercise, community engagement was definitely happening.  Further community building came later when there was a few minutes left before the next session and we were all chatting. The students and I had a lovely, and totally unrelated, conversation about music. We shared in the experience of learning from each other and sharing something that is special.  What was unscripted became a very special moment of connection.


#2 Invite People:  

  • When the semester is up and running our Student Learning Centre (SLC) also has an open house each Fall and Winter term to welcome and share with students, staff, and faculty about the programs and services offered. The organizer makes it fun with food and prizes.  Also, the smell of popcorn attracts people (it’s science). Staff and faculty have a chance to meet their inter-departmental colleagues and catch up. Students come for the chance to win prizes and have a snack but while they’re visiting they are meeting new people and sharing in the experience of exploring what the SLC can offer.


  • I have invited my colleagues and hosted lunch and learns to watch pertinent lecture videos or webinars and have our lunch together.  Then, I guide a discussion of our impressions of content and any ‘takeaways’ relevant to our experience, reflections on the past, and ideas for the future.  Afterwards, at least one colleague will declare “we should do this again!”


  • Our Mechanical and Electro-Mechanical Engineering students have capstone or a final project course.  In this course students conduct research with an industry Invitepartner and design and develop a prototype. The department puts on a project showcase in the cafeteria and common spaces and student groups design posters and demonstrate their work.  I have participated in the organization of this event for many years. What I do, however, is not just list the event in the newsletter email. I personally hand deliver invitations to my college community members: other academic departments, facilities management, the bookstore staff, human resources, etc. It makes me so happy when folks from the Registrar’s office come and talk with the students about their projects.  It makes people feel happy to be invited.  It makes people feel good to belong.

These examples may seem small and insignificant.  These moments of connection can be glossed over and taken for granted.  However, our acknowledgement of and time spent with others serves as a model for our students.  Not every experience will be the best or the most positive, but the experiences students have and the connections they make during their time at our institutions are significant.

Many books and articles detail how a program or service came to be and how a new initiative or partnership increased student persistence rates, student satisfaction, or program quality.  However, it is the ‘why’ we do these things that what we must attend to. Peter Block (2018) writes that “the key to creating or transforming community, then, is to see the power in the small but important elements of being with others” (p.10).  It is through these moments which propels communication, furthers understanding, launches creativity, and motivates us for action. It is connection that transforms us from simply doing the same old things to creating something new, something that may not have even been considered before the connection.  Building community requires intentionally creating opportunities for belonging.  

What have been your moments of building community? Let us know in the comments!




Block, P. (2018). Community: The structure of belonging 2nd Ed. Oakland, CA:

Berrett-Koehler Publishers.


Lee, B. (1999). Pragmatics of Community Organization, 3rd Ed., Mississauga, ON:

CommonAct Press.


Levin, J. S., Cox, E. M., Cerven, C. & Haberler, Z. (2010). The Recipe for Promising

Practices in Community Colleges. 38(1), 31-58. Community College Review.

DOI: 10.1177/0091552110374505


Roberts, D. C., (2011). Community Development. In Schuh, J. H., Jones, S. R., &

Harper, S. R. (Eds.). Student services: A handbook for the profession

(pp.448-467). San Francisco, CA: John Wiley & Sons.


Further Reading


Asset Based Community Development – Canada (n.d). Tamarak Institute.  Retrieved



Berson, J., Potter, D. L., Engelkemeyer, S., & Terenzini, P. T. (1998). Powerful

Partnerships A Shared Responsibility for Learning. A Joint Report. American

Association for Higher Education. American College Personnel Association.

National Association of Student Personnel Administrators.  Retrieved from:

red_responsibility_for_learning.pdf .


Ledwith, K. E. (2014). Academic advising and career services: A collaborative

approach. New Directions for Student Services, 2014(148), 49-63.


Levy, M. A., & Polnariev, B. A. (Eds.). (2016). Academic and Student Affairs in

Collaboration: Creating a Culture of Student Success. New York:  Routledge.


Lizzio, A. (2006). Designing an orientation and transition strategy for commencing

students: Applying the five senses model. Retrieved from:



Pace, D., Blumreich, K. M., & Merkle, H. B. (2006). Increasing collaboration between

student and academic affairs: Application of the intergroup dialogue model.

Naspa Journal, 43(2), 301-315.


Roper, L. D., Porterfield, K. T., Whitt, E. J., & Carnaghi, J. E. (2016). Embracing core

values: Finding joy in the challenges of our work. New Directions for Student

Services, 2016(153), 55-67.