Topic from May 2004

This month, the Advising Forum presents the seventeenth in a series of advising case studies.

Case study #17: You are helping a new student, who is accompanied by her parents, to plan her first schedule. Every question you ask the student is answered by her father, who is controlling and domineering. The student and her mother look at the floor throughout most of the advising session. When the student does express an interest in taking a Shakespeare course as part of her general education, her father replies angrily, “What the hell do you want to take a Shakespeare course for? You're not going to need that in business!” The student cringes, but agrees to substitute another course for the Shakespeare. The student isn't sure she wants to major in business, but the father insists you give him detailed information about being accepted into a business major. The mother looks away and sighs. What would you do in this case?

Your Responses
This won't be a detailed response because so much would depend upon specific statements and body language by all present. Here's what my strategy would be.

I want to get Dad out of the room with a smile on his face in a reasonably short period of time. Otherwise, nothing good can happen for my student. This is certainly a family system affected by psychological abuse. There may even be physical abuse. So I would congratulate Dad on his concern for his daughter's success and the importance of understanding the college's academic options and procedures. I would also speak directly to Mom and validate her (unexpressed) concerns for her daughter. I would explain that academic advising is an ongoing conversation with many options and decision points along the way. I would give some examples. I would state that since the parents certainly won't be able to attend our advising sessions because of the vagaries of individual schedules, a part of my job which I enthusiastically embrace is to teach each student how to make decisions for herself. I always point out to parents that this is part of the education that they are paying us for. I will promise to give my student all possible printed resources so that she can take them home and consult with her parents as appropriate before she makes decisions in the future. I would provide all information requested about the business school. I would also point out that every program of study has an elective “requirement,” and that a Shakespeare course at any point in the student's studies might be a nice balance to the more specific course requirements. I would make sure that my student left with the Shakespeare information she had requested. I would make sure that Mom and Dad left with all possible information about the college's support programs for parents, and I would make a next appointment very soon for my student to attend alone so that she can begin to learn the valuable decision-making skills that are so important in the business world.

As soon as possible, I would consult a trusted colleague in the counseling service for pointers since I am not a licensed mental health provider. At some point my student is probably going to need a formal mental health intervention to support her in separating and becoming independent of her father. I would express my concerns about Mom's situation and follow any advice from my colleague.

-Marc A. Kaplan, Marygrove College, Detroit, Michigan, May 5

I'd never allow parents into an advising session. I'd just tell them that it's not set up to be conducted as a family conference.

-Marilyn Brown, University of Hawaii at Hilo, May 6

I have had to deal with several unhappy parents who want to choose their children's classes. In our college, we begin early letting students and families know that advising is intended to help the student make the best choices. Although we invite students' families to orientation and to meet with the adviser, we make it clear that course planning is between the student and their adviser only. Ultimately, the student makes the decision. In one case, a student decided not to follow her father's wishes and her father, in turn, withdrew his promise of financial support. More often we can usually negotiate an agreement where everyone is happy.

-Mark A. Bellcourt, General College—University of Minnesota, May 6

“Sir, it is your daughter's education, not yours. She is here to be educated, not amused, adjusted, accommodated, entertained, or placed in voc-tech training. She must demonstrate the ability to think and make decisions for herself. If this comment upsets you, the Dean is right over in that office and you may complain.” I have done this and been advised to cool down. But after 46 years in education, 30+ in advising, I tell parents I will listen to them, even honor their suggestions, but if they make all the decisions, I cannot help their child. We do not need fathers like that depicted in the movie, Dead Poets Society.

-Jerry O'Connor, New Mexico State University, May 6

1. Ask the father to leave the room with you for a private discussion.
2. Ask the father if he loves his daughter.
3. Ask him if he knows what she really wants.
4. Ask him to be quiet and listen to her for a while.

-Chuck Gaston, Penn State–York, May 14

As the adviser in this situation, I would have to ask the father to leave because he is monopolizing the advising session intended for his daughter. In addition, since the student is not quite ready to select a major, it would benefit her to talk to me, one-to-one, so that we can establish a rapport, as well as a schedule of courses.

-Mya Bowen, University of Hartford, May 14

A frighteningly similar situation actually happened to me. The father was a CEO of a major corporation and was truly awful. There is nothing an adviser can do in one advising session to repair these horrible family dynamics. Neither the student nor the mother can/will stand up for themselves. This calls for guerilla tactics. I would make the advising session as short as possible, letting the father and daughter work through whatever they have to for her to get a schedule. Then, I would e-mail the daughter right before the semester begins and ask her to come alone to see me before classes begin just so we could visit. In that session, I would have a real heart-to-heart talk about personal autonomy, individual choices, and family dynamics and help her change her schedule, if she wanted to. If the Shakespeare class was full, I would call the professor himself and ask him to let her in.

A few years ago, I met with a woman in her mid-30s with a master's in microbiology whose father had finally died, and it gave her the freedom to go back to school to become the elementary teacher she'd always dreamed of being. She was so happy that he had died. Sad, sad, sad.

-Phyllis Mendenhall, Miami University, May 18

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