I have been a student advisor for slightly over four years. Within that time, I have guided students through the process of registration and stayed on top of them about fulfilling scholarship requirements. It’s a challenging job, and one that I somewhat fell into.
I hadn’t pictured myself in a career in higher education. The opportunity presented itself at a time I was looking for a change — a chance to work with new populations and to explore new environments. Initially, I was worried. Did I have what it took to change career paths? Could I effect change in someone’s life?
When I learned I had been selected for the position, I was ecstatic. There was onboarding, and support from my new colleagues. But now that I’ve been in the job for some time, I don’t think I ever could have felt fully prepared for it — especially when one considers the issues confronting our student body.
I work for an urban institute. Most of our students are commuters. And while our student body encompasses traditional college-aged students, we also boast a diverse, nontraditional student body of somewhat equal size. Many have dealt with homelessness, food insecurity, abuse, community violence and the constant pull between balancing a family and academic obligations. Regardless of how many times they’ve questioned if they will finish college, they do it. Duly earning the right to stomp, dance and praise their way across the graduation stage.
On the road there, some of those issues come to light in my office. It generally begins with a student reaching out to me or vice versa, a simple invitation to meet up and see how the semester is going. When they arrive, I sometimes ask if this is a closed door or opened door conversation. It’s the closed-door ones that lets me know what type of, and how many, burdens a student is carrying. These are the conversations where listening becomes key.
I have had students talk about almost everything. Battles with mental health. Pregnancy and miscarriage. Sexual assault. Thoughts of suicide. Financial concerns. Family issues. Gender identity. Very few times have students asked for my advice. If anything, my purpose is to listen, barely saying anything in order to give students full range to speak, to unload. I often wonder if I would have had the nerve to meet with my advisor to reveal what my students share with me. The most contact I had with an advisor was scheduling classes. But nonetheless, I give my students what I hope someone would have given me.
They talk, I listen. They cry, I listen some more. Opened ears, and sometimes opened arms. Because, well, sometimes nineteen years old need hugs too. I keep tissues within reach. From my time counseling I was taught the act of not offering a tissue. It’s a strange practice that takes some time getting used to.
Naturally when someone cries, we go searching for anything to help them clean their face. Counselors seldomly do that. Instead, they leave tissue within the client’s reach. Because clients have been harboring their feelings for however long, it’s important that they make the decision about when they have cried enough. They control when they are ready to move forward with the session. Not the counselor.
I rolled this practice over to working with students. Truth be told, I want them to cry. And when they’re done, I don’t want them to think twice about offering an apology for doing so. I want them to know they owe it to themselves to find time to process their feelings and to know that those feelings are safe with me.
In my office, they find a tiny ounce of peace. A small portion that I hope not only gets them through the remainder of their day but keeps them coming back to find more.
Latanya Muhammad (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a writer, student advisor, and group facilitator in Baltimore.