Building Successful Academic Advising for Online and On-Campus Graduate Students: Reflections from the Master of Science in Nonprofit Leadership at the University of Pennsylvania | Roth-Saks

written by: Adam Roth-Saks


Professional graduate student advising is often overlooked in practice and research. Having worked to build an advising program for my online and on-campus students grounded in the literature, I have a few observations and reflections on my experience that might benefit others who are looking to build, enhance, or transform graduate-focused programs. While we implicitly know graduate students are a different population, it is important to consider how advising theories and strategies can be explicitly applied to them. While most of us have experienced emergency remote learning due to the pandemic, intentionally creating sustainable and intentional online advising that supports online and on-campus students takes time and effort. Using existing structures and practices can make a transition to more intentional advising easier while still improving how we support our students.

The Nonprofit Leadership Program

The Nonprofit Leadership Program (NPL) at the University of Pennsylvania is offered as a one-year full-time or a two- to three-year part-time master’s degree. The program is offered in online and on-campus formats which can also be combined into a hybrid format. There are approximately 100 students (60 on-campus students and 40 online students) in the program each year including continuing part-time students (Mazzola, 2021). In addition to curricular components, students are required to complete a co-curricular leadership practicum. This practicum is a combination internship for and mentorship by a leader at a social impact organization.

The degree structure and co-curricular requirements are unique to the NPL program both at the School of Social Policy & Practice (SP2) and at the University of Pennsylvania (Penn) while having some elements common to many master’s degree programs. The program and institution inform the structure and model for advising, the design of the orientation, how best to serve all students and those facing difficulties, and the assessment and professional development of advisors.

An Advising Program Grounded in the Literature

Before moving into how I worked with the advising program at Penn, a bit of literature to provide context. A strong advising experience can determine a student’s success and requires an understanding of individual students as well as each specific institution. According to Pardee (2008), “an advising program cannot be developed, assessed, and improved without considering its organizational context” (p. 192). Additionally, the organizational structure of an academic advising program cannot be changed without considering the characteristics of the department, school, or institution (Pardee, 2008).

As we have developed the advising structure at our institution, we have identified a structure to meet the needs of students as well as a structure that aligns with and is supported by the institution. The characteristics of the NPL program, SP2, and Penn are influential in the advising program structure for the NPL program. Penn is a decentralized university with 12 graduate schools. SP2 is one of those graduate schools and has five degree programs which each have their own faculty, administrators, and advisors. The NPL program offers online and on-campus formats for part-time and full-time students.

Given these elements, we chose a decentralized structure for the advising team where advising is housed in the specific academic department combined with a modified dual advising model with a professional advisor for curricular advising and policy adherence and a faculty mentor focused on professional development and sector specific knowledge (Pardee, 2008). This model considers financial constraints, additional responsibilities of staff, and the expectations for faculty at Penn (Pardee, 2008).

Online and on-campus orientations complement advising and offer students a chance to engage with each other to develop a sense of belonging across the online and on-campus formats as well as provide a source of information throughout the program (Almanazar et al., 2018). The online orientation is offered as a combination of synchronous and asynchronous components because research indicates that both formats prepare students to learn online effectively, but that students often prefer one or the other format based on their personal and professional commitments (Vaill, 2013).

Finally, group and individual advising support and reinforce one another based on practices found in the literature including group advising to promote peer-to-peer learning, strengths-based advising for general student support, and appreciative advising for students in academic difficulty (Ryan, 2015; Schreiner, 2013; Truschel, 2008). Strengths-based advising, as the name states, focuses on student strengths instead of weaknesses and helps them use their talents to tackle challenges, helps them identify their career passions, and motivates them through a positive relationship (Schreiner & Anderson, 2005; Schreiner, 2013). Strengths-based advising is informed by research that shows while focusing on weaknesses can lead to some improvement, focusing on strengths can lead to excellence (Schreiner & Anderson, 2005). Additionally, strengths-based advising is directly tied to social work and the idea that people already have the abilities they need to excel if social workers help them tap into those abilities (Schreiner & Anderson, 2005). Drawing upon peoples’ strengths is especially appropriate as SP2 was founded as a school of social work and so this practice connects to the overall philosophy of the school (“Mission Statement,” n.d.).

Appreciative advising has six stages and is based on appreciative inquiry (Truschel, 2008).

Table 1

Stages of Appreciative Advising

Stage Description
Disarm Student builds a relationship with their advisor
Discover Advisor helps the student identify strengths
Dream Student and advisor identify goals for the student
Design Student and advisor create plan together to achieve goals
Deliver Advisor provides support while holding student accountable
Don’t Settle Advisor pushes the student to excel

(Adapted from Truschel, 2008).

Miller et al. (2019) found that an appreciative advising model used on-campus was successful for online students by tying each of the stages to a different form of communication including phone and email. An appreciative advising program implemented at Eastern Illinois University for online adult learners also found that using phone and email with an awareness of tone and questions tied to the appreciative advising stages left students feeling more supported (Bloom et al., 2009). These strategies have helped inform advising in the NPL program and efforts to use email in a deeper way than simple administrative communication and phone as a way to follow up with students who may not be as responsive by email.

Appreciative Advising in the NPL Program

Given the decentralized nature of SP2 and Penn, we have implemented a dual model with a professional advisor for academic advising and a faculty mentor for professional development. There are two staff advisors for the program, one to advise the online students and one to advise the on-campus students with a caseload of 50 to 60 students each. Although this is much lower than the average of 296 students per advisor according to NACADA (2019), it is appropriate given the additional advisor responsibilities including recruitment and admissions, course development and faculty support, practicum placements, and orientation.

Our four standing faculty serve as mentors for the students. While advising is not required for tenure and traditionally SP2 faculty have not been involved directly in master’s student advising, the faculty mentor the master’s students to support their career development and professional goals. The incorporation of faculty as mentors instead of academic advisors also addresses financial constraints as the role does not reduce the teaching load of professors. Students are able to meet with faculty mentors once a semester and students will be responsible for scheduling those meetings. This is different from academic advising when advisors ensure that students meet with them at least once per semester.

The Advising Team

Our office includes four points of contact for students. The faculty director for the program provides oversight and serves as one of the faculty mentors. An administrative director who reports to the faculty director and serves as the on-campus advisor. The online program coordinator who reports to the administrative director and serves as the online advisor. Finally, a program coordinator who reports to the administrative director and supports all aspects of the program. Since almost half the program is online learners and half is part-time working professionals, we have been able to justify the need for two advisors with about 100 students in the program in an academic year.

This structure also allows for close coordination between faculty mentors, professional advisors, and program administration since the roles overlap. As a result, students receive holistic attention through advising and mentoring. Housing these services in a single office also makes the process more cohesive and convenient.

Program Orientation

Part of the role of both advisors is to design, implement, and lead orientation. Because our program offers both online and on-campus formats, we also offer both formats for student orientation. Online students are required to participate in the online orientation and on-campus students are required to participate in the on-campus orientation, although all students are encouraged to attend both orientations. This involvement encourages socialization and cohort building to establish a sense of belonging for graduate students. The online orientation happens in early August before the on-campus orientation in late August to allow for online students to travel to campus if they wish to participate in the on-campus orientation.

The online orientation is a combination of synchronous and asynchronous components hosted through video conferencing using Zoom and a specific course created in the Learning Management System at Penn, Canvas. Offering live and recorded components helps address concerns of students who have not taken online courses before, helps students adjust to online courses, and offer flexibility for busy working professional students.

The Canvas course site is accessible to online and on-campus students throughout their program, not just during orientation as a single repository for campus resources, forms, policies, and other useful information. As with the online orientation, the on-campus orientation prepares students for the program and offers information about policies, resources, and procedures in the program. It also offers an opportunity for socialization, building relationships, and networking across the online and on-campus formats and for part-time and full-time students.

Additional Relational Strategies

Another element of the academic advising program that reinforces networking and community are monthly practicum meetings. These meetings are already required as part of the co-curricular leadership practicum that is required for all students. In the past, meetings happened in-person for on-campus students and over Zoom for online students, although in response to the pandemic for the past two years we have offered all practicum meetings over Zoom. The practicum meetings also serve as group advising sessions since they are led by the administrative director and online and on-campus coordinators and are an opportunity for students in the program to learn from each other as well as their advisors.

The practicum is already tied to professional development, so the practicum meetings as group advising sessions focus on the student learning outcome of communicating skills and knowledge to employers. In addition to the specific learning outcome, each monthly meeting focuses on an additional topic. Topics may be appropriate because of timing, (i.e., advanced course registration), or a specific need (i.e., feedback from students on issues in the program).

One-to-One Advising

One-to-one advising is essential for working with students who are struggling academically as well as the entire student population in the NPL program. The academic advising program considers multiple advising approaches from the literature mentioned above including strengths-based and appreciative advising to meet the individual needs on-campus, online, part-time, and full-time NPL students. Strengths-based advising is especially useful in the NPL program as students often join the program to follow their career passions in the social impact sector and it echoes the strengths-based approach of the field of social work. While strengths-based advising is used generally, advisors are also encouraged to use the complementary appreciative advising approach for students facing academic difficulty.

Future Considerations

Future Relational Strategies

In the future, we hope to implement another element of the academic advising program to reinforce networking and relational components. We will ask students to complete the CliftonStrengths Assessment before the start of the program. The CliftonStrengths Assessment was developed by the Gallup Organization from research that showed focusing on talents helped people improve their performance more than trying to address their weaknesses (Schreiner & Anderson, 2005). The assessment will help students identify their strengths and passions and directly connects with the career development provided by professional advisors and faculty mentors as well as the strengths-based advising approach the program utilizes (Schreiner & Anderson, 2005).

Advising Strategies

Additionally, we hope to implement a more robust appreciative advising approach for those students facing difficulty in the program considering specific implementation and formats for each of the six stages of appreciative advising (Truschel, 2008).

Appreciative Advising Application, Penn NPL Program

Stage Description NPL Implementation Format



Student builds a relationship with their advisor


Orientation, one-on-one, and group advising


In-person, phone, and video conferencing




Advisor helps the student identify strengths


CliftonStrengths Assessment






Student and advisor identify goals for the student


Identifying academic and career goals with students


Email, in-person, phone, and video conferencing




Student and advisor create plan together to achieve those goals


Student and advisor address difficulty and strategies for the student to overcome it


Email, in-person, phone, and video conferencing




Advisor provides support while holding the student accountable


At least three one on one meetings in any semester the student faces difficulty, supported by practicum meetings for group advising


In-person and video conferencing

Don’t Settle Advisor pushes the student to excel Regular follow up between meetings from advisor Email and phone

Adapted from: Kamphoff et al., 2007; Miller et al., 2019; Truschel, 2008.

NPL Advising Assessment

Simply being aware of advising approaches and best practices will not be enough to make sure advisors help students succeed. We also hope to implement an advising assessment to determine the effectiveness of advisors. Using quantitative and qualitative survey components, an annual assessment will measure advisor accessibility online and in-person, knowledge of policies and the social impact sector, and relational abilities (Cuseo, 2015). Focus groups supplement the surveys to ensure participation across program format and part-time and full-time students (Demetriou, 2005). The focus group will be moderated by someone in another department at SP2 to ensure students feel they can be honest in the discussion (Demetriou, 2005).

Both the survey and focus group will also measure how often students use campus resources, their engagement with the practicum, and how well they understand the program requirements (Cuseo, 2015). Additionally, the assessment will be done at least once a year since the program is one year for full-time students and will be reviewed by students and advisors for feedback before implementation (Cuseo, 2015; Yoder & Joslin, 2015).

We piloted the focus group element of the assessment this year through an external examination of the program and found students and alumni were responsive to sharing their thoughts on the program and advising structure. We also received survey data from SP2 Student Affairs on satisfaction rates across all of the degree programs indicated three quarters of our students were satisfied with the program, although students were not asked specifically about advising.

The assessment will not exist in a bubble, it will be used to improve advising and will be directly tied to future professional development opportunities (Cuseo, 2015). Currently, comprehensive training is not offered as part of the advising role in the NPL program. However, new advisors do get on the job training and shadowing experienced advisors (Yoder & Joslin, 2015). To improve the advising program, using information from assessments, advisors will be encouraged to attend the Student Affairs Leadership Team (SALT) annual conference at Penn. Additionally, staff will receive training from Counseling and Psychological Services, the LGBT Center, and the cultural centers at the Arts, Research and Cultural House (ARCH) (Kouzoukas, 2020). Advisors will also be expected to use their professional development budgets to attend webinars and regional conferences for the Global Community for Academic Advising (NACADA), American College Personnel Association (ACPA), Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education (NASPA), and other appropriate professional organizations (Duberstein, 2012; Kouzoukas, 2020; Yoder & Joslin, 2015).

Personal Reflection

Although I have participated in the SALT Conference almost every year I have been at Penn and took a course on advising as part of my doctoral program, unfortunately that has been the extent of my professional development in academic advising. Advisor training in the Nonprofit Leadership program has been an example of learning on the job and being thrown into the deep end. Yoder and Joslin (2015) argue that finding a more experienced advisor to support a new advisor as a mentor can help with challenges as well as continuity, and I was lucky that my predecessor in the role was incredibly supportive and available to mentor me even though he left Penn before I arrived. I was also able to mentor the online program coordinator I hired who advises students and the on-campus program coordinator who supports advising now that I have a better understanding of all the elements required of advisors, but we of course need continual professional development which Folsom (2015) argues is key to mastery of changing theories, best practices, and policies for advisors.

I am a strong believer in the strengths-based approach not only to advising, but also to staff management. In my career before higher education, two of my managers had me complete the CliftonStrengths assessment and believed the best employees have roles focused on their strengths, everyone has natural talents, and weaknesses can be managed without being emphasized (Schreiner & Anderson, 2005). This approach helped me identify my career path and guides my philosophy of building an advising program that plays to the strengths of my team and students. Although it would be great to have faculty more involved in advising, the NPL faculty strengths are mentorship and teaching (Pardee, 2008). Although I would prefer staff dedicated only to advising, the financial reality means we all hold multiple roles (Pardee, 2008).

Advising should emphasize students’ strengths and help them develop their passions (Schreiner, 2013). When a student comes to me and tells me that the class I recommended changed their learning, they found the perfect job, they identified an opportunity at school, or they connected with an incredible academic or professional mentor, I know I have done my job well (Dyer, 2007; “Statement of Advising Philosophy Prompts,” n.d.). I am far from a perfect advisor and need to focus more on a strengths-based mindset instead of a deficit one, but I believe developing an advising program that acknowledges limitations of time and resources while playing to the strengths of the staff, faculty, and students can lead to amazing student success (Schreiner & Anderson, 2005; “Statement of Advising Philosophy Prompts,” n.d.).

Questions to Consider

  1. What are different advising needs for graduate and undergraduate students? For online and on-campus students?
  2. What is the advising philosophy of your office? What is your personal advising philosophy?
  3. How have you assessed the effectiveness of advising in your office?




Master of Science in Nonprofit Leadership

Advising Syllabus

Advisors and Contact Information:

On-Campus Students
Adam Roth-Saks

Online Students
Molly Sinderbrand, PhD

Office Hours and Location:

Monday through Friday 8 am to 5 pm by appointment only

To schedule a time with Adam, please email, call, or use

Adam’s open office hours: Mondays 3 pm to 4 pm at 3815 Walnut St, 1st Floor

Thursdays 8:30 to 9:30 pm at Passcode: nonprofit

To schedule a time with Molly, please email or call

Molly’s open office hours: Fridays 11 am to 12 pm via Zoom


The Nonprofit Leadership advising team aspires to provide excellent academic advising and career development, so students can pursue social innovation, impact, and justice (“Mission Statement,” n.d.; NACADA, 2017).


We are committed to engaging all NPL students in their own learning through course planning, nonprofit leadership practicum placements, and networking opportunities. Advising is tailored to each individual student to empower them to succeed academically, professionally, and personally. While we support students in their academic journey, ultimately, each student is accountable for their learning and success (“Advising @ UNI,” n.d.; “Academic Advising,” n.d.; NACADA, 2017). 

Student Learning Outcomes: 

  • Identify their passions and professional goals in the social impact sector
  • Use campus services and resources to further their goals and address challenges
  • Complete the curricular and co-curricular requirements to graduate from the program
  • Effectively communicate to potential employers the skills and knowledge they’ve gained from the program

Expectations and Responsibilities: (“Advising Syllabus for Graduate Students,” 2018; Folsom, 2015a; “Expectations & Responsibilities of the Student, Advisor and Graduate Group,” 2020)

Advisor Student
Understand NPL curriculum and NPL, SP2, & Penn Requirements & Policies Be familiar with NPL, SP2, & Penn Degree Requirements & Policies
Support students in tracking NPL degree progress Accept responsibility for and monitor NPL degree progress
Support students in finding a leadership practicum placement Participate fully in leadership practicum placement
Understand social impact sector and career opportunities Engage with social impact sector and larger social movements
Communicate openly, honestly, and in a timely manner Communicate openly, honestly, and in a timely manner
Provide referrals to Penn resources Utilize Penn resources as necessary


Advising Structure:

  • Students will be assigned an academic advisor based on their program format (online or on-campus); each advisor will work with 55 to 60 students.
  • Students will also be assigned a faculty mentor
  • Students will complete an online orientation (required for online students) and/or an on-campus orientation (required for on-campus students) as well as the CliftonStrengths assessment (provided by the program) before the program (Schreiner & Anderson, 2005).
  • Students should plan to meet with their academic advisor two to three times per academic year, preferably before course registration each semester, but definitely before add/drop ends and their faculty mentor once per semester (see SP2 Academic Calendar link below)
  • Students should prepare for advising sessions by:
    • Reviewing courses (see NPL Curriculum link below)
    • Updating their academic planning worksheet (see Penn in Touch link below)
    • Completing practicum forms (see NPL Practicum link below)
    • Considering additional resources based on meeting topics (See links below).
  • Advisors will review students’ records before advising sessions.
  • Advising sessions can be in-person, by phone, or over Zoom. If necessary, advising sessions can also be by email, although follow up may be necessary.


Tools & Resources:


NPL Practicum:

NPL Curriculum:

SP2 Academic Resources:

SP2 Academic Calendar:

Canvas help:

Path@Penn (Student Portal):

Penn Libraries:

SP2 Student Handbook:

Penn Policies:

SP2 Student Services:

Vice Provost for University Life (Weingarten Learning Resources, Student Disability Services, LGBT Center, Women’s Center, Violence Prevention, Intervention Services):

Wellness (Counseling and Psychological Services, Student Health Services):

Career Services:

Adam Roth-Saks is the Administrative Director of the Master of Science in Nonprofit Leadership at the School of Social Policy & Practice at the University of Pennsylvania. Prior to joining Penn, he worked in international education arranging experiential opportunities for university students and faculty with nonprofits and social enterprises in Latin America, Asia, and Africa. Adam received his BA from Brown University, his MSEd in International Educational Development at the Graduate School of Education at Penn and is currently pursuing his EdD with a concentration in Higher Education at Penn.

Adam Roth-Saks (he/him) is the Administrative Director of the Master of Science in Nonprofit Leadership at the School of Social Policy & Practice at the University of Pennsylvania. Prior to joining Penn, he worked in international education arranging experiential opportunities for university students and faculty with nonprofits and social enterprises in Latin America, Asia, and Africa. Adam received his BA from Brown University, his MSEd in International Educational Development at the Graduate School of Education at Penn and is currently pursuing his EdD with a concentration in Higher Education at Penn.


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