4 Essential Boundary-Setting Techniques for Academic Advisers

Perhaps one of the greatest losses in the world of academic advising due to COVID-19 has been not being able to fully interact with students face-to-face.

As an academic advisor, I understand the frustrations felt by students and staff experiencing Zoom exhaustion and phone-meeting fatigue.

Students and student affairs professionals alike may feel that these virtual meetings detract from their ability to make meaningful connections. In addition, being away from campus may blur the boundaries and expectations between advisor and student.

So, how do academic advisors set boundaries with students during the age of Zoom meetings? Here are my top suggestions.

1. Set boundaries early

For new students, especially first-gens, the academic advising experience may seem mysteriously intimidating or perhaps even unnecessary.

gif of someone saying 'ahh, so much advice!'

I like to start with a metaphor when setting boundaries with students. I tell them, “I am a set of stairs, not an escalator.” In other words, I am here to help them get to the next step on their journey, but I can’t do it for them.

Address boundaries early on within each student’s academic journey by communicating with them in the following ways:

  • Greet students and their families at virtual orientation, detailing what academic advising does, when to meet with your academic advisor, and how to make an appointment.
  • Send a friendly welcome email to new students, including first-years and transfers within your caseload, introducing yourself at the beginning of the semester.
  • Check in with new students through the midpoint of their first semester via email, text, or phone call. Remind them of vital registration and academic information and encourage them to book appointments with you ahead of academic deadlines.

Building relationships early on with students can set the foundation for meaningful, collaborative relationships that maintain respectful boundaries.

2. Continue the communication

Being physically away from campus can create a disconnect for many students. They don’t feel as in tune with their institutions and may be unaware of how to connect with support services from afar.

Fortunately, you can combat this challenge by communicating with students that your office is still offering help. Share the ways in which students can access your services and what kinds of support you can offer.

Update your website and social media accounts, email students, and consider adding the following information to your auto-reply email messages:

  • How to make an appointment (such as by phone, email, or through your website)
  • General office hours for advisors and administrators
  • Walk-in advising hours and how to join them remotely
  • Important resources and phone numbers for related resources (such as career services, financial aid, and the registrar)
  • Updates on upcoming workshops, such as career fairs, major exploration fairs, and department open houses
  • A link to a FAQ page specific to your institution

In my office, whenever registration is announced via email, we add links for resolving academic holds, scheduling an advising appointment, and office hours. Additionally, during busy periods, we will set a continuous auto-reply email with answers to students’ and families’ FAQs.

3. Know where your job ends and begins, and share it with your students

gif of someone saying 'this is my work, okay, it's important!'

Academic advisors often serve as the first responders for students looking for all sorts of help. So, provide resources to other departments for pressing issues in a consistent and organized manner.

Include information related to:

  • Financial aid
  • Career resources
  • Graduation checklists
  • Clubs and recreation experiences
  • Official transcript and documentations
  • Scholarships

For students with problems that toe boundary lines, I start by asking the following questions:

  • What have you tried so far?
  • What should you try?
  • Have you considered trying ___?

This method balances the helping portion of advising with fostering the student’s self-advocacy, reflection, and critical thinking skills.

Addressing these issues early on will help you establish the boundaries between what academic advising is and is not responsible for, and how to find solutions for a student’s particular issue.

4. Redirect with consistency

Navigating the college experience is certainly no easy task for anyone. From time to time, you’ll need to redirect students who’ve confused their academic advisors with their financial aid counselors.

When this happens I do the following three things:

  • I remind the student of who their financial aid counselor or career counselor is, complete with that professional’s contact information.
  • I offer to meet with the student regarding course registration or academic concerns.
  • I ask if they have any remaining questions for academic advising.

By responding with a gentle reminder, rather than merely forwarding the student’s question to another department, you’ll encourage the student to advocate for themselves and to continue developing professional boundaries.

gif from The Hunger Games - 'you can do this'

Setting boundaries with students is a challenge that all student affairs professionals face.

With the pandemic adding additional stressors to our work, it is important to set boundaries early and with consistency for all students.

For more tips on promoting academic advising, check out 5 Pervasive Myths About Academic Advising that SA Pros Can Help Bust.

What additional advice do you have about setting boundaries with students — during the pandemic and all year round? Connect with us on Twitter @themoderncampus.

Corinna Kraemer

About the author: Corinna Kraemer (she/her) works in ed tech and loves painting, running, and hanging out with her cat, Mr. K. She hopes her posts will finally help her dad understand what her career in student affairs is all about. Learn how we can help get your students involved.