Advisor as a Significant Other

Yuri Imamura, Kanda University of International Studies
Scott Shelton-Strong, Kanda University of International Studies

Imamura, Y., & Shelton-Strong, S. (2019). Advisor as a significant other. Relay Journal, 2(1), 66-68.

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Introduction by Kie Yamamoto

While advisors take a neutral position in advising sessions, their particular positionality derived from their sociocultural background often–and naturally–encourages learners to openly share their stories. In those cases, advisors are positioned no longer as “advisors”. Rather, they become “insiders” of the learners’ lived experiences. Some of the stories become highly sensitive as the learners create a personal space based on the trusted relationship. It requires a great degree of responsibility to listen to their life stories, yet learning advisors appreciate the learners’ desire to share who they are. The two stories below describe how learning advisors play a role in their learner’s narratives as significant others, highlighting their shared backgrounds with their learners.

Building Rapport through Sharing
Yuri Imamura

I have luckily had lots of memorable advising sessions with KUIS students, and the most memorable one this academic year happened on the very first day of the fall semester.

One student came to my office to tell me she came back from the U.S., and the session started very casually. She would usually talk to me at the help desk for small talk while she was working at the SALC counter. In the session, I let her talk because I sensed that she wanted to share her experiences in the U.S. with someone who has studied abroad before with an empathetic ear. It took over an hour, and she deeply reflected on her experiences including challenges and told me how she tried to deal with the difficulties. Then the student suddenly said “I wanted to know of challenges and obstacles, even small ones that might potentially happen in study abroad contexts before going to the U.S.” She continued “I wonder if I can do something for other students by sharing my study abroad experience as a senior student.” I told her about the study abroad event that former KUIS students held in the SALC in the past and asked her whether she was interested in organising another one. She expressed an interest in it so we brainstormed together about what topics would be useful for those who may want to study abroad in the future. I was so glad that she saw the challenges she experienced in the U.S. in a positive way by herself, and even thought about further action for supporting other KUIS students.

Looking back on the advising session with the student, my suggestion might have been a bit straightforward; yet, I was pleased that it led to an event where she could take ownership and share her valuable and enriching experiences with other students.

Rapport and Relationship Building through Shared Languages and Understanding
Scott Shelton-Strong

One particular student comes to mind when I think over the many memorable advising encounters this academic year. This is not one particular advising session, but rather the sum of several, and the unique character of these.

This student has a Colombian family background and Spanish is her mother tongue. However, she has lived and attended school in Japan since she was 10 years old and uses Japanese as a first language. Because I am also a Spanish speaker (from Spain) when we had our first advising session this year, I asked which language she preferred to do the advising session in. She chose to use Spanish. This was somewhat of a surprise, but made it very interesting as it meant that she could express herself easily, without having to rely on her English, which as she explained to me, she lacked confidence in.

One of her main concerns was based on whether or not she could make the new friends and contacts she wanted and needed, and to speak English with others outside of the classroom to help her fit into the wider picture of her new university life. She began to come and speak to me on a weekly basis while I was at the Learning Help Desk. This became a regular occurrence. We normally continued to use Spanish to do this, even in the face of me code-switching into English when it seemed to be appropriate to the challenges or situation she was describing to me. In fact, we had several sessions in which we used English almost entirely over a period of weeks. I use her initiative to guide me, but we normally return to Spanish when she comes to speak to me now.

She has shared many important and successful achievements with me, and I have seen her change and grow in leaps and bounds. In this case, I believe using Spanish in advising has enabled me to not only reach into areas in our conversations where we could easily build trust and rapport, but also employ the subtle nuances of language to mediate the reflective dialogue, which are normally unavailable to me when speaking to a Japanese speaker of English in advising. I absolutely agree that it is very often the relationship-building that enables us to foster deeper reflection and co-constructed dialogue, and it has been a real joy for me to be able use a shared experience and language to do this as an advisor.

3 thoughts on “Advisor as a Significant Other”

  1. Dear Yuri and Scott,

    While the context of my language advising work is very different, I identify with both your stories of advisor as a significant other. For me, advising – or language counselling, as we call it – takes place within the context of an autonomy-focused English course. The course includes three 15-20 minute counselling sessions, where the student and I discuss their course plan and their learning at different stages of the course. So, while the students must come to counselling sessions, they also come with different ideas about what kind of other their counsellor is or should be. This, I feel, is one of the greatest challenges I face, an advisor: how do I position myself in each counselling session so that I can be a constructive, supportive, enabling other for each individual student.

    Like Yuri, I find that straightforward suggestions often lead to new learning. While the suggestions may be straightforward for language professionals, students may consider them novel ideas and affordances for their language learning. Like Scott, I also find that drawing on shared experiences is important to relate to some students – and here it is often just that equality, rather than the expert-novice relationship, which leads to new ideas, opportunities and motivations for learning.

    During one practitioner-research project on my counselling, I came across the concept of ‘negative or inverted knowledge’ (Bondi & Fewell, 2005). It was used by therapeutic counsellors to distinguish themselves from expert healthcare professionals and refers to how they listen and respond to their clients as equals, as fellow human beings. I believe the idea is useful for language advisors, who may sometimes have to ‘let go’ of their language learning expertise, instead of employing it in an autonomous learning context.

    So, I would like to ask Yuri and Scott the following: Are the positions you describe here common for your advising in general? Do you feel you have to reinvent and reconceptualise your advising identity regularly in response to students? And if so, how do you approach this and reflect on it?

    Thanks for sharing your stories!

    Bondi, L., & Fewell, J. (2003). ‘Unlocking the cage door’: the spatiality of counselling. Social & Cultural Geography, 4(4), 527-547.

    1. Dear Fergal,

      Apologies for taking time in replying to you. Thank you for taking the time to read and comment on our stories. First of all, I am happy to hear that you have also had similar experiences in your ALL. I am personally interested in how you position yourself in your advising (counseling) sessions in the autonomy-focused English course. I guess compulsory advising sessions would have different dynamics, positionallity as a teacher and a counselor, and student expectations in the class. Perhaps, you could contribute your story in the next issue of Relay Journal.

      The student in my story and I have had casual advising sessions for nearly three years, and this close relationship led me to the straightforward suggestion. As a Japanese advisor, I always care about how my advisees position myself. This is because students in KUIS and I have lots of similarities in language learning such as growing up in Japan and getting exposed to the Japanese education, and the similarities tend to lead the expert-novice relationship, in my experience. Thus, when I give my advisee a straightforward suggestion is very important. I feel more comfortable doing that when our relationship is equal, rather than the expert-novice relationship. This requires lots of time to build a trusted relationship between us.

      For your second and third questions, I do not know If I feel I ‘have to’ reinvent and reconceptualise my advising identity regularly in response to students. However, I often reflect on my advising sessions with my colleagues, and discuss what I can do differently for the next time. Perhaps this sort of reflection helps me explore or reconceptualise my identity as a learning advisor.

      Best wishes,


  2. Dear Fergal,

    Thank you for taking the time to comment on our stories. It’s not at all surprising to me that you have had similar experiences and feelings in your advising role as well. After all, fitting ourselves into the advisee’s world, in such a way that allows us to remain in the background, but well-positioned to listen and respond to the needs, successes and worries of our students is paramount to gaining the trust and rapport needed to function effectively in multi-faceted roles of guide, mentor, coach, soundboard, confidant, significant other, etc., that we find ourselves moving in and out of as we develop relationships with those whom we work with as advisors.

    Thank you also for putting to us the insightful, thought provoking questions you ask in relation to our positionality, within the advising experiences we have had. The position I describe in this anecdote, and those that stem from the different roles I’ve mentioned above, are quite common in my advising experience in a very general sense. In other words, because each person I work with brings a unique background, and a very personal story to the advising sessions, I find it necessary to respond to these by allowing or prompting the student to lead, and for me to sort of fit into the spaces/roles that are left open as part of this response, and the dialogue it creates.

    When I am fortunate enough to have a student who returns on a regular basis, such as the one I have shared in this column, it is often the case that the many roles, or positions, emerge and change as the relationship develops. As such, I don’t know if I would say that I feel that I have to reinvent and reconceptualise my advising identity regularly per se; but rather keep an open mind and an open ear so that I can respond appropriately to each student – as a person who is sympathetic to the complex personality and situation they have come to share with me – and to use my experience and empathy to help them reflect on their aims, achievements, worries and questions, with the goal of helping them discover how much they can do for themselves once they are better positioned to see what they are capable of doing.

    Ways I have reflected on my advising and the role I play within the sessions/conversations have included, recording and transcribing advising sessions (with the student’s agreement), and doing a reflective analysis of the dialogue, by examining my use of different advising strategies, and how these helped (or hindered) the flow of the session, and where these placed us along the way. I agree that it is important and useful to take time to consider how we, as advisors, change and how our perceptions of what we do and how we try to accomplish it changes also.

    Perhaps, another quite straightforward way to do this could be to keep a diary, following sessions with one or more students one works regularly with, which would provide opportunities to reflect further on how our advising identity shifts and evolves over time. This could be an effective approach to further reflect on this somewhat hard-to-access aspect of advising, and contribute to developing a deeper understanding of what goes on beneath the surface of the reflective dialogue of advising in language learning, and the importance of stepping back to get a wider view.

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