Stereotypes, Diversity, and Effects on Academic Advising

Esther Deutsch, Eric Doberstein, and K. V. White, Penn State

Historical Context of Multiculturalism and Stereotypes in Academic Advising

In the early 1980s and throughout the 1990s, culturally diverse students and students new to higher education (or first-generation college students) were found in disproportional numbers in community colleges (Laden, 2004; London, 1992). For minority students, community colleges functioned as a convenient and economic way to access the benefits that higher education could offer them, but the stereotypes and assumptions made about these students and their participation in college could also prove to be detrimental (Eaton, 1988). The danger in identifying a student as “diverse” or “a minority” without taking into consideration other factors is that it can lead to stereotyping, which eventually limits a student's choices and potential.

There were certain assumptions concerning the motivations and backgrounds of first-generation college students attending community or four-year colleges. For instance, they were regarded as minorities who were motivated to attend college for better career opportunities and potential class mobility (Richardson & Skinner, 1992). Additionally, advisers often assumed that information about financial aid and how to obtain it would be of greater concern to students who fell into the “minority” or “first-generation” category (Richardson & Skinner, 1992). Other considerations, such as study abroad, campus or community involvement, or socializing with student clubs and groups that were not specifically ethnically oriented, often fell by the wayside. According to Richardson and Skinner (1992), many of the prescriptions for improving minority achievement were based on excessively simplistic perceptions of minority students. Unfortunately, many of the stereotypes that plagued minority students in the 1980s and 1990s continue to hinder the academic achievement of culturally diverse students in the twenty-first century. Additionally, assuming that student differences are always visible or that advisers can draw on a particular body of knowledge concerning advisees based on the culture with which the adviser assumes the students identify, can alienate minority students from a potentially helpful service.

Academic advising has had to evolve with the changing demographics of college students (London, 1992). As student populations increase and become more complex in virtually all institutions of higher learning, advisers have had to prepare themselves to work with students with different backgrounds. As a result, diversity has become a crucial topic in discussions about advising. Yet the word diversity can potentially be a hindrance for advisers if they use the concept as a mantle to group all students who share similar backgrounds. Diversity has to include more than race, gender, class, or ethnic background. Recognizing and embracing diversity in the academic setting does not consist only of accepting various groups of people. Advisers should understand that students within the same racial group, for example, are shaped by different life experiences. While it is important to acknowledge the influence that a student's background or identity could have on his or her experiences in college, it is also important not to expect this to negatively affect a student's performance in college. For example, an adviser might steer a nontraditional, first-generation college student who is also the Hispanic mother of two toward a less demanding course load, because of stereotypes concerning the priorities of Hispanic families and the financial concerns of first-generation students. However, such advice is potentially harmful if the adviser does not bother to ascertain individual needs before dispensing advice based on “well-known” minority stereotypes or cultural factors. Advisers need to understand that if they want to embrace diversity, they must do so while understanding that each student is different regardless of their specific racial or ethnic groups.

The crucial word is difference, which makes it a challenge to train advisers, since each student has unique needs. The word diversity often fails to highlight these different needs, as the term groups people together based on similarities instead of acknowledging individual priorities and needs. Advisers need to embrace diversity while understanding that transfer students; nontraditional students; Hispanic, African American, Asian, and international students; and even White American students have individual needs. Therefore, the word diversity should be read to mean difference, rather than serve as a generic grouping for students who can be associated with specific minority groups.

Chavez, Guido-DiBrito, and Mallory (2003) explain that, according to Devine's (1989) studies, people can see beyond their stereotypes and prejudices, make distinctions among members of a group, and choose to disregard the learned behavior. The first step, however, is to recognize that such stereotypes exist within our frame of mind. To pretend that we are free from prejudice is not helpful to our students or ourselves. After all, once individuals (such as ourselves) interact with a member of a specific group, we tend to apply what we have learned from the individual to the group in general, and these generalizations are in turn applied to other individuals from that group (Chavez et al.). Stereotypes, whether they are positive or negative, become a hindrance in the advising process, because the student is not seen as an individual. It is important to learn how to recognize and challenge these generalizations in order to provide adequate assistance to each student we advise. Low or stereotypically based expectations are detrimental to a culturally diverse student's education and success. Acknowledging difference, while expecting the same level of sophistication and achievement from all students, can significantly improve a diverse student's college experience. For instance, one female scientist, in charge of a successful university lab, expects excellence from all of her students, regardless of their academic or cultural backgrounds, and she receives only excellence from them (Gibbons, 1993).

To work with diverse students, an adviser must have an open mind and be willing to close the gap between himself or herself and the student. For instance, a discussion forum in The Mentor posted the following question: Are there generation gaps in academic advising? Readers were encouraged to discuss their thoughts about age gaps when the adviser and the advisee do not belong to the same generation. Michael Stella, a 30-year-old adviser from Penn State Berks, admits that initially his advisees are respectful (which could mean “distant”), because they are unfamiliar with Stella's sense of humor and openness. The students feel more comfortable working with Stella only after getting to know him and his sense of humor, which diminishes the gap between adviser and advisee.

Diversity (or lack thereof) goes beyond the classrooms and the student body. An institution of higher learning is truly diverse when faculty and staff members come from different backgrounds. Some institutions find themselves at a disadvantage when members of hiring committees are hesitant to hire or promote employees who seem different; they do not realize that those who are different can become an asset to the institution rather than a hindrance to its advancement (Silver, 2002). An institution that does not promote diversity among faculty and staff will struggle to provide a welcoming environment for a student body that is diverse in nature.

For students with unique backgrounds, a university that does not welcome diversity can be a hostile environment, and advisers are faced with a difficult challenge. Smith and Wolf-Wendel (2005) acknowledge that although student diversity has increased in the past twenty years, a chilly climate still exists in which students can feel alienated because of their nontraditional backgrounds. This chilly climate is often caused by the institution's failure to make diversity part of the mission statement. In order to diversify a campus, diversity must be part of the mission statement of the institution so that it is at the center of all university activities, rather than marginalized as a secondary issue. Diversity should be reflected in all aspects of the university, from new hires, artwork, and invited speakers to policy and even the food in the cafeteria (Silver, 2002). When diversity is not part of the institution's mission statement, and such institution fails to provide a welcoming environment for students with various backgrounds, the adviser is left with students who might need assistance beyond planning their class schedules.

Currently, more efforts are being made to hire a diverse body of faculty members and advisers, with the expectations that they will better relate to diverse students, as well as diversify communication between advisers and advisees (Mueller, Pope, & Reynolds, 2004; Herring, 1990). Although many colleges and universities presume that diversifying faculty and staff will produce a multicultural environment, their approach fails when minority faculty and staff members advise or interact only with minority students. This might serve to create an environment that acknowledges and accepts diversity but not one that embraces multiculturalism. Merely increasing diversity is not enough; encouraging students and faculty to seek cross-cultural communication and interactions goes much further in establishing a multicultural environment (Mueller et al.). For example, in addressing cross-cultural communication, Herring suggests that “cultural misunderstandings and miscommunications could be greatly reduced by an increased awareness of cultural differences in nonverbal communication patterns” (p. 174). Although a sensitivity to nonverbal communication, such as body language or facial gestures, could be beneficial for advisers who are unable to relate in a more direct manner to their advisees, this increases the risk of stereotyping. While it would be advantageous to know a little about the ways in which different cultures use nonverbal communication, the danger of stereotyping is still present. For example, an adviser might misread a lack of eye contact as a sign of respect, when it could just as easily be embarrassment related to class performance. If the adviser neglects to address this issue by making assumptions based on culture, the advisee might leave the session without being offered an opportunity to discuss the cause behind the lack of eye contact.

Demographic Trends, Conclusions, and Recommendations

When one looks toward the future demographic trends, it becomes clear that issues of diversity and cultural competency need to become greater focuses for academic advisers. In 2005, ethnic minorities made up 33 percent of the U.S. population, but trends show that by the year 2020 ethnic minorities will make up 39 percent of the population. Furthermore, of the ethnic minorities living in the United States in 2005, 40 percent of 42 million Hispanics living in the United States were foreign born and either spoke English as a second language or did not speak it at all, while 68 percent of the Asians living in the United states were foreign born and spoke English as a second language or not at all (National Center for Education Statistics, 2007).

Indeed, if one looks at trends between 1976 and 2004, one notices that the total percentage of undergraduates who were minority students increased from 17 to 32 percent, and by 1980 the number of women who were undergraduates had surpassed the number of male students. Additionally, as children of baby boomers graduate from college and have children, we will see a decrease in birth rates but a stabilization of people aged 18–24, which means that by the year 2020 a greater percentage of enrollments will be from nontraditional, college-aged students, thereby adding “age of students” into the question of diversity.

Thus it becomes obvious as one reads the multitude of current and historical contexts that issues of multiculturalism and diversity and their impact upon academic advising will be at the forefront of hot topics. Often, diversity becomes defined as a color issue or a gender issue, and other differences are ignored as unimportant and trivial. This is reinforced by unconscious and conscious stereotypes that affect the decisions that academic advisers might make on a daily basis, whether steering a visibly minority student toward one course of action or leading a non-visibly minority student toward another, even though the first course of action might have been more relevant to the second student.

As the attention to diversity continues to increase, it becomes important for offices with academic advising responsibilities to begin to examine their practices. Penn State's President Graham Spanier (2004) addressed this issue when he wrote that this new diverse student population“may need more individualized attention or our office hours may need to be changed to match their schedules.” He continued by stating that minority populations
may require more from the advising relationship, particularly for those who find themselves on a predominantly white campus. Because of their distinctive position on campus, some of these students may be reluctant to ask for help. This hesitancy can contribute to academic difficulty and cause students to leave college. Meaningful contact with faculty members and advisers can make the difference. (¶ 22)
It is interesting to note that Spanier (2004) reports diversity not only as ethnic makeup but also “other characteristics as well. They may be older, only attend part-time, and are likely to hold a job” (¶ 16).

It is easy as an adviser to believe that all Latino students value family over individuality, or that to a Japanese student, the lack of eye contact is a sign of respect, when in reality, the Latino student might have been raised apart from typical Latino culture, and the Japanese student might be a third-generation American who is only avoiding eye contact because he or she is embarrassed about his or her academic performance.

As minority populations begin to account for more and more of the population growth in the United States (Spanier, 2004), it becomes imperative that all advising practitioners begin to recognize the shortcomings of the archaic way of viewing diverse students through a lens of stereotyping while still respecting cultural differences.

First we must recognize that a great number of diverse students are first-generation college students, and advisers must function as a support system that “understands the commitment needed to successfully attain a college education. In this essential role, an adviser can help students understand what the family cannot” (Masterson, 2007, ¶ 8).

Secondly, it is important for advisers to understand that when dealing with a diverse student population, language barriers may exist and help to strengthen stereotypes. In many cases, children of immigrants have “picked up English somewhere along the way as a second, or even third, language” (Masterson, 2007, ¶ 9). Thus it becomes important to not make assumptions about a student's skill or lack thereof in the language of the classroom based purely on stereotypes. A non-visibly minority student may be an immigrant who has six–eight years of English experience and can carry on a normal conversation but lacks the ability to fully comprehend complex sentence structures, while a visibly minority student may be a third-generation American able to fully grasp the complex nature of the language. Advisers must therefore work with students to appropriately place them into classes based upon aptitude rather than stereotyping.

Lastly, it is imperative that academic advisers continue to improve their multicultural competency as a continuing educational piece to professional development (Strommer, 2001). Models that drive and examine concepts of minority student development, including Cross's theory of nigrescence and Helm's theory of White student development, are likely to be inadequate for the burgeoning population of students attending our campuses in the next twenty years. Models that focus on Black versus White or focus on typical college-aged students who are 18 to 24 years old will not match the development of students who bring many different facets of diversity and who might be older than the stereotypical college-aged student. Practices will have to be challenged. For example, as the population of students more than 25 years of age rises, standard office hours will likely prove to be inadequate in meeting the needs of these students, particularly if they have full-time jobs.

Thus it is imperative that this multicultural competency of advisers and advising offices addresses issues not only of race and gender but also of intergroup differences and, perhaps most importantly, allows for feedback and self-reflection as well as challenges traditional stereotypes. Because advisers really are front-line personnel entrusted with assisting students toward success, “both the institution and the student will be served in a more effective and positive way when advisers are properly trained on how to interact with students of different backgrounds” (Masterson, 2007, ¶ 14).


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About the Authors

At the time this article was written, Esther Deutsch and K. V. White were graduate students in Penn State's Department of English, and Eric Doberstein was a graduate student in the College Student Affairs program. They can be reached at,, and, respectively.

Published in The Mentor on August 6, 2008, by Penn State's Division of Undergraduate Studies
Available online at
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