Crossing Rivers: Academic Advising Support for Immigrant College Students

Michael J. Stebleton, University of Minnesota-Twin Cities

Andile was a Black, non-traditional immigrant college student from Ethiopia who enrolled at a public, four-year institution. He majored in Human Services with the intent of pursuing a new career in education. In my role as an academic adviser, I had the honor of working with Andile for several years as he progressed toward his degree. Andile was born, raised, and educated in East Africa. He worked as an engineer in Ethiopia for numerous years, got married, and started a family. Several years prior to my interactions with Andile, he and his family fled his war-torn country to begin a new life together in the United States. Upon arriving in Minnesota, Andile quickly learned that this significant life transition was not going to be easy.

His academic credentials were not recognized, and he started working three part-time jobs to support his young family, often working all-night shifts as a security guard. Realizing this was not the life he envisioned, Andile decided to return to college, taking part-time classes through the university. Despite several challenges, Andile relentlessly pursued a four-year degree. He was a new student in one of my classes, and I had the opportunity to sign off on his degree plan at the end of his last semester just weeks before graduation. During that meeting, I asked him a seemingly innocuous question; Andile’s response that day would unexpectedly alter how I envision my work as a student affairs educator. I asked him, “So what is your next step after graduation in a few weeks? Will you consider graduate school?” Andile paused and then asked if he could share an African proverb to help frame his response. “Of course,” I responded. Andile eloquently stated, “You have to cross the first river successfully before you can ask the second river if it’s okay to cross it.”

I was immediately moved by his response yet also initially confused. How could this bright, articulate student not have a concrete plan in place? As an experienced academic adviser and career counselor, I honed my practice by encouraging students to be forward thinking, logical, and thorough in their academic and career decision-making processes. Fortunately, it did not take me long to understand the meaning of Andile’s proverb. His philosophy and approach educated me—and made me a stronger and more compassionate adviser—especially as I worked more frequently with foreign-born immigrant students at my institution. Moreover, Andile’s narrative gave me a more complete understanding of the unique and often complex lives of today’s immigrant college students who enroll at institutions of higher learning across the United States.


The purpose of this personal reflective essay is twofold: 1) to explore immigrant college students as an emerging area of study in higher education; and 2) to examine how academic advisers can best support immigrant college students as they persist toward their academic goals. Drawing on more than twenty years as an academic adviser and teacher in various higher education contexts, I intend to share several examples from my teaching and research experiences. My interactions with Andile and other immigrant college students guided my work in this area as a doctoral student and subsequently as a new faculty member. For purposes of this paper, several definitions of “immigrant” need to be articulated. One of my colleagues gently reminds me that unless one can claim to be of Native American descent, we are all immigrants. This is undeniably accurate; yet demographers and scholars who study immigrant issues typically rely on more nuanced definitions. First, “immigrant” students are different from “international” students, and they are distinct student populations with their own experiences, assets, needs, and issues. In my work, I typically look at the experiences of “foreign-born” immigrants. A foreign-born individual was born outside the United States and moved to the U.S. as young child or during the K-12 years. “Second-generation” immigrants are U.S. born with one or more foreign-born parents. These two groups (foreign born and second generation) currently comprise approximately 25 percent of the U.S. population. The expectation is that this proportion will be 37 percent by 2050 (Brown & Stepler, 2015). Also, international students may have some similarities with immigrant students; however, I tend to view them as separate student populations (i.e., international students typically possess a student visa).

Additionally, statistics seem to indicate that more immigrant college students will be matriculating to college. In fact, immigrant college students enrolled in post-secondary institutions are one of the fastest growing student populations in the United States (Kim, 2014).  Recent data collected by the National Center for Education Statistics indicate 24 percent of undergraduate students are immigrants (including first and second generation), 8 percent of that population is born outside the United States, and these figures will likely increase in the future (Cohn, 2015; Fry, 2015; NCES, 2015). For these reasons, it is critical that student affairs educators, including academic advisers, know the strategies and resources to best support immigrant college students who attend both two- and four-year postsecondary institutions. As was the case with Andile, many of these students will be adult, non-traditional learners with numerous intersecting identities factors that influence their pathways to graduation (Jones & Abes, 2013). Additionally, many immigrant students are students of color and are undocumented, low-income, and the first in their family to pursue higher education (Jehangir, Stebleton, & Deenanath, 2015; Muñoz, 2013). While there is a growing prevalence of scholarly articles in higher education and student affairs journals devoted to the experiences of immigrant college students (Griffin & McIntosh, 2015; Muñoz, 2015; Teranishi, Suárez-Orzoco, & Suárez-Orzoco, 2015; Stebleton, Soria, & Huesman, 2014), this area of study warrants more extensive inquiry. In turn, practitioners can apply outcomes to student affairs and student development theory and practice (Patton et al., 2016).

Overview of Ongoing Study

My research team and I are analyzing data from a multi-institutional qualitative study of more than 100 foreign-born immigrant college students. The study’s overarching research questions addressed the experiences of immigrant college students attending four-year institutions. All institutions are located in urban settings. In particular, we were interested in issues related to student-faculty interactions, students’ sense of belonging, campus climate, support structures, and student experiences with advisers and other institutional agents across campus. One question on the semi-structured interview protocol asked students to describe their experience with their assigned academic adviser and include a specific interaction. Based on my own experiences as an academic adviser, I wanted to explore the unique narratives of immigrant college students to determine if their experiences were different from those of other students. We surmised that immigrant students, the majority of whom identified as students of color, would share examples of contextual factors that impact their college experiences, such as microaggressions, feelings of marginalization, and other instances of discrimination.

It is safe to say that almost all college students experience feelings of isolation, transition, and anxiety. Yet for immigrant college students these experiences are compounded by their intersecting identities as immigrants, many of whom are new to the United States and the U.S. higher education system (Jones & Abes, 2013). Many of these barriers are systemic, and students experience them either directly or indirectly via interactions with their environment or ecology (Bronfenbrenner, 1977; Stebleton, 2011). Pérez, Cortés, Ramos, and Coronado (2010) discussed the multiple minority statuses that immigrant students assume. A male Filipino student, Nimuel, captured this concept of multiple layers of marginality:

One thing is there’s a lot of factors when it comes to being an immigrant. The fact that you’re a person of color, of a different ethnicity. The fact that you’re here as an immigrant, not as a born citizen. The fact that I’m here as undocumented. All those   factors, I think it just, if anything you realize even in the situation where you don’t have privilege.… I mean, basically it’s just you don’t have those opportunities and you don’t have, you’re not in that status where things are easier to get with less effort.

Many students in the study were undocumented and talked about the fear and challenges they face on a daily basis. Perhaps not surprisingly, some of their statements related to experiences with faculty members and academic advisers were positive while others were negative. Having worked in an academic advising liberal arts unit at a large institution—with student load ratios approaching 500:1— student testimonials filled with discontent are not uncommon to hear. Contrarily, many of the students shared glowing examples of engaging interactions with academic advisers. Several students’ stories were hard to hear, and my colleagues and I struggled with how to negotiate our professional roles (i.e., as interviewer and student affairs educator).  For example, one African female, Asha, talked about the challenges of “how to survive this place.” She stated:

You don’t really know anything. No one would help you if you don’t … if you weren’t … you have to go way above, out of your way to find somebody to help you. I don’t know. You have to know somebody. Whether it’s an adult that actually works here, like a professor, so that professor would find somebody that would help you or you have to have a big sister or a big brother that would tell you which organizations to join and what activities to do, what majors to do, what classes to take, all that. As an 18-year-old freshman, nobody can survive this place.

Asha, as a new student at a large institution, was overwhelmed by this experience. Like many students in the study, Asha was lost and struggled to find her way in this large bureaucratic system. Other immigrant students struggled with deciding which instructors and advisers to trust with their stories. Several students commented that they trusted academic advisers “who looked like them” or “could understand my experiences based on their own situations.” Finally, several students talked about the need for professors and advisers to gain a better understanding of immigrant student experiences so they could better serve this student population. Juan responded:

They [advisers on campus] should be more proactive about kind(s) of training (for) everyone who is going to be in contact with students … (to handle) different types of needs.

Juan elaborated on some of his own needs and a desire for strong coordination of services:

I happen to have those needs, but I mean there’s a huge diversity of needs and even in the school, right? And it seems like the way they do it is like they create “Oh, well here’s where these people can go and here’s where those people go.” But it’s like sometimes you have to do things that this particular person can’t help you with or something.

Like Juan, the student narratives suggested that instructors and advisers can be doing more to reach and better support immigrant students. In many cases, students desperately want our guidance and attention—even if they do not always explicitly ask for it.

A Guiding Framework

In past publications, I explored developmental and campus ecological approaches to better comprehend the needs and issues of immigrant college students. One such piece addressed ways in which Bronfenbrenner’s ecology framework can be a useful tool for academic advisers to utilize with immigrant college students (Stebleton, 2011). More recently, Strayhorn (2016) outlined the value of ecological approaches, especially as they apply to historically marginalized student populations. Eunyoung Kim and Jeannette Diaz’s and Kristen Renn’s use of ecological approaches can be applied to the work of academic advisers as well (Kim & Diaz, 2013; Renn, 2004).

Strange and Banning’s (2015) revised book emphasized the importance of creating physical structures and spaces on campus to facilitate ideal student interactions that promote engagement, belonging, and persistence toward graduation. These spaces foster what Strange (2001) called communities of belonging, where students perceive a connection with like-minded students. As we know, student centers, multicultural student organizations, and clubs promote these opportunities to connect and share experiences for many students; they help to foster a sense of belonging (Nuñez, 2009; Patton, 2006; Strayhorn, 2012). The additional concept of wayfinding emerged in the late 1970s and has been used principally in the design and architecture fields (Passini, 1996). Furthermore, the concept applies to the physical structures of universities and colleges. According to Passini:

Wayfinding design concerns all features of the built environment, which are related to the purposeful circulation of people and their ability to mentally situate themselves in a setting. These design features include spatial layouts, architectural features related to circulation and graphic displays including audible and tactile supports. (1996, p. 320)

Darken and Peterson (2001) stressed the cognitive aspect of wayfinding: “Wayfinding is the cognitive element of navigation. It does not involve movement of any kind but only the tactical and strategic parts that guide movement” (p. 1). Taken together, these definitions indicate that wayfinding involves the ways individuals interact with their physical surroundings to navigate through an environment.

Physical and design features are important to literally help students find their way around campus. Most of us have personal, if yet embarrassing, stories about getting lost on campus or feeling displaced in a new environment. Navigating a massive campus can be overwhelming for almost anyone of any age. On a recent visit to my Minneapolis-based office, my 9-year old daughter exclaimed, “I would certainly get lost if I came to college here,” meaning the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities with an enrollment of over 50,000. In these situations, we look for touchstones or helpful features that can assist us to find our way. Applying this concept of wayfinding in a more figurative manner, I propose that academic advisers can serve as invaluable touchstones to assist immigrant college students in traversing the oft-complex university structures and bureaucracies. Advisers can learn more about resources, such as scholarships, community resources, and immigration policies that may be useful to immigrant students. From this perspective, wayfinding moves beyond physical features and navigational guidance to include a more comprehensive definition of support for students. Moreover, this support can support students develop their own navigational capital (Rendón, Nora, & Kanagala, 2014; Yosso, 2005). Viewing these issues from a holistic approach to student development, we might ask the following questions:  How might immigrant students best get situated in their new environments? What services, policies, and support structures could be implemented to accommodate students? How can educators assist underserved student populations thrive in a variety of learning contexts (McIntosh, 2015; Schreiner, 2014)?  While I do not claim to have the answers, academic advisers and other student affairs practitioners are doing much of this good work already across campuses. Many institutions have implemented services to reach out to immigrants. In the next section, I share several examples of initiatives.

Promising Practices

Many academic advisers take the opportunity to get involved with classroom and student services initiatives that aim to engage students, including immigrants and other historically underserved student groups. The programs included in this section are examples of services and initiatives designed to support and foster relationships with immigrant students. Even when not personally involved, advisers and other student affairs professionals who are knowledgeable about these programs can connect them to their students.

A popular initiative is learning communities (LCs). This article does not include a lengthy discussion of the history and impact of LCs, however, many institutions embed such programs (Lenning, Hill, Saunders, Solan, & Stokes, 2013). On a personal note, several years ago I was actively involved as an adviser for an LC program at a community college in the Twin Cities area. The LC targeted new immigrant students who were mastering the English language (many of these students were fluent in four–five additional languages). Hailing from diverse countries, the students took several courses in common with a core group of faculty members and advisers. The program allowed students to experience a sense of belonging and connection to the campus. Moreover, they found their way by gaining confidence, establishing relationships with faculty, and garnering success early in their academic careers. Ultimately, many of these students graduated from the community college and transferred to four-year institutions.

Another example exists at Metropolitan State University of Denver in Colorado (2016), where a special program provides academic advising and student support services as central components. The site reads:

The Immigrant Services Program provides each student with a knowledgeable peer that is able to support the student with important study skills, tutoring in writing, reading, and presenting, note taking, applying for scholarships, and advice on how to be a successful college student. (MSU Denver, 2016)

Similarly, Palm Beach State College in Lake Worth, Florida, and its Davis Global Education Center aim to serve immigrant college students (Palm Beach State College, 2016). Services include providing information about educational programs or courses to learn English; accessing referrals to community services and programs in Palm Beach County; and offering and designing workshops that enable students to learn about the U.S. culture. Advisers play important roles in this collaborative process.

Policies and resources must be in place to support students, and active student organizations can connect immigrant students to such resources. For example, at Florida State University (FSU) in Tallahassee, Florida, a student-run group called Advocates for Immigration and Refugee Rights (FSU, 2016) serves as a resource for FSU students. Providing funding resources for services that support students is especially critical. The University of Wisconsin-Madison recently started several programs, including the Open Seat Food Pantry (ASM, 2016) and other loan emergency initiatives to facilitate student persistence and retention (Schneider, 2016). Providing sources to all students who experience food insecurity needs—not just immigrants—is critical (Cady, 2014/2016). Student affairs educators can identify, refer, and advocate for these types of student support services.

A final example is an institution that serves undocumented immigrant students. In our study, many of the students shared their experiences and challenges of being undocumented. Some of the students did not know they were undocumented until they applied to colleges as high school seniors. Other students did not dare share their undocumented status with teachers, advisers, and even roommates and friends. Loyola University serves students with these circumstances by maintaining a popular ally resource program (LUC, 2016) in which faculty members, academic advisers, and other student affairs educators agree to serve as sources of support for undocumented students. Students know these educators can be trusted. Different states have varying policies and services depending on DREAM Act legislation enacted (or not) in that state. For example, one of the institutions in our study is located in California. Many of the students enrolled there were able to access resources, form student organizations, and be more “out” in terms of their documentation status. This was not the case at other institutions, where students appeared to be much more guarded about their documentation status.

There is no one perfect way to best serve immigrants.  I challenge academic advisers and other higher education professionals to engage in personal and professional development focused on immigrant populations—including gaining a better understanding of issues and policies of immigrant communities primarily served. Again, many students in our study wanted educators to have a more thorough understanding of the often-complex issues that are a part of the daily lives of many immigrant students. This knowledge can result from both personal and professional development, such as participating in local community events and reading about recent immigration policy changes and legislative acts.

Parting Thoughts

Richard Greenwald (2012), professor, wrote about the merits of first-generation college students. He stated that universities should not see first-generation students as problems to fix, but rather as pioneers and advocated for educators and administrators to see first-generation students as assets, not deficits (Greenwald, 2012). The same argument applies to immigrant college students (Jehangir, Stebleton, & Deenanath, 2015). Like my student Andile, immigrant students are true pioneers, and many of them have traversed countless miles and rivers to access higher education opportunities in the United States. Academic advisers can support immigrant students who are finding their way by reaching out to them, providing holistic support grounded in student development principles, and developing creative programs and services that will support students in reaching their academic, professional, and personal objectives.


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About the Author(s)

Michael J. Stebleton, Ph.D., University of Minnesota-Twin Cities

Michael J. Stebleton, Ph.D., is an associate professor in the Department of Organization, Leadership, Policy, and Development in the Higher Education program at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities. He can be reached at Dr. Stebleton thanks his colleague, Kate Diamond, for her thoughtful contributions to this article.


  1. user gravatar
    Joe Zerka


    I was most struck with all the titles an immigrant student holds at a higher education institution. To name a some, immigrant student, student of color, first-generation, and foreign-born international student is not one of them). Essentially, there can be programs that they can use as support for each of the titles they hold. I am struggling with the (somewhat) fact that they may be support too much. Is there such thing as too much support? What is the straw that breaks the camels back in terms of supporting students? Maybe with our current administration there is no such thing as too much support.

    Another question I was to pose is, is there documented research on what alumni immigrant students believe they would have utilized as support while on campus? They have knowledge to look back and see where they were successful and not successful, and what they would like to change. I would be interested in hearing what was said.

  2. user gravatar

    This is a timely piece— really raises questions about how immigrant students are feeling and especially in the post-election climate in the U.S.


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