Campuses can have hundreds of student organizations, groups of students organized by interests and affinities that manifest over time. Interest swells or recedes, once-present challenges or goals are met and addressed, or society evolves in such a way to make some areas of advocacy or interest irrelevant.
But one mainstay of student organizations, through all of their evolutions, has been higher education professionals, faculty members, and in some cases community members, serving in advisory capacities to these student groups. Supplying those advisors with access to a hub of resources and training materials, not just during onboarding, can make for a more successful advisor and student experience.
Writing in the book Group Development and Group Leadership in Student Affairs (Rowman & Littlefield, 2020), co-authors Kimberlee M. Ratliff and Janet M. Athanasiou note that student organization advisors can serve multiple roles: policy interpreter, team builder, motivator, educator, mentor, conflict mediator, and reflective agent. They add that another important role-player can be the institution itself.
“Institutions could increase advisor support by building a social network between advisors and university departments,” they write. “The network participants could troubleshoot common concerns, discuss ideas, build relationships conducive to advisor collaboration, and consult on interpretation of policy. An added benefit of this network is that it would encourage student affairs and academic affairs departments to merge efforts in supporting students.”
The opportunity to more closely tie student organization advising to academics was also referenced in a 2011 Bulletin article, “Assuming the Role: The Successful Advisor-Student Relationship.”
That study found there “was a disconnect between students and advisors when it came to how students’ academic interests were incorporated into their leadership efforts. While advisors claimed to integrate academics—and students reported that they believed academics played into what they did as leaders—most students did not recognize that the advisor did so. While this may be intentional, advisors may want to be more overt in how they address students’ academic interests,” according to co-authors Sean Ferris, Clifton Johnson, Aaron Lovitz, Sarah Stroud, and Justin Rudisille.
A majority of institutions require student organizations have an advisor, but even those that don’t do so often recognize the value in providing some support services for those electing to serve in that voluntary role. Both Western Washington University and Virginia Commonwealth University are examples of campuses where student organizations are not required to have an advisor, yet both offer a number of resources to those who choose to make the commitment. Donte Sharp, coordinator of student governance at Virginia Commonwealth, said an advisor manual is available and in-person meetings for advisors are conducted twice each semester. Since the pandemic, they’ve also conducted a virtual advisor roundtable.
Western Washington club activities manager Jenn Cook said the campus has about 220 active clubs, along with about 140 advisors, even though they are not required. Her office offers a biweekly newsletter for advisors, and like many other institutions, uses a virtual training and education platform to provide information on role expectations, policies and procedures, how to request and spend money, travel processes, support services available through the institution, and other resources.
“All of this is really important because much of what we do in our Associated Students system is different than the rest of the university because of how we operate under student fee money,” Cook said. All of the information Western Washington provides new advisors, including its orientation program, is publicly available.
Advisors are required for each of Fort Hays State University’s nearly 150 student organizations, and they must be full-time faculty or staff to serve in the role, according to Heidi Pearson, coordinator of student engagement. Pearson’s office provides an advisor handbook, publishes a monthly student organization newsletter, and offers access to an online platform called TigerLink that provides resources on every aspect of student organizations: membership, events, elections, finances, forms, attendance tracking, and advisor training. They even publish news articles as follow-ups to roundtable discussions held regularly for advisors, and nearly all of that information and resources are available at the Student Engagement page of TigerLink.
Duke University Student Affairs’ advisor handbook was updated in 2019, and Butler University’s Student Involvement and Leadership division offers an extensive set of online resources, including a handbook, an advisor’s checklist, a starter kit with suggested questions for engaging student leaders from the beginning of a relationship, and information about campus security training course tied to the Clery Act. The Clery Act requires that universities identify individuals or offices, in addition to the university police department, with significant responsibility for student and campus activities, and student advisors are considered to be among that group.
The California State University system offers a clearinghouse of information on service as a student organization advisor, with role statements, manuals, student organization resources, and sample advisor contracts from a variety of universities, professional associations, and institutes.