Advising and Supporting HBCU Students

portrait of Cobretti D. Williams, Ph.D.
Cobretti D. Williams, Ph.D.
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Editor, Reviewer & Writer

Cobretti D. Williams, Ph.D. (he/him), is a scholar, writer, and editor. Cobretti's research and writing focuses on the experiences of historically excluded students and faculty and staff in higher education. His work has been published in the Journal...
Published on Oct 14, 2021
Updated Nov 18, 2021
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Academic advising is an important foundation for student success. This necessity is just as (if not more) important for HBCU students. In this interview, I speak with Dr. Floressa J. Hannah-Jefforson, the academic ombudsperson at Jackson State University. During this interview, Dr. Hannah-Jefferson speaks about her approach to advising, what makes the HBCU experience unique, and how she seeks to get the best out of her students well after graduation.

Read on to learn more from her experience and expertise.

Portrait of Floressa J. Hannah-Jefferson, Ph.D.

Floressa J. Hannah-Jefferson, Ph.D.

Janelle currently serves as the academic ombudsperson at Jackson State University. She also serves as chair for the HBCU Advising Community and co-chair for the Education Subcommittee of the REI Work Group for the National Academic Advising Association (NACADA). Janelle is one of JSU's team leads for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation Frontier Set.

Prior to her current appointment, Janelle served as the director of the University Academic Advisement Center, coordinator of academic advisement, director of the Academic Enhancement Center for Student Athletes, and an instructor where she taught university success and developed a colloquia course entitled "Hip-Hop and Politics: Music in the Movements." Janelle is happily married to Reginald. They have four children: Hart, Jacob, Brooklynn, and Eli.

How do you approach advising your students?

I want to come from a strengths-based approach so I first try to build a relationship with the student. Students who choose to attend an HBCU do so because authenticity is very important to our culture. I have found this approach that really resonates to me and who I am as a professional in this field. I want to ensure that when you come into my space and when you meet me, you know that you're going to meet somebody that is in your corner.

I'm also a product of this university, as well, and I know it's not just about these students — the parents and alumni are also involved; everyone from mothers to grandmothers and brothers are bringing first-year students to campus because we are a family here. If you want to build productive and successful relationships with students, you have to show yourself to be somebody that's open and accessible.

What are the primary concerns you encounter while advising HBCU students?

One of the biggest concerns has been the expectations for academic rigor and preparation for life after college. Some instructors take the role of being strict with students to give them a sense of what they can expect when they apply for jobs or graduate school once they graduate.

I tend to take the more nurturing approach, but I believe both are important. While we want students to feel comfortable and a part of the family, much like an older familial figure or mentor, you have to be honest and challenge students so they can learn and grow.

The other concern often comes with balancing academics with external factors outside the classroom. As is the case for many students, especially today, life is happening at the same time that they are pursuing a degree, so it calls for them to manage their time and emotions in a way that is different from not having to deal with stressors or environmental factors they encounter outside the classroom. In that case, my role is to see the humanity in their experience, express authenticity, and keep them on track to completing their goals.

It helps when an advisor has similar shared experiences to the students they advise, but ultimately, all advisors should be prepared to meet the social, academic, and political challenges students face today.

What has been your experience advising HBCU students that do not identify as Black? How do you navigate potential differences in shared identity?

Again, this goes back to building a relationship above all else. Sure, I may have navigational similarities with some students more than others, but I am also someone who is naturally friendly and engaging with everyone I meet, regardless of their race or ethnicity.

Our campuses are changing so much these days, and the myth of HBCUs being exclusively Black is no longer the case. Our services and resources are for all students who choose to attend our institution — it's just a matter of getting to know what makes them engaged, tapping into that, and connecting them with the community across campus so they do not feel disconnected.

What advice would you provide to first-year students attending an HBCU?

Use the resources available to you and do not be afraid to ask questions. Whether you want to know about scholarships to help fund your education, or popular student traditions on campus, or have an opportunity to meet peers in the same career field or academic discipline as you, these are resources that are often at students' fingertips. It's just a matter of being brave and taking advantage of them.

As well, remember that at the end of the day, no matter how you come to campus or leave after graduation, we are a family, and the students, alumni, faculty, and staff will be here to support you along the way.

Feature Image: Klaus Vedfelt / DigitalVision / Getty Images