Advising Large-Scale Events: Be a Guide on the Side–not a Sage on the Stage

Advising Large-Scale Events: Be a Guide on the Side–not a Sage on the Stage

Lindsay Ritenbaugh

Program Coordinator for Student Organizations, Office of Student Involvement, DePaul University

As a first-year graduate student of the University of Florida’s Student Personnel in Higher Education program, our student development theory professor gave me advice I will never forget.

The back story—I had traveled as a leadership development consultant for my sorority’s national headquarters the year after obtaining my undergraduate degree in Elementary Education and then taught first-third grade for the next four years. Some might argue this was perfect preparation for working with college students, but it was still necessary for me to get the adequate classroom and practical training to be a successful student affairs professional. While volunteering in the Center for Student Involvement during my alma mater’s Panhellenic sorority recruitment week in the evenings after my fourth year of teaching, I quickly learned that this thing called “student leader advising” could become an actual career.

Fast forward to the next fall—I was now in the classroom as a student, not the educator. While I was not a traditionally-aged graduate student continuing my undergraduate experience, I still took these words to heart:

  • “This is not undergrad 2.0.”
  • “Remember it’s not about you—it’s about the students.”
  • “Be purposeful and intentional.”
  • “When advising, be a guide on the side—not a sage on the stage!”

I am now in my third year of my professional student affairs career, overseeing 330 student organizations at DePaul University in Chicago and directly advising three: DemonTHON (DePaul’s Miracle Network Dance Marathon), Best Buddies, and Delta Phi Lambda Sorority, Inc. While my level of support varies from group to group, my advising style remains the same. As Dr. Ponjuan asserted, it is not about me. I could have been the most incredible student leader with the most innovative way of leading a meeting or planning an event, but each institution and student organization differs. Rather than pushing my [albeit proven effective] ideas on the executive board, I have trained myself to ask their input about a proposed idea rather than sharing what has helped me find success at the University of ___________’s dance marathon/sorority/student organization. While benchmarking is important, it is paramount for students to learn these skills on their own.

Am I the perfect advisor? Of course not. Do I have some days when I feel like I make more/less of a difference in the lives of my students? Certainly. I try to balance Sanford’s notion of Challenge and Support (1967) along with Schlossberg’s transition theory (1984) to guide students in my role as the advisor. Do I call them out when things are not done to the degree I know they are capable of performing? You bet.

Here are five tips I have found helpful when advising a group that is planning a large-scale event:

  1. Take time to transition student leaders appropriately.
    There is nothing worse than reinventing the wheel each fall because the outgoing leaders assumed the incoming leaders knew what their expectations were for the following year. In 2004, we used binders. Students today have found success with Google Drive, OrgSync, and Slack. Find what works and hold students accountable for completing this necessary part of the student organization transition. You’ll thank yourself later, and so will the incoming student leaders.

  2. “Never settle for satisfactory.” – my graduate internship supervisor, Erin Butler
    Because I care, I expect students to exceed my (and their own) expectations. Then, I find ways to recognize small wins as they arise. If you expect much from your students academically and through their co-curricular student leadership roles, you are actually helping prepare them for future success in their careers and volunteer roles post-graduation.

  3. Plan ahead.
    This sounds silly, but those who fail to prepare can prepare to fail unless they are strategic in their planning for the upcoming year. Make a strategic plan and stick to it. Create a year-long calendar and hold your team accountable for achieving these goals.

  4. Motivate, motivate, motivate.
    This might also seem like a no-brainer, but you are there to advise and support the students with whom we work. Whether that is recognizing small wins, reminding students of the end goal, or helping them see a different perspective, we are the ones who believe in them when they do not yet believe in themselves. Be an unapologetic optimist. Be the voice that says “You can!” in a room that says, “We cannot!” Plus, you get the opportunity to say “I knew you could do it!” at the end of the year banquet. Everyone wins.

  5. “Be a guide on the side—not a sage on the stage.” – Dr. Ponjuan
    In my work with DePaul’s Dance Marathon, we are all on our feet for 24+ hours for the same cause—raising funds and awareness for the kids at Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago, our local Children’s Miracle Network Hospital. But it’s not Lindsay Ritenbaugh’s Dance Marathon [as much as I have to remind my mom when she posts about it on Facebook]. It is a student-led movement, with advisors on the sidelines as cheerleaders and coaches. At the 24-hour dance marathon in our basketball arena, affectionately known as the Big Event each spring, my job is not to speak from the microphone, teach the choreography for the Morale dance, or complete the 257,048 other tasks that can/should be easily completed by the overall committee of 36 college students and 37 morale captains. My job is to do what is needed at the time.

Sometimes it is standing around and offering support. Sometimes it is listening to someone cry out of exhaustion and fear. Sometimes it is picking up random water bottles from the tarp-covered basketball court at hour 14. Sometimes it is helping with a crisis management plan of action. And sometimes it is just dancing with a participant who needs a partner at hour 22. Modeling the way is key in our role as advisors.

No matter the role, how big or how small, your sideline support is essential to the organization’s success. How can we expect students to go above and beyond and/or complete the more menial tasks unless they see their advisors doing the same? When the end of the event arrives, the celebration should be focused on the students and what THEY have accomplished for the patients and families at the children’s hospital—not on what the advisors from the campus and hospital have done as professional staff members. You are there to be a resource, not to receive the glory and recognition for the student-led efforts.

How do you guide your students to find their best versions of themselves as campus leaders?

About the author: Lindsay Ritenbaugh oversees 350 student organizations at DePaul University in Chicago, IL. She supervises two undergraduate student involvement ambassadors and one graduate student, while directly advising DePaul’s Dance Marathon, Best Buddies, and Delta Phi Lambda Sorority, Inc. Lindsay’s free time is spent watching college football (Go Gators!), spending time with Kappa Delta alumnae where she serves as chapter president, playing trivia, and making the most of Broadway in Chicago offerings. She is training to run the Disney Princess Half Marathon next February, but for now, is a professional Netflix marathoner. Connect with her on social media.

Lindsay Ritenbaugh

Program Coordinator for Student Organizations, Office of Student Involvement, DePaul University