Relating with Special Populations

Op3.26-8 Relating with Special Populations

Special populations of students exist in every college and university. Advisors must develop an awareness of their unique characteristics and needs.

Returning adults/non-traditional students

According to Skorupa (2002):

When we think of adult learners and how to approach them as advisors and instructors, several aspects of their adult status usually come to mind. Among these are the facts that adults play multiple roles in their lives, that they often have anxiety about returning to school, and that many times they are experiencing some sort of life transition at the time they decide to return to school. One characteristic of current and prospective adult students that is often overlooked, particularly by the administration, is the fact that they are consumers and are generally looking for the most out of their time and money.

Muench (1987) in a paper, A comparative study of the psychosocial needs of adult men and women students in an adult degree program, says:

Non-traditional students need many different kinds of support and assistance from family, friends, and institutions of higher learning. Research evidence suggests that "both sexes have difficulties juggling the roles of student, worker, and family member. Adult students need help in building their self-confidence as students, in acquiring or refreshing study skills, and in managing their time and other resources while in school. In addition, adult students benefit from opportunities to interact with their peers and need to be actively involved in the educational process through sharing their relevant work and life experiences.

  1. Characteristics
    • May be highly diversified in background, needs, abilities, interests.
    • May have high purpose and motivation.
    • May lack confidence.
    • May be uncertain about how higher education works.
    • May have unrealistic goals.
    • May be in transition.
    • May not understand the aims and purposes of general education.
    • May be anxious to complete general education quickly.
    • May be apprehensive about being compared to traditional students.
    • May have clear need to balance several life roles.
    • May have prior college experience.
    • May need practical orientation.
  2. Advising techniques
    • Treat like adult consumers.
    • Help develop a sense of belonging, confidence and self-esteem.
    • Provide avenues to realize their potential as students.
    • Assist in contacting campus resources (counseling, career services)
    • Teach them to use the university system and how to effect change.
    • Introduce them to adult student services and organizations.
    • Learn their family obligations.


Athletes are a unique population with a significant time commitment outside the classroom.

  1. Characteristics
    • May be under-prepared academically.
    • May have unrealistic career goals.
    • May be academically unsuccessful if unsupported.
    • May be required to comply with external and team regulations.
  2. Advising techniques
    • Begin support services with first-year students.
    • Be aware of constraints of participation in athletics.
    • Establish academic support and intervention systems.
    • Teach problem-solving and decision-making skills.
    • Encourage academic commitment equal to athletics.

(Kerr, 1996, p. 187)

Ethnic minority students

Cunningham (2003) in his article Multicultural Awareness writes:

There are two guiding principles that we must keep in mind: (1) cultural identity is made up of a myriad of aspects, and (2) while we can learn something from generalizations about cultures, we must not allow these generalizations to cause us to stereotype or over-simply our ideas about others. It is crucial that we preface any discussion of diversity issues with firm declarations that ALL people have cultural identity and that we value ALL forms of diversity, whether they be majority or minority.

  • Characteristics
    • May have few positive expectations.
    • Academic performance related to satisfaction with college.
    • Few role models on campus can cause concerns.
    • Limited community and campus resources.
  • Advising techniques
    • Enhance the college student fit.
    • Encourage campus involvement.
    • Suggest campus resources when needed.
    • Encourage positive self-concept.
    • Avoid stereotypical attitudes and expectations.
    • Suggest academic experiences that can prove successful.
    • Acknowledge importance of role models.

(Kerr, 1996, p. 187)

International students

"Advisors cannot merely increase awareness and knowledge about those from other cultures. They must also recognize themselves as cultural creatures and realize that they must first know themselves to appreciate the cultural lenses through which they interpret others." (Cornett-DeVito & Reeves, 1999)

  1. Characteristics
    • Academic and career concerns primary.
    • Prefer practical experience in career areas.
    • Concerns: language, finances and relevant programs.
    • Non-Western students: revere instructors as authority.
    • Many from Third World countries.
    • Limited community and campus resources.
  2. Advising techniques
    • Translate collegiate and US cultures.
    • Familiarize self with student’s academic preparation.
    • Encourage involvement in campus community.
    • Design academic plan relevant to student’s home country.
    • Encourage open view about US lifestyles.

(Kerr, 1996, p. 187)

Pre-professional students

Pre-professional students are those who hope to attain advanced degrees in highly specialized and competitive fields such as medicine and law.

  1. Characteristics
    • May not be degree-seeking.
    • May have limited understanding of profession’s demands.
    • May have limited information of professional preparation.
    • May have a narrow focus of alternatives.
  2. Advising techniques
    • Select electives to complement pre-professional goals.
    • Suggest early contact with the school to which they are transferring.
    • Refer to pre-professional advisors, groups and clubs early.
    • Emphasize need to maintain high academic standards in order to compete for entrance into selective admission programs.
    • Assist in recognizing abilities toward goals.
    • Assist with formation of alternative career plans.

Students with disabilities

The first step when interacting with people with disabilities seems obvious: "Treat them as you would treat anyone else. Students with disabilities come to college for the same reasons other students do. They bring with them the same range of backgrounds, intelligence and academic skills."
– Katherine Staeger-Wilson, Director, Disability Resource Center

  1. Characteristics
    • One or more major life activities are limited.
    • May perceive self as able rather than disabled.
    • May need support from peers and others.
    • May express need for removal of barriers to full participation.
  2. Advising techniques
    • Understand student abilities and barriers.
    • Consider scheduling issues such as physical distance and time between classes.
    • Display positive attitudes about integration of students into college.
    • Encourage full participation in college.
    • Recommend support services when needed.

Act as an advocate. (Hemphill, 2002)

Universal design

Sheryl Burgstahler from Washington University describes ways to provide equal access in advising services through Universal Design:

An increasing number of students with disabilities are pursuing educational opportunities at the college level. Accessibility to student services including advising is becoming increasingly important. The goal of universal design at Missouri State is equal access for everyone. People with a variety of ages, reading abilities, learning styles, native languages, cultures, learning disabilities, visual, speech, hearing and mobility impairments will be seeking higher education. As an advisor, prepare to be accessible to everyone. Make sure the student:

  • feels welcome,
  • can get into your office and maneuver within it,
  • is able to access printed materials and electronic resources you recommend,
  • can participate in events and activities you sponsor.

Helpful communication hints

Treat people with disabilities with the same respect and consideration with which you treat others. There are no strict rules when it comes to relating to people with disabilities. However, here are some helpful hints.

General guidelines

  • Ask a person with a disability if he/she needs help before providing.
  • Talk directly to the person with a disability, not through the person's companion or interpreter.
  • Refer to a person's disability only if it is relevant to the conversation. If so, refer to the person first and then the disability. "A man who is blind" is better than "a blind man" because it emphasizes the person first.
  • Avoid negative descriptions of a person's disability. For example, "a person who uses a wheelchair" is more appropriate than "a person confined to a wheelchair." A wheelchair is not confining- it's liberating!
  • Ask for permission before you interact with a person's guide dog or service dog.

Visual impairments

  • Be descriptive for people with visual impairments. Say, "The computer is about three feet to your left," rather than "The computer is over there."
  • When guiding people with visual impairments, offer them your arm rather than grabbing or pushing them.

Learning disabilities

  • Offer directions/instruction both orally and in writing. If asked, read instructions to individuals who have specific learning disabilities.

Mobility impairments

  • Sit or otherwise position yourself at the approximate height of people sitting in wheelchairs when you interact.

Speech impairments

  • Listen carefully. Repeat what you think you understand and then ask the person with speech impairment to clarify and/or repeat the portion that you did not understand.

Deaf or hard of hearing

  • Face people with hearing impairments so they can see your lips.
  • Speak clearly at a normal volume.
  • Speak more loudly only if requested. Use paper and pencil if the deaf person does not read lips or if more accurate communication is needed.
  • In groups raise hands to be recognized, so the person who is deaf knows who is speaking.
  • When using an interpreter, speak directly to the person who is deaf; when an interpreter voices what a deaf person signs, look at the deaf person, not the interpreter.

Psychiatric impairments

  • Provide information in clear, calm, respectful tones.
  • Allow opportunities for addressing specific questions.

(Burgstahler, 2006)

Transfer students

Transfer students are a diverse population varying greatly in age, college preparedness, goals, and expectations. They have had more college experience than new incoming freshmen, but otherwise it is impossible to make generalizations about them. According to Cindy Fiedler, former Transfer Advisor, the following are common characteristics of and effective advising techniques for transfer students:

  1. Characteristics Familiar with college community
    • Many have attended more than one institution (known as "Swirling").
    • May feel frustrated with diverse campus procedures.
    • Vary greatly in academic talent and preparation.
    • May or may not have clear academic goals.
    • May have difficulty feeling connected to campus community.
    • May have excessive electives.
  2. Advising techniques
    • Explain that policies and procedures vary from campus to campus.
    • Look for ways to assist with connecting student to campus community.
    • Assist with process to re-evaluate electives when appropriate, for inclusion in degree requirements. (Refer to Dr. John Catau, Associate Provost for Undergraduate Education (ext. 64589) for general education courses and department heads for specific major course equivalents.)
    • Assist with understanding process of applying to degree program.

Undecided students

"Undecided, exploring, or open students come from various age groups, backgrounds, and educational experience. As a result, there is no one proven advisement panacea that works best with every open student." (Steele & McDonald, 2000).

"Students enter higher education at various levels of undecidedness. In fact, these students may be in a cyclical process; they will make a decision and then return to undecidedness due to doubt, lack of information, peer influence, fear, parental pressure, etc. All students in the exploring phase must be assessed as individuals." (Slowinski & Hammock, 2003)

  1. Characteristics
    • Unwilling, unable or unready to make educational or vocational decisions.
    • May generally have difficulty making decisions.
    • May be wavering between two or more options.
    • May not be knowledgeable regarding career/major options and/or requirements.
    • May or may not be academically unprepared.
  2. Advising Techniques
    • Be aware of an individual student's values and seek to incorporate these values into the exploration process.
    • Help student operate in a planned organized manner as they approach their exploration.
    • Remind the student that choosing a career/major is a process which takes time and effort.
    • Help identify sources to gain information on prospective fields of study.
    • Encourage student to use all available resources to help with their decision such as the Career Center, faculty etc.

(Slowinski & Hammock, 2003)

Academically at-risk students

Academically at-risk students are those who, for any number or reasons, are not adequately prepared for college.

  1. Characteristics
    • May be first-generation college students.
    • May be financially disadvantaged.
    • May have a physical, mental or emotional disability.
    • May generally have low self-esteem.
    • May have low academic self-concept.
    • May have unrealistic grade and career expectations.
    • May be unfocused in their career objectives.
    • May have external locus of control.
    • May lack adequate study skills for college success.
    • May believe learning is memorizing.
    • May have a history of passive learning.
    • May have low level skills in writing, reading or mathematics.

(Ender and Wilkie, 2000)

  1. Advising techniques
    • Explain importance of developmental courses as foundation/review.
    • Recommend regular advising appointments (monthly, semi-monthly).
    • Establish a trusting relationship.
    • Employ intrusive advising.
    • Strive to help them experience academic success.
    • Help students gain a sense of belonging and significance on campus.
    • Strongly encourage use of academic support systems.

(Jones and Becker 2002)