Finding my Place in Higher Ed – #MormonPositive

Continuing my theme on stories from my life where the struggles of being Mormon made my life better.

For those of you unaware, I work professionally as an Academic Advisor.  I currently work for Brigham Young University, but I started in this field 4 years ago (this month!) at the University of North Texas. Prior to that I worked for about 20 months as a Financial Aid Counselor, and before that I bounced around in a few different jobs trying to figure out who I wanted to be professionally. I love being an academic advisor, it is a fun job for a person like me.  And given that my education allows be to become a licensed counselor and working for a university allows me access to free and discounted continuing-education opportunities, I love that I still have a lot of potential for growth professionally (and personally) in the coming decades before I retire.

The interesting thing about all of this is that if I weren’t Mormon, I sincerely doubt that I would have found this career path and I don’t know if I would have ever found so much happiness in my career. In fact, if you were to look at the type of student I was in high school or my undergraduate, you would have never thought that I could become what I currently am.

You see, I was a bad student. It wasn’t that I wasn’t bright, or that I didn’t understand things that were being taught. It was simply that I was terrible about finishing my homework. During middle school and high school, I’d do fine on the tests but I would never read my assignments or do my worksheets.  I’d average out to a “C” when all was said and done, but it was entirely based on my test grades balancing out a bunch of ZEROs on all my homework. One thing that my dad and I would always argue over is that sometimes he’d find an assignment I hadn’t done in the morning and he’d make me complete as much of it as I could during breakfast and he’d make me do it between bites of cereal and tell me to turn it in even though I’d only complete about 25-50% of the assignment. For some reason though, I was more embarrassed to turn in an incomplete assignment to my teachers than to tell them I didn’t do it, so I’d keep it stuffed in the bottom of my backpack. I knew I’d get a lecture from my dad when my teachers would send home progress reports with a bunch of NHIs (Not Handed In) for all my homework assignments, but it didn’t matter. (I think I’m personally responsible for 60% of my dad’s baldness.)

After deciding that the arguments weren’t worth it, my mom finally hired a tutor for my my junior and senior years of high school. She wasn’t there to teach me anything about school subjects, her only job was to track all my assignments and create a schedule for me to get them done. It helped.

Thanks to my extra-curriculars (Academic Decathlon being the #1) and straight A’s in seminary, I was admitted to BYU out of high school.  That was remarkable in the late 90’s, my high school GPA probably put me in the bottom 5% of admits.  Today, theUndergrad Graduationy wouldn’t have bothered with the likes of me, I was too much of a risk.  In fact, I was a risk. Without the skills needed to manage my study schedule without a tutor, and since so much of the work at the university level requires self-directed study, my past habit of being able to at least get passable grades thanks to my test scores didn’t work.  I was failing my tests too. Somehow I pulled off graduation, but I spent all my time as an undergrad in and out of academic probation.

So, what does this have to do with being Mormon? Well, as you can imagine there were many times that I was ready to call it quits on this whole school thing.  I wanted to take the easy way out, just get an associates or a professional certificate and just get on with life. I probably would have done that if not for one thing: my Patriarchal Blessing.

I don’t want to offer too lengthy a description of a Patriarchal Blessing in this post (you can learn more here), but in short it is a blessing of guidance given typically during teenage years that offers inspired counsel for how to live your life. Most items said in the blessing are broad guidelines that relate directly to scripture. It is a personal thing though, so often we can find very specific guidance in those broad guidelines.

One of the guidelines in my blessing reads almost more like a commandment. My blessing counsels me to “continue throughout your life in your education and seek to grow in knowledge and wisdom.” It seems like a good bit of counsel for just about anyone to follow, but it felt very personal to me each and every time I’d get another email telling me that I had to go to the Academic Support Office because I was back on probation. So many times I wanted to call it quits and walk away, but thanks to a few words spoken to me during a blessing given by a total stranger, I kept on trying. And eventually, my efforts paid off and I graduated.

The story doesn’t end there though.  After three years out of school and finding myself professionally unfulfilled I began to realize that I needed more education to move forward again. The thought of putting myself through the stress of schooling again, and this time while married and with children, was almost too much to bare. I still had that counsel to lean back on though: “continue throughout your life in your education and seek to grow in knowledge and wisdom.” So, I eased my way back into school. I started with some independent study, then took some leveling-courses to get back into the swing of things, and then got into grad school and finished my Master’s, and I did so with a 4.0 GPA.  Every semester, as I’d get my report card, I would already know that I had satisfied the requirements for A’s, but I was still amazed to see them added to my transcript.Graduate Graduation

The most interesting thing about this story to me is where it actually led me. I didn’t plan on becoming an academic advisor when I started grad school, that was just a tangent that was supposed to help me pay my way through my master’s program.  Now though, I work every day with students who struggle the same way I did and don’t know how to turn it around. My life and experience with school has helped me develop knowledge and wisdom to help these students. I know how to help a struggling student change his or her habits in school, and it’s not a theoretical knowledge, it is genuine knowledge that I learned through effort and trial. Seeing these students who struggled like I did, and then make their lives better is what makes being an academic advisor the funnest job I could ever ask for.  And, it would have never happened if not for a stranger, who when I was 18 told me to “continue throughout [my] life in [my] education and seek to grow in knowledge and wisdom.” Another reason I am one very happy Mormon.

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Academic Advising?

I’m attending the annual conference for NACADA (the National ACademic ADvising Association).  It has thus far been a very educational experience and I’m learning a great deal about how to help the students that I am responsible for.

One interesting aspect of this profession is that it is one that we advisors unexpectedly find our way too.  No elementary or high school kid is likely to say “I wanna be an academic advisor when I grow up,” since they likely don’t know the job exists. Those of us who have found ourselves in this profession stay with it because we love it and find it fulfilling.  However, whenever I get a chance to collaborate and talk to advisors at other schools we all share in the common frustration that few people understand what it is that we do.  Often times our own family members can’t even fully picture what it is that we do all day.  Last night I went out to dinner with 3 other advisors and it was so much fun to just “talk shop” without having anyone at the table tune out because they didn’t understand the nature of what we were talking about.

So, I would like to do an experiment.  Later this week, I’m going to write a blog post on what I think academic advising is, and what it should develop into in the coming decades.  Before I post that I would like to get some feedback.  If you are not an academic advisor, please comment below what you think academic advising is or what it should be.  If you have experience being advising (either good or bad) please share that too.  Lastly, please share this post with others so I can get additional responses.

Once you have written your comment feel free to go to our professional clearinghouse and look through the definitions of academic advising that we are currently debating within the profession.

Thank you for your feedback!