Dr. Quentin Alexander and Dr. Kathie Sindt set out to answer a question: 

“What are the academic advising experiences of students of color attending predominantly white institutions?”

NACADA 2019 Research Question Academic Advising
Dr. Quentin Alexander and Dr. Kathie Sindt NACADA 2019 Presentation Slide

Alexander is an assistant professor of counselor education at Longwood University, and Sindt is director of advising technology and systems at Johns Hopkins University

The pair interviewed 40 students as part of their qualitative research project. They presented their findings this fall at the National Academic Advising Association (NACADA) 2019 Annual Conference in Louisville. 

In recent years, many colleges and universities have made strides in recruiting students of color. They have changed policies to eliminate systemic biases and help level the playing field.

Statistically, a more diverse population means more first-generation students. Furthermore, we know from research that first-generation students must overcome unique disadvantages that can affect retention. 

The themes that Alexander and Sindt uncovered raise questions about whether universities are meeting the needs of these students. And the stories those students shared will pull at the heartstrings of all of us who care about seeing young people succeed.

Academic Advising Themes from Research on first-generation students of color in higher ed
Dr. Quentin Alexander and Dr. Kathie Sindt NACADA 2019 Presentation Slide

Family Support

Family support for students of color varies greatly.

Many have families that are encouraging. They want to help their college student, but they sometimes don’t know how. 

One young woman, a junior, told of how she was the first in her family to attend college. 

She came from a loving, multi-racial family. But she felt like she couldn’t open up to her parents. Their intense pride in their daughter’s academic life generated an intense pressure. She felt guilty for feeling overwhelmed.

Others come from families with members who may question their decision to attend college. 

Students should know their advisors understand these kinds of pressures and can be a resource for them when they need emotional and academic support.

Misunderstanding available resources

A Hispanic student interviewed by Alexander and Sindt explained how she had felt depressed. 

Her roommates suggested she see a counselor. I can’t afford that, she thought. That’s for rich white students. She hesitated to open up to her white advisor. When she finally did, she was shocked to learn that mental health counseling was free for all students. 

The story illustrates how students of color may misunderstand or underestimate the wealth of free resources available to them on campus. It also shows how essential it is for advisors to direct these students to help. 

Relationship building

Building trust can take time with students of color, especially for advisors who don’t share the same background.

A black student from an African country described to the researchers how he never felt at ease with his advisor, yet a professor had become a trusted mentor. The difference?

“You know, she asks me how I’m doing and stuff like that, so I feel more comfortable,” he said. 

Some advisors seem to even sabotage the relationships from the start. One student who is black and gay reported that his advisor had politically conservative posters in his office and kept a Bible on his desk. 

“I’m not sure I can or want to trust him,” he said. 

Trust is the most critical part of any relationship. Advisors must make a good impression, show that they care, develop cultural proficiency and maintain a welcoming office environment. 

Specialized programs work

According to the researchers, specialized programs can play a significant role in outcomes for  students of color. 

A freshman, who is black, described how as an honors student, he had two advisors: one from the honors program and one from his degree program. He saw each once a week, even if it was just to talk. “They are nice,” he said, and they’ve tried to get to know him. 

“When I have problems, they are sooo helpful,” he said. 

Because these groups of students may need more attention, staff should be prepared to provide additional resources to help them. Setting up weekly coffee meetings, sending out recurring “how are you doing?” messages, and implementing other small ways to show that staff go the extra mile can be the difference in a student dropping out versus persisting through their studies.

Shared Emerging Themes from Academic Advising Research for first-generation students of color in higher ed
Dr. Quentin Alexander and Dr. Kathie Sindt NACADA 2019 Presentation Slide

Where technology is working

Demographics are changing, and students need more individualized attention. 

But staff and resources are limited. So how do you make this happen?

Several schools are having success by embracing new chatbot technology. 

A chatbot does not replace humans. That’s never going to happen in an area such as student advising, where emotional, one-on-one connections are essential. One way a chatbot can help is by handling simple yet time-consuming tasks, thereby freeing up advisors to engage in more meaningful interactions with students. 

An example comes from California State Polytechnic University, Pomona. They worked with AdmitHub to develop a chatbot named Billy.

Billy answers basic questions from incoming and transfer students. He has saved university staff over 1,300 hours! 

“Having Billy Chat gives us more time to work with more complicated student situations that need in-person advising,” an administrator said. 

Another example comes from West Texas A&M. Retention at the university had been flat. So, administrators worked with AdmitHub to develop a chatbot named Thunder and trained the bot on over 1,700 topics. 

With Thunder answering basic questions, University staff has become more engaged with the student body and are better able to provide help to students that needed it most. In the first year with Thunder, freshman-to-sophomore retention improved by 2.5 percent. 

But chatbot technology involves much more than just fielding questions and handling mundane tasks. 

It also allows staff to send students nudges to their phones about opportunities or resources on campus. A message could be: “Did you know that mental health services are a free resource to students at ____ university? Schedule an appointment with a counselor now: (link).” 

Most students feel anxious and most stressed around midterms/finals. Staff can send these messages at these critical times to positively impact their students when it matters the most.

The higher education community must adapt to the advising needs of its increasingly diverse student bodies. 

It can’t just maintain the status quo.

Let’s talk strategy.