Proactive Advising with First-Generation Students: Suggestions for Practice

  • January 31, 2016

Elizabeth Kalinowski Ohrt, George Mason University

In recent years, first-generation students (students with parents/guardians who have not completed any college) have become an important population in higher education due to their increasing numbers. According to the U.S. Department of Education (2010), first-generation students make up almost 46% of first-year students in higher education. Alarmingly, this large group is also at high risk for attrition. Ishitani (2006) found these students are 1.3 times more likely than their peers to leave institutions in their first year. First-generation students are overrepresented in the most disadvantaged racial, income, and gender groups that exemplify risk factors contributing to an increased rate of attrition (Lohfink & Paulsen, 2005). These students are also more likely to be female, older compared to the traditional 18– to 22–year–old student, come from minority groups, have dependents, originate from a lower socioeconomic status, and work more hours (Bui, 2002; Inman & Mayes, 1999; McConnell, 2000; Smith & Zhang, 2010). In addition, compared to their peers, first-generation students have low academic self-efficacy, which makes them less likely to complete an associate’s or bachelor’s degree (McConnell, 2000; Ramos-Sánchez & Nichols, 2007; Riehl, 1994).

The purpose of this article is to address what advisers can do to help first-generation students become more successful in reaching their academic and personal goals, despite a myriad of risk factors. A review of the literature below discusses effective advising practices when working with first generation students. Interviews with three first-generation students—Tyson, Maria, and Alex, (names changed)—follow to illustrate and guide suggestions about implementing successful advising practices.

Proactive Advising

Proactive advising, also known as intrusive advising, involves advisers connecting with at-risk students before they begin to struggle and mandating advising for students who would not normally seek help on their own (Glennen, 1975). Proactive advising programs represent the perfect conduit to relationship building, an essential element that helps students become successful. A study of first-generation Latino students (Torres, Reiser, LePeau, Davis, & Ruder, 2006) emphasized the importance of relationship building achieved through gaining students’ trust. This study also found it was important for advisers to reach out to students rather than wait for the students to come to them. Hand and Payne’s study (2008) of Appalachian first-generation students found the formation of relationships to be a major theme and depicted the program as almost a surrogate family. Similarly, in a qualitative study by Engle, Bermeo, and O’Brien (2006), staff who worked with first-generation pre-college students cited relationships and trust to be essential in helping the students take advantage of the staff’s support. Students said they were able to develop relationships with staff because they were relatable, available, and supportive, and the students felt how much the staff cared about them.

In addition to relationship building, an adviser’s ability to communicate degree requirements and provide expertise on degree completion contributes to first-generation student success. When assessing individual adviser effectiveness, Creamer and Scott (2000) found that the adviser’s ability to give accurate and clear academic guidance is the most common expectation students have of advising. For first-generation students, this may be especially important. Brown and Rivas (1994) suggested that prescriptive advising can help advisers establish trust and is imperative in building effective relationships with first-generation students. Advisers who demonstrate and share their knowledge about institutional policy and degree requirements relieve any doubt the student may have in their ability to relate to and aid them in achieving their goals.

Proactive advising lends itself easily to relationship building. By contacting students and offering knowledge, concern, and availability, advisers can establish the trust that is critical to undergraduates. Proactive advising has also seen great success in its impact on retention and student success (Chaney, 2010; Fowler & Boylan, 2010; Kolenovic, Linderman, & Karp, 2013; Molina & Abelman, 2000; Swecker, Fifolt, & Searby, 2013). As demonstrated in the interviews below, proactive advising is an important approach to consider when working with first-generation students.

First-Generation Student Perspective

In fall 2014, three first-generation, graduating seniors at a mid-Atlantic, Research I university volunteered to participate in an interview examining their experience with academic advising relationships at their institution. The participants were all interviewed in their next-to-last semester at the institution. Tyson, Alex, and Maria (names were changed) spent about forty-five minutes discussing their experiences navigating the institution and how they interacted with advisers. Several themes emerged through the interviews that reinforced the literature, including the establishment of trusting relationships through demonstration of caring and knowledge, and the importance of proactive support programs. All of these themes are explored below to construct suggestions advisers can follow when advising first-generation students from similar populations.

Trusting Relationships

Building trusting relationships with students requires getting to know them on a personal level. This allows for close, mentoring relationships to form between advisees and advisers. Students who expect this type of relationship but are unable to develop them may experience dissatisfaction with the university and possibly decide to leave the institution (Schreiner, 2009). Tyson explained why he initially did not feel comfortable talking to his adviser: “… so specifically with [my major department], I talked a little bit to their school [advisers], but they were going to try to sell you on their major. …” He was unwilling to open himself up to a relationship with his adviser in the beginning, because he believed the advisers had the department’s interests at heart more than his own. Tyson did not form a relationship with his formal adviser until his junior year, when he took an introductory course she taught. In his senior year, he began to meet with his major adviser for guidance.

In contrast, Alex had positive interactions with his major advisers but suggested he may have been lucky in this respect, saying, “I’ve heard some stories, like ‘Oh my older brother who goes here, he tells me what to take and what not to take because the advisers just make us take classes that are unnecessary. …’

Maria is similar to Alex in that she had positive experiences with advisers but has heard negative things from peers: I‘ve heard from [people around campus]…’oh my adviser’s horrible, they were no help,’ but I honestly know that I don’t have anything negative to say about advising. …”

Despite a campus culture of distrust of advising at this mid-Atlantic university, all of the interviewees were exposed to positive interactions with academic advisers and were able to establish trusting relationships with them.


All of the students interviewed had heard reasons from their peers to mistrust what they heard from their advisers. Alex spent significant time talking about this when comparing Brian (a summer-bridge program staff member) to advisers on campus saying, “I guess you could say he doesn’t have that, that whole let’s keep them as long as we can here … maybe these classes will [benefit you] when in reality you may not need it … so there’s that trust factor as well.” To combat the campus culture of mistrust, it was important to the advising relationship to demonstrate knowledge as soon as possible. Alex recognized this expertise early in his relationship with Brian in the summer-bridge program, when Brian helped him create a full, four-year plan. This credible knowledge and willingness to share it helped to solidify the relationship:

The best thing about him is he helps you lay out a plan; he has this specific sheet first year, fall, spring, second year, fall, spring, third year, fall, spring, all the way up until you graduate, and he has a bonus fifth and sixth year if necessary and seventh. And he’s familiar with the [university’s] system; he understands how it works.

Alex went on to describe how this demonstration of knowledge allowed Brian to establish effective advising relationships with many other first-generation students who were part of the summer-bridge program.

Maria worked with her major program advisers early in her educational career at the university. She recounted a typical advising session with them:

They give you a sheet where you can see what are the general ed. requirements and what are the college requirements depending on your catalog year and then they go off of that. They were always really helpful in terms of the figuring out what I needed to do and what classes I needed to take in order to graduate on time.

The competence her advisers demonstrated in walking her through her degree requirements every time they met helped her trust their abilities and feel comfortable working with them in the future.


All participants had established multiple relationships with academic advisers through the years. Each student described several situations in which the advisers had demonstrated genuine concern for their well-being, their academic success, and their futures. Maria described a time when she met with Vanessa, an adviser, to find a way to have one of her courses count toward general education requirements. In Maria’s presence, Vanessa called two different offices and had lengthy conversations to determine the best course of action for her. This elicited Maria’s trust in Vanessa, because she saw the significant effort her adviser invested to solve a problem on her behalf.

Alex and Tyson developed a relationship with Brian, their summer-bridge program director, who they usually sought for academic advising. Alex described him as follows:

A lot of students relate [to] him, especially students from the bridge program, and even students from the high school-to-college program will meet with him so that they can get scheduling done with him; and because it’s a more comfortable environment, more relaxing atmosphere, I feel like that’s why, ever since then, I’ve been getting advising from him.

Tyson also commented on the caring relationship Brian had developed with him, saying:

Because Brian is always helping me…we have a relationship where I know he’s going to help me to the best of his ability.”  Tyson trusts that Brian is always looking out for his best interests and truly cares about his future.  Brian’s ability to create a comfortable, caring atmosphere with the students he works with solidified his relationships and his status as a supportive and helpful resource.


Availability is another way to demonstrate caring and establish trust, but it is an important theme in its own right as well, because availability informs how students choose whom to talk to about their academic experience. Alex, for example, had many different people advise him throughout his college career, but Brian was a constant:

Brian, he would work with the bridge students as well, because he does have advising experience; so more often than not, I kind of stopped meeting with Vanessa [formal adviser] just because it was more convenient to meet with Brian.

Alex had a relationship established with his [major program] adviser, but because of his positive relationship with Brian and the flexibility that he offered, Alex continued to meet with him for advising.

Academic advisers can help students with academic as well as nonacademic issues, but students may feel more comfortable working with those with whom they have already built relationships or with whom they interact on a daily basis. In this case, the combination of availability and relationship building contributed to a very positive advising experience for Alex.

Suggestions for Practice

While each of our interviewees had a different advising experience, they spoke of similar ways they formed relationships with staff and advisers. First, the advisers and staff members were able to demonstrate important subject-matter knowledge that the students were seeking. Brown and Rivas (1994) suggested that expertise is crucial to the development of adviser/advisee relationships in part because of the negative experiences minorities may have had, causing them to mistrust bureaucracies. Advisers should demonstrate knowledge by showing students what actions they could take to accomplish their goals. A prescriptive style can be effective when establishing the relationship. Advisers can explain the curriculum and why it is set up in the way it is, point out classes that may be challenging and offer ideas on how to balance course loads with their lives outside of academics. The key is ensuring the student does not doubt an adviser’s ability  to give them accurate and timely information regarding their degree progress.  McClellan’s (2014) literature review on the importance of developing trusting academic advising relationships provide a great resource for developing trust with students.

Second, the advisers who worked with the interviewees demonstrated that they cared about them. Engle, Bermeo, and O’Brien (2006) also found that caring is essential to the advising relationship. Students who were interviewed said they were able to develop relationships with staff who were relatable, available, and supportive and who made it clear that they care about students. Showing that we care might be as simple as doing some background work on behalf of the student as Vanessa did for Maria.

Another important way advisers can show first-generation students they care about and understand them is to be available. This was one of the genuine ways Brian demonstrated he cared about Alex and Tyson. If advisers are only available 9:00 a.m.–5:00 p.m., and students are only on campus 4:00–10:00 p.m., the students will not discern any kind of support system around them. If advisers are unavailable, it implies they do not care or, minimally, they do not want to consider students’ needs in the decision-making process.  Academic advisers should think about offering reduced advising services during times when students are on campus seeking assistance.

Finally, all of the interviewees had participated in either a summer-bridge program or a high-school-to-college program offered through this mid-Atlantic university. These proactive programs enhanced the students’ abilities to establish relationships quickly and effectively throughout the institution, ultimately contributing to their long-term success.  We find this success reflected in the literature as well, with federally supported proactive programs (Chaney, 2010), and many others (Barnett et al., 2012; Pascarella & Terenzini, 2005; Reisel, Jablonski, Hosseini, & Munson, 2012). Advisers should think about ways they can replicate some of the early relationship building or proactive aspects of these programs. They should reach out to students ahead of their incoming semester to build connections early on, especially during the first few months of their academic career. A personal phone call providing these students with information regarding the campus, how to contact an adviser if they have questions, and a personal invitation to come and visit would be a wonderful demonstration of knowledge and caring.

Alex, Maria, and Tyson were part of proactive programs that helped them to reach their graduation goals. These transitional programs can be broken down into key components that can be replicated in less resource-intensive ways. By connecting early, cementing trusting relationships by showing interest in and being accessible to the student, and demonstrating advising expertise, academic advisers can contribute greatly to a first-generation student’s road to success.


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About the Author(s)

Elizabeth Kalinowski Ohrt, George Mason University

Elizabeth Kalinowski Ohrt is the director of advising for the College of Humanities and Social Sciences at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, where she is also pursuing a Ph.D. in education. She thanks Dr. Supriya Baily for her guidance and support on this piece. Ms. Kalinowski Ohrt can be reached at

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