Helicopter Advisors

Guest Post by Ellen Shertzer, Director of Leadership for Delta Tau Delta International Fraternity

During a focus group recently conducted with fraternity men I posed this question: “Describe an experience during college that you feel has helped you develop the most.” Right away one of the men said that it was an event he planned for the chapter that had failed miserably. He shared how he had no idea what he was supposed to do, but jumped in and tried to complete the task on his own. Through reflection after the event he realized many things he could have done differently. He even commented on how he was going to teach the student who would have the position next year what he learned to avoid those problems in the future.

I have to admit I was surprised, excited and a little befuddled by his answer.  I was expecting him to talk about a leadership retreat, or an experience like UIFI, or some other event planned by someone like me.  It challenged my thought process on how we build and deliver educational opportunities for our students. It also encouraged me to reflect on my own advising style as a fraternity staff member.

We have all heard of the Millennial generation and their overbearing helicopter parents. You may have even experienced this during sorority recruitment when, for example, a mother contacted you about her daughter not being invited back by every chapter.  Or perhaps when a fraternity president’s father called you in response to your request to meet with his child due to some hazing allegations. I immediately get frustrated in those situations and criticize the parents for not allowing their children to fully experience these teachable moments.

I am now rethinking this concept and would like to propose a new term: the helicopter advisor.  We often mock and criticize the helicopter parent – but perhaps they are not the only ones hovering above our students.

I admit I have fallen victim to this tendency in my professional career. The helicopter advisor may be a professional campus Greek advisor or chapter advisor. They are so involved with the chapter, council or community that they rob students of learning moments. For me, I know I fell victim to this during Greek Weeks, sorority recruitment, president retreat planning and many other highly visible events or programs. We often become more focused on planning a successful event versus allowing the students to experience the process.

For example, as an undergraduate member of my chapter I served as the recruitment director for Panhellenic. I had a Greek advisor who was new and gave me 100 percent of the responsibility for delivery of the program. She wasn’t around when compute-a-rush (for those of is old-schoolers) crashed and, God forbid, she didn’t spend the night in the student union with us. After the event, the Director of Student Activities took me out to lunch to discuss my experience. I remember complaining about the Greek advisor’s lack of involvement.

Now looking back, I wasn’t as insightful as that 20-year-old fraternity man to see the opportunity I was given to fail and succeed in my leadership position. I was more focused on the fact that this advisor didn’t swoop in and save the day as I had been groomed to expect. Thirteen years later I realize the impact that experience had on my life.

My challenge for Greek advisors and chapter advisors is to assess your style and determine if you are a helicopter advisor. Do you swoop in and save the day? Or do you allow and encourage failure to happen? Do you thrive on running a well-oiled operation that continues to produce successful products? Or do you bite your tongue even when you know the answer is to allow students the chance to solve the problem on their own?

Our society needs men and women with the autonomy and resiliency that comes from making and learning from mistakes.  It doesn’t need more people whom, when faced with challenges, look upward in the sky for their helicopter advisor to save the day.

Ellen Shertzer recently joined the staff of Delta Tau Delta after working for Fraternity and Sorority Life at Indiana University.  She has also advised Greeks at the University of Maryland and Northern Illinois University.  Ellen is a member of Sigma Sigma Sigma and has served as a national volunteer.