Professional Societies, Undergraduate Education

Advising Engineering Student Organizations

From my personal experience as a student and now as a faculty, I can testify the impact that advising does in students’ lives.

Do you ever wonder why faculty gets involved as the academic advisor of professional students organizations? Sometimes it is an assigned responsibility, but for some of us, it is not. From my personal experience as a student and now as a faculty, I can testify the impact that advising does in students’ lives. That is why I said “Yes!” the minute I was offered the opportunity to serve as the academic advisor for the student chapter of the American Institute for Chemical Engineers (AIChE) at my institution.

I teach capstone design courses for the chemical engineering department. For me, one of the most gratifying experience is working with teams of students. I love to see how my feedback positively impacts their confidence, their technical performance, and professional skills. For me, becoming an academic advisor seemed like the right decision to make. I am not going to lie, I was nervous about the commitment, but looking back, I don’t regret it.

For me, becoming an academic advisor seemed like the right decision to make. I am not going to lie, I was nervous about the commitment, but looking back, I don’t regret it.

I am just starting my second year as the academic advisor of this student organization, and there is something that you must know: advising and supervising are NOT the same thing. The students that I meet with every week are the executive board leaders, and they are highly motivated to see their organization succeed. Doing this is not a requirement for them, it is more like an opportunity to learn and contribute to their school. There is no doubt that motivation is a crucial ingredient for success.

In my experience, I have learned that my role is to support, encourage and provide resources for both the leaders and the student organization. This contrast to a supervisor who typically exerts authority and takes responsibility if or when things go wrong. As an advisor, if something doesn’t go as planned, I help the students to assess what happened and reflect on what they can do to improve next time without significant consequences.

As advisors, there are many things that we can do to help our students. The following is a short list of what I am currently working on:

Set clear boundaries

My primary goal is to make sure that I establish an effective advisor-student leader relationship.  I want them to trust that I am invested in helping them. My advice is that your first task when you become an advisor should be to establish clear boundaries. This is true also if you are handling engineering design teams. I am a friendly person which means that I am also a friendly advisor. However, that doesn’t mean that I am their friend.

I have the responsibility to tell the students when they are inappropriate or disrespectful. For them, it’s an opportunity to receive feedback on their professional skills. In my case, I always keep our interactions limited to a professional environment to make sure that they understand my role. I do care about my students, but I don’t want to be confused with a parent or a friend. Do what works for you, but be clear about it.

Establish their identity on campus

It’s like establishing their business brand. In my college years, I was the president of the same student organization. Not because I was part of the organization once, it means that I understand the mission and vision of the organization I advise. It is a different institution and different culture! It certainly helps that I know the goals of the professional organization especially because I genuinely believe in it. I’ve been part of AIChE for almost two decades now!

My goal this year was to create a connection among the members of the organization by setting weekly meetings.  I suggested doing student leaders retreat to tackle essential topics such as reviewing by-laws and setting upcoming year activities. I also suggested having a first-year student to shadow student leaders.  Establishing an organizational identity will help to define and guide what they will execute in the forthcoming years.

Invest time in the organization.

I meet with the president of the organization weekly. As needed, the treasurer or committee leaders join the meeting to get advice if they are stuck on a task. During our meetings, they report what is going on and talk about their plans for the following week. They guide the agenda. I listen and help as needed.

So far, I taught them techniques such as Ghant Charts to track projects and to handle their marketing strategy. I am trying (not successful, yet, but I am optimistic) for them to use to work efficiently on their projects. I am currently helping them to draft a sponsor package to get funding to support their projects. Personally, it’s hard to attend to every general body meeting, but I try to be as engaged as possible. I do whatever I can to find resources to support their efforts.

Prioritizing your Job

It is an art to realize when to say “no.” Remember that as a faculty you have specific responsibilities and you have to balance your time load. Sometimes student leaders may ask you to do somethings (like being a speaker) that will result in you taking additional commitments without more available time.

Make sure that you quantify the time you spend performing your service as an advisor. I am obsessed about tracking my time, so my advice to you is to figure out a way that works with your advising style while you balance out all your other responsibilities. For me, while I create my semester calendar, I add time blocks just for student advising. I also advise other students for engineering education research projects and many other commitments. My schedule has to work for me while I accommodate my students.

Someday, I will use Slack for in between follow up, but for now (while I convince them to use it), I will respond to their emails promptly. If possible, avoid meeting outside the agreed time. If they can’t make it to the meeting, it’s ok. That means that we will meet at the agreed time, but for the following week.

Keep your students and yourself motivated

Recognition is vital for student persistence in their roles. As humans, we all need recognition. Encourage your student organization to host an end-of-the-year celebration, attend annual conferences, and apply for awards. My students currently host a Senior banquet to celebrate student, faculty, and staff accomplishments for the year. This activity started way before I was their advisor, but it has become a tradition in the department and something that everyone enjoys. This kind of event helps the student feel that they have made a difference for the chapter and their school.

Tips for
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Attending to Professional conferences can be a catalyst to increase individual and group recognition. As an advisor, it is your responsibility to recommend students for awards opportunities.   There are also opportunities to get recognition for yourself in both the professional organization and your institution. I recently applied for the “honor roll” of academic advisors in the National professional organization. It’s not a “big” deal, but it helped me to get a discount to the professional conference (high five!). You don’t do your job because you are looking for recognition but it is ok to celebrate the hard work that you and your students have done.

Recognition is vital for student persistence in their tasks. As humans, we all need recognition.

In my opinion, advising students is a privilege. I enjoy every minute of the service I provide to them and to my University. I know that I am making a difference in their lives. Like in an engineering capstone team, I feel like their coach. As an advisor, I am also their biggest fan! Every week, I have the opportunity to guide them on how to lead, manage conflict and plan for success. There is no better feeling than to see them succeed. I love what I do.

Links: I don’t receive any sponsorship from the links I share. I just share this information so I can make our life a little happier and productive.

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