“I don’t understand why I am here at Stanford,” the student said, sitting in my office feeling gloomy one day. “Nothing is fun anymore. No courses seem to be of interest to me.” I had known her since she first arrived at Stanford, and so I tried to figure out what was going on. She was now a junior, with an advisor in her chosen major. She had been brought up in an affluent home in the US by parents from an African country. “Why am I here,” she continued, “when I could be doing good outside instead?”
Together, we tried to figure out why she seemed to have lost her enthusiasm. After an hour, I said, “Please come back in a week, and meanwhile try to think about what activities makes you happy.” On her way out I asked, “By the way, where do you live?” “Well,” she said, “I live in a sorority, in a room that was not meant to be a bedroom, and we are 5 instead of 3 people sleeping in it. I do not sleep very well.” “Okay,” I responded, “that sounds crowded. So why is this?” “My roommates both have their boyfriends sleeping there too,” she replied.
She told me about a conversation with her parents, who made her promise not to follow her roommates’ example, but also not to upset anyone and to fly under the radar. I advised her to talk to the girls about her lack of sleep and its consequences, and how they might be able to come up with a solution together. I asked her to come back and let me know how the conversations had gone.
A week passed before she was back in my office. She had brought it up with the girls, who confessed they did not like it either. It made their sleep difficult, too. The three of the roommates decided to not have night guests anymore.
My student seemed relieved and energized by both the way she solved a peer sensitive matter and by getting more sleep.
Being an adviser is much more than an academic job. Sometimes, we need to guide students in problem solving, even with relational issues in housing, a work team, or among peers. Students are empowered and gain a useful, pro-social skill when they learn to rely on themselves and others.
Unannounced, a student athlete came to me one day, saying, “I am contacting you, Professor Eva [my husband is called Professor Milgrom] because you have a reputation as a problem solver. I need help!” He was not my advisee, but he was a student in my class who had disappeared from sight early in the term, and I had tried to reach him repeatedly.
He had come to Stanford on an athletic scholarship, but hurt his knee and could no longer play. Coming from the south, he was the first in his family to attend university. Now he felt under the gun: how would he pay for his schooling? The scholarship was lost, he claimed, since he could no longer play. He had disappeared, feeling overwhelmed, ashamed and depressed, staying home in bed, in hiding. I told him that we were going to figure it out together, and while in the office, I called my contacts at the undergraduate dean’s office. Together we made a plan. The student was to report to me every week until the issues were solved.
By the summer, an upbeat young man walked into my office with a big smile on his face. He got back into his zone of focus with its joy of learning. Confident that tough issues can be solved by putting them on the table and using available resources. He had taken the initiative, and we found we could meet him halfway. It was a lovely way of showing a young person that thinking and problem solving make many things possible.
Effective mentors do not always work alone. We are part of a social resource network during our students’ life at Stanford. If the routine resources let some students fall through the cracks, we are all, advisors, professors and staff, hopefully, part of a problem-solving system that fills in those cracks.
And so it is that advising gets me my personal dopamine fix. It is sometimes a win-win for all.
Senior Research Scholar, Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research (SIEPR)