Helping the Helpers: Academic Advising That Creates Resilient Students

When exploring graduate Master of Social Work (MSW) programs, it’s important for students to explore their options for academic support. At SocialWork@Simmons, we take a unique approach to academic advising that benefits our students both academically and personally throughout their time in the program.

Academic advisors at SocialWork@Simmons understand the challenges that MSW students face as they balance the rigors of graduate study and field work with personal and work responsibilities.

“The majority [of students] are juggling multiple and competing roles as students, professionals in the field, parents, spouses, etc.,” according to Leah Hart Tennen, assistant program director and architect of the advising office. “SocialWork@Simmons advisors take time to get to know the students and their particular situations — both in school and outside — and thus are able to provide meaningful support during difficulty.”

Advisor Allison Horton agrees, noting that, “Our goal is to look at the multiple moving parts of a student’s life and use creative problem-solving methods, empathy, and active listening to help our students move through the program.”

What Do Academic Advisors Do?

Academic advising at SocialWork@Simmons is an important component of the overall MSW program. In addition to helping students plan coursework and meet academic requirements, they also act as advocates and liaisons, facilitating communication between students and faculty to ensure clear and universal understanding of school policies and procedures.

“Advisors help faculty to be mindful of school policies [while also helping] them to be compassionate and respectful of what our students are dealing with, allowing faculty to be empathic and students to be successful,” states Hart Tennen.

If students encounter difficulty in their academic work, advisors help them to explore all of their options for getting back on track. They know that there are many ways to get one thing done, so they work with students to determine the best choice for them, whether that means decelerating, dropping a particular class, participating in tutoring, or taking a leave of absence.

What Sets Academic Advising at SocialWork@Simmons Apart?

While most schools do not require that academic advisors have degrees related to the programs they serve, academic advisors at SocialWork@Simmons hold MSWs. This is no accident; instead, it is an intentional design of the program. At Simmons, we want our students to feel supported, understood, and comfortable asking for help from their advisors. Because they have been through the rigorous coursework and fieldwork during their own degree programs, academic advisors understand what it’s like to be a student in the program. Having been there themselves, advisors are fully equipped to set students up for success.

Advisors also aim to help students by being proactive rather than reactive. While many academic advising departments function to solve problems after they’ve occurred, SocialWork@Simmons academic advisors try to head off potential problems early on.

Advisors focus on building relationships with students, creating spaces for them to talk about their experiences in the program, and giving them an opportunity to be heard. In addition to traditional one-on-one advising sessions, advisors host weekly group drop-in hours when students are encouraged to ask questions and get to know their advisor, in addition to their peers in the program.

Building relationships early on establishes a framework of support that endures throughout a student’s time in the program. “Students that I am continually in touch with usually had a crisis early on and got used to the support throughout the program,” says Hart Tennen. “They know that the advisor knows them and knows their experience.”

Sometimes, Even the Helpers Need Help

Those in the helping professions can sometimes fall into the trap of focusing on the needs of others while neglecting themselves. Academic advisors at SocialWork@Simmons support students by normalizing and integrating help-seeking behaviors through the program.

While it is important that students strive to be resourceful and independent, they may need the support of others at some point during their time in the program in order to be successful.

“Helpers have to ask for help,” notes Hart Tennen. “It’s a strength — there’s power in asking for help. We encourage students to ask for what they need and to be involved in the process of getting their needs met.”

The support from academic advisors not only provides students with tools for success, but it also offers them valuable lived experience in the process of asking for and receiving help. These experiences can inform and enhance their social work practice as they engage with clients, colleagues, and agencies throughout their careers.

If you’re interested in earning your MSW and being a part of our caring, supportive community, learn more about SocialWork@Simmons by visiting our curriculum page, or request more information.