This title puts me in mind of a caped task force. I don’t know if they wear the rad outfits, but they certainly fight injustice. This week, Victoria Millious, of the SGPS Student Advisor Program, brings us a guest spot on who the Student Advisors are, what they do, and how they can help you.
I’m writing this from our shared Student Advisor office, located on the second floor of the John Deutsch Centre. It is a cozy and welcoming space, adorned in literature and signage that speak to safer spaces, healthier mindsets, campus activism, and yes, it is blanketed in the most orange of orange carpets. Like our office, our job as Student Advisors is multifarious, steeped in a history unique to Queen’s and is intensely humane.
The Student Advisor (SA) program was launched in 2001 and is jointly funded by the School of Graduate Studies (SGS) and the Society of Professional and Graduate Students (SGPS). Through confidential advising and campus referrals, the program’s primary goal is to assist SGPS members negotiate their many roles as students, researchers, teachers, employees and colleagues. Our services typically take the form of face-to-face consultations between student (henceforth referred to as clients) and Advisor and are held in the SA office. We are also available to our clients over the phone and through email. The second half of the Student Advisor’s role is to advocate on behalf of graduate and professional students at Queen’s. This entails sitting on various university committees, attending campus workshops, orientations and events, and staying connected with the SGPS Executive and Council Members in order to keep abreast of the conversations floating around campus, and to intervene as needed. We loosely refer to these public engagements and the more specific — and time consuming —projects that emerge therefrom as our portfolio work. Finally, we offer preventative workshops and seminars that address prevalent issues such as the highly complex student-supervisor relationship.
The nature of our work is highly improvisational. Student Advisors undertake conflict resolution, positive space, discrimination and harassment training (among others), and we also receiving instruction in the policies and procedures of Queen’s. What makes this job exhilarating also makes it challenging. Each client who walks through our door brings a completely different set of circumstances, if not always a novel story or problem. Our job is to actively listen and to use our training, experience and foresight to assist our clients to the best of our abilities. Our assistance might entail the creation of an action plan for the near future, the drafting and editing of sensitive emails, attending meetings alongside our clients as note takers, advocates or both, or steering our clients through formal and informal appeal processes. Sometimes we simply listen, ask questions and provide an opportunity for our clients to be heard.
When you step inside our office you will notice a small whiteboard on which it is written, “Our main objectives are to provide confidentiality and to encourage self-advocacy wherever possible.” The former is easy. I find the latter challenging. I am told this is common among those who are drawn to employment within the helping professions. We want to help, but we need to be careful not to help so much as to hinder. Part of our educational experience as students here at Queen’s is to learn how to deal with difficult situations and personalities, and to come to terms with the reality that the academy is not a meritocracy, nor is the world fair. Some of you will relate to what I’ve just said more acutely than others and that is why services including the Student Advisor program need always exist.
A good day for us is when we can assist our clients in achieving the resolution they desire. A bad day is when, despite incredible efforts, we find ourselves up against a brick wall. The most troubling day is when a client comes to see us and we cannot help but see a brick wall looming in the not too distant future. During a difficult case, we might consult with our fellow Advisors. We are the collective keepers of many secrets. We do not take any action unless expressly requested by you. Some of those who seek our services decide, in the end, to take no action towards resolving their conflict. This can be a painful, humiliating and infuriating decision for our clients. But it is almost always highly strategic and depressingly sage, given the power dynamics of some interpersonal relationships on campus.
When you come to meet me for the first time, I will invite you in, shake your hand and learn how you pronounce your name. I will invite you to sit down, I will explain my role and I will ask if it is ok with you if I take notes during our conversation. I will listen, carefully, to the things you say, to the things you do not say and your story will take shape. I will hope that you leave feeling listened to and more knowledgeable about your options. Clients have told me time and time again (allow me to paraphrase), “I felt crazy before coming here. I thought it was just in my head, that it was just me.” You will leave when our meeting comes to its natural conclusion. And I will wait until you’ve left, and I have shut and locked the door, to exhale deeply and occasionally cry.
Sara Pavan, David Thompson and myself currently hold the three Student Advisor positions. I am profoundly grateful to have Sara and David as my colleagues. At present and in brief, Sara’s portfolio work attends to accent discrimination and the experiences of international students on campus; David is engaged with matters related to the T4 versus T4A Research Assistant status, and to intellectual property rights as they pertain to the publishing of completed theses and dissertations on QSpace; I myself am focused on improving the student-supervisor relationship. You can read brief descriptions of our backgrounds on the Student Advisor page on the SGPS web site.
We are thankful to Gradifying for this opportunity to advertise the Student Advisor program and our (free!) services. If I can leave you, Queen’s graduate and professional students, with one closing thought, let it be this: you are not alone. Loneliness and isolation can lead to the resignation among graduate and professional students that this time of our lives need necessarily be plagued by frustration, anxiety and fear – that poor working conditions constitute a sort of ‘right of passage’ in higher education. Experience has taught me that there are structures and persons on this campus that uphold, if not actively encourage, this fallacy. If you have encountered obstacles in the form of your supervisor, your departmental polices (or lack thereof) or a colleague, and kept going, I applaud you. We Student Advisors hope that your time spent at Queen’s is productive, challenging and empowering. If this is not the case, please come and talk to us. Or, if you notice a lab mate or peer who is struggling, please refer them to the Student Advisor program. The best way to get started is to send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. All (written and spoken) communications are strictly confidential.
Thank you and be well,
~ Victoria Millious
SGPS Student Advisor