Building on Student Strengths in Graduate Professional Education

Rosalie V. Otters, University of Arkansas at Little Rock

Education has long been shown to be a leveler among class differences (Gilbert, 2008).  In a time of increasing economic divide, how can graduate programs in universities effectively reach more of those who need mentoring the most, as do those in a metropolitan university? The metropolitan university is a specific type of university that has recently been getting more recognition for its unique mission to students as well as the larger community.  This university type is located either near or in the urban center that has at least a population of 250,000 people (UALR, 2008). It has the broad mission of teaching, research, and public service and responds to both the community and regional needs materially and creatively. The metropolitan university seeks to serve the metropolitan region through economic, social, and cultural development. Considered a hybrid institution among institutions of higher education, the metropolitan university encompasses the best of liberal arts, service to the community, the importance of research as the engine of learning, and regional development (CUMU, 2010; UALR, 2008).  The urban university is typically characterized as having wide student diversity, often including first-generation students with a lower socioeconomic status, and who may be also older and of varying ethnicities and racial backgrounds. Good citizenship in the broader community as well as sound academics are primary concerns of such universities (Johnson & Bell, 1995). Additionally, graduate education in the metropolitan university is increasingly pursued alongside both work and family commitments.

One underutilized tool in graduate professional programs in the metropolitan university is that of mentoring, especially through the advising relationship between students and faculty. Mentoring can be broadly defined in a variety of ways, including advising, coaching, teaching, professional initiation, career or life counseling, and organizational renewal (Clutterbuck Associates, 2009; Walker, 2006). While there are definitional differences among these terms, they all emphasize the need for a trusted relationship, preferably over a length of time and focusing on mentee concerns. In applied disciplines, such as social work, student mentoring is a practice application in which the assigned facility adviser, other faculty, or field instructors may all advise the student as the student moves toward defining and meeting agreed-upon goals toward a professional career. The social work adviser, whether he or she is the assigned adviser, a faculty instructor, or a field instructor, has more of the responsibility of a mentor as defined above, socializing the student into both the academic and professional aspects of the discipline.

The National Association of Social Work (NASW) Code of Ethics, emphasizes, among its principles, the importance of human relationships, the dignity and worth of the person, as well as the responsibility to work for social justice (NASW, 2008). These principles not only apply to social work professionals working with clients but should also be part of the student advising process itself. In addition, the Code states that “social workers who function as educators or field instructors for students should evaluate students’ performance in a manner that is fair and respectful” (NASW, 2008, section 3.02). Effective advising in the classroom and internship experience as well as for course and program selection is vital for successful social work programs. Advising that recognizes and builds on student diversity can add strengths and resources to a graduate program and should be intentionally encouraged and developed.

Advising in a Graduate Professional Program: An Example from Social Work

Though there are differences, all graduate professional programs include the need to graduate competent professionals from an increasingly heterogeneous applicant pool that may offer varying levels of knowledge and skills as well as diverse cultural perspectives. Learning how to accommodate these differences while still maintaining a rigorous program may be challenging. A number of students today, including many from metropolitan universities, are first-generation students who may be unclear about the effort it will take to successfully complete graduate programs that require success in both classroom and practice. Some continue to demonstrate gaps in basic skills of writing, math, and critical thinking. The Master’s in Social Work (MSW) program is an example of such a graduate professional program. It typically requires almost twice as many credits for the graduate degree (60 credits) as many other master’s programs (36 credits). Moreover, MSW programs have extensive internship requirements that may not flexibly accommodate those with home and work obligations.

Graduate-student developmental learning is especially important, as is faculty knowledge and skill in navigating the complex processes students move through as they progress toward social work professionalization. Social-work education is centered on relationships between the student and adviser, student and professor/field instructor, and the student and client. Unfortunately, data about this process itself are scarce (Barretti, 2004). Deal (2000; 2002) offers perhaps the best comparative outline of developmental stages for students in social work. Such stages involve an increased ability to use interpersonal processes, a temporary regressive period, and finally the formation of a professional self. This process begins with typically anxious first-year MSW students who need structure and positive feedback; moves on to end-of-first-year students whose theoretical understanding may not yet have reached application; and ends with second-year students, who increasingly want more autonomy and exhibit more ability to understand the process of the interaction with clients beyond the content alone. Critical-thinking skills develop toward the end of the first year through the second year of the MSW program, though the component skills and knowledge are not all fully formed. Advisers need to be able to anticipate this developmental progression.

Developmentally, students need more structure and positive comments than negative ones at first. But even when students are more able to work independently and take more negative criticism, building on their strengths is important. Busy faculty may focus on deficits—looking at what is wrong with students rather than what is right as the basis for change. What is wrong with students may be that they are not yet finished products or professional social workers. They make mistakes in this socialization process, and it is the mistakes that may be spotlighted rather than what the students bring to the educational experience itself. Because many students today have complex life challenges, academic retention and success also depend on helping students manage their time and energy as they maneuver through work, finances, family, grief and loss, and even natural disasters. Social-work advisers have been likened to case managers, wherein the faculty adviser and student work through the case management protocol—assessing, planning, facilitating, advocating for necessary resources and services, and evaluating results—to give students a more even playing field in addressing academic and practice challenges (Richardson, 2008).

Social-work advising emphasizes planning course schedules, teaching and evaluating classroom and internship competencies, as well as gatekeeping for the profession itself. (Moore, Dietz, & Wallace, 2003; CSWE, 2008). Students may complete academic programs but not be capable practitioners because of what Vinton and Wilke (2011) term a leniency bias in field internship evaluations. While it is imperative to make sure students reach competencies in order to develop a professional workforce, the advising process may need to additionally take into account the support needed for students to maintain good grades or acquire the developmental learning and skills essential to reach field competencies. Otherwise, not only a poor grade-point average but also a single failing internship grade can eliminate a student from the program.

Other graduate professional programs may have similar outcome issues when students are not able to reach the level of competency required for successful completion. Appreciative advising, an increasingly used approach in academic advising, offers students a broader understanding of both their strengths and limitations, and if necessary, helps them to move on when a career door closes (Huebner, 2009). Appreciative advising arises from appreciative inquiry organizational theory: Positive goals lead to positive actions, seeking “the best in people and organizations, instead of viewing them as problems that need to be solved” (Bloom, 2002, ¶ 1). Appreciative advising also has similarities to positive psychology (Seligman, 1998), motivational interviewing in medicine (Rollnick, Miller, & Butler, 2008), and the strengths perspective in social work (Saleebey, 2009).

Strengths Perspective: Students Bring Strengths to Graduate Professional Programs

In social work the strengths perspective contrasts with a problem-solving or diagnostic approach. Blundo (2009) challenges the traditional problem perspective, which he finds is focused on deficits and dysfunctions. In contrast, the strengths perspective encourages us to take a second look, starting where the client or, in this case, the student is rather than the academic and practice endpoints. This does not mean that all students must graduate from the program; it does, however, mean that the designated advisers as well as faculty and field instructors should together seek to work with the student toward a successful resolution of career aspirations—if not in this program, perhaps in another program or career direction. While a problem-solving approach has some merit, especially if assigning a problem label opens a door to needed resources, it limits an adviser’s view of students. Students are not problems or objects to be force-fitted into programs, nor blank slates written into programming formats. Advising from a strengths perspective opens us to a new way of seeing students and their environments—some of which are common to all students in a program—yet each student is also unique. This kind of advising is applicable to each student’s particular experiences, abilities, and motivation.

The social-work educator advising graduate students might begin by assessing students’ current progress in their career development: What strengths and resources do they bring to this program? What are the challenges they face? How can they move on to a successful completion? Here the adviser and student can together list the personal assets and environmental strengths a student brings as well as the personal and environmental challenges that must be surmounted (Anderson, Cowger, & Snively, 2009). Personal assets include relational skills, motivation, and emotional and cognitive abilities. Environmental strengths include relationships (family and friends) and community organizations. It is these relationships and organizations that give students opportunities to practice service as they also develop their abilities to serve. In this way the adviser is also using student strengths and resources that have developed out of the community itself, which is also a key feature of the metropolitan university’s perspective on its purpose and identity to develop citizenship.

If those who advise start from the student’s standpoint, advising becomes more student centered. First, the strengths perspective leads to and emphasizes a collaborative advising process. Students and those who advise work together toward a future that is hopeful, even if the road toward this destination departs from the preconceived roadmap. At a very basic level this interaction encourages students to take an active role in moving toward their career goals. Students will be asked about their strengths and hopes for their future careers as well as their understanding of the requirements and obstacles in getting there.

Second, those advising can develop interview listening skills, beyond the prescriptive skills of informing students how to fit into present course and program agendas. Listening for resources and strengths the student brings to the program establishes a foundation for moving beyond obstacles. One strengths-perspective tool for more intentional listening is solution-focused interviewing (De Jong & Berg, 2008). Here the adviser asks open-ended questions about personal and environmental coping experiences and resources. Through this process the adviser seeks to better understand student career and personal goals and the tentative steps already taken to reach the student’s desired future. Solution-focused interviewing offers a process for the adviser to draw the student out; clarify goals through small, well-defined steps; and build on what the student is already doing well.

Third, the advising relationship becomes a place where both the student and the adviser work together for positive change, an expectation that moves toward a new way of understanding one’s personal life and career. Change can be likened to what Watzlawick, Weakland, & Risch (1974) call second order change or change that may disrupt the ordinary and expected. Such change may appear “… unexpected, and commonsensical; that is a puzzling, paradoxical element in the process of change” (p.83). In this outcome, change emerges and moves beyond the present assumptions of either the student or the adviser. The student may discover that the program, even when one is doing well, is not personally meaningful and that current personal and career structures as well as future plans need to be altered. Student collateral work may also be needed if the advising process calls for competency or career-change tasks.

Fourth, for strengths-perspective advising to work best, the faculty and field instructors as a whole would embrace this approach to achieve maximum reinforcement of program and departmental outcomes. Fully utilizing strengths-perspective advising in this way provides a process to get the most from the advising collaboration. A whole department or program can evolve in its organizational culture toward this different approach to advising relationships and student outcomes when departmental and college-level leadership encourages it. In social work, as in professions such as medicine (i.e., the medical or diagnostic model), overcoming problems and obstacles has long been the assumed approach for service. Yet in social work, the strengths perspective is increasingly seen as an important correction to the deficit perspective (Miley, O’Melia, & DuBois, 2007; Saleebey, 2009).

When advisers emphasize student strengths, they move from what is known about graduate students in a particular program to what is unknown, what might be unexpected, and what might be learned from the students and their experiences in the program. When the adviser starts where the student is, both the educator and the student can learn. Utilizing a strengths perspective, student energy for new ways of understanding can be more fully expended to the benefit of not only the student but also the adviser, the program, and even the broader community. Graduate students themselves are a major resource to a university and its graduate programs, offering the potential to expand conceptual knowledge and skills beyond the university walls. In a metropolitan university, this has the added value of focusing attention on what it means for university faculty, field instructors, and students to work together as citizens in the larger community—partnering for its betterment.

Developing Student Relationships in the Broader Community

As in appreciative advising, social work’s strength perspective offers the adviser a way to move with students toward a hopeful future. A synergistic change relationship develops from the student and adviser and outward through the university and community. As a social-work faculty adviser in a metropolitan university, I have seen the results of student input in new grants, news articles in the local paper lifting up social service programs, student claims of unfair community practices that have evoked media attention, and advocacy for new state laws, as well as the enthusiasm and energy of the students themselves in community service learning and internships. Though in reality the application of the strengths perspective may be partial, positive results can still be expected. Beginnings are not endings; they give the process itself its own energy and excitement. At root, we are intertwined with one another. The student, faculty, and university need one another for their own development as well as that of the community. What works for the metropolitan university in graduate professional programs may well also work for other types of universities when advisers seek to harness the strengths and hopes of students.

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About the Author(s)

Rosalie V. Otters, University of Arkansas at Little Rock

Rosalie V. Otters, Ph.D., M.S.W., D.Min. (LCSW), is an assistant professor in the School of Social Work, University of Arkansas at Little Rock, Little Rock, Arkansas. She can be reached at rvotters@ualr.edu.

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