Best Practices for Sustaining a Student Advisory Board

By Suzanne Helbig

A Student Advisory Board is a recurring focus group, a group of students who meet regularly to share their needs and expectations as well as emerging trends.

The data from an SAB provides the invaluable "stories" that fill in the gaps of quantitative research.  For example, at UC Berkeley we wanted to brand a new portal we had created for accessing our online services. Potential names had been voted on using face-to-face polls. But the SAB quickly steered us away from embarrassment ("BearBuzz" immediately brought inebriation to mind, not the hub of activity we had envisioned) and negative associations ("BearSource" was reminiscent of homework and citing your sources). These names had fared well in our polling, but the insights from our SAB helped us quickly strike them from our list and to focus on what our student audience preferred.

Get the Right People in the Room

SABs are incredibly valuable, but they do have their challenges. Interviews with college career center staff members nation-wide revealed that recruitment is the toughest one. While it can be arduous to recruit a group of students that is representative of the entire student body (i.e., ethnicity, gender, class level, majors, etc.), there are ways to reach out to these groups, be it through academic departments or student organizations.

The greater challenge may be drawing a mix of students who reflect the varying levels of knowledge about your center that exist on campus. Since a significant portion of your student body turns over every year, there will always be students who are unfamiliar with your services. You want to include "low knowledge" students on your board so you can learn how to maximize first impressions, offer relevant programs, and improve promotions. Unfortunately, it is hard to recruit low-knowledge students because the usual communication channels do not seem to reach them.

When we considered the drain on staff time that would go into recruitment (let alone running the board, creating meaningful agenda items, implementing the findings, etc.), it nearly prevented us from moving forward. But knowing that the rewards could be great, we endeavored to come up with a solution. In so doing, we recalled that we already had a committed group of students right under our roof - our student staff. Could this group of 20 students that represents many aspects of diversity make up our board? Almost!

We still needed a group of students who had little knowledge about our center. In an inspired moment, we hit upon the idea of requiring each student staff member to bring a campus friend who does not use our services along to the board meetings. We ran a pilot board meeting with this requirement in place and... it worked!  (The free pizza probably didn't hurt.) For the past two years, we have had a very productive SAB made up of our student staff and their friends. Following are other best practices we've learned from experience and interviews with other career center staffers that can help you develop an SAB within your own campus or client community.

Top 10 Best Practices

1. Cast a Wide Net

Plan to recruit 8-20+ students for your board. This may seem like a lot, but get more than you need and plan for attrition.

2. Outreach Effectively

If you cannot use our "invite a friend" model to find members, the most effective outreach method is to approach student groups, including affinity groups that you want to target. Other methods include leveraging your career center email lists and Facebook presence, and asking faculty and staff to nominate students.

3. Keep it Simple

Keep any application process brief. At the most ask for a short statement of interest, resume, and basic demographic info. Most SABs accept everyone who applies, recognizing it is nearly impossible to get the perfect mix of students.

4. Draw a Crowd

You have worked hard to recruit board members, now get them in the door! Free food alone works wonders for this. In addition, you may consider giving board members recognition at employer events and gift cards for perfect attendance. Also let students know the benefits of participation: helping other students, developing strategic thinking and leadership skills, and gaining marketable experience.

5. Share Guidelines

Set ground rules at each meeting to increase the comfort level. Some of our favorites are "step up, step back" (say your piece and let others have the floor too); "respect differences" (there are no right or wrong answers); and "speak for your communities" (bring in viewpoints from those in your major, class year, student groups, etc.).

6. Who's There?

When members arrive, make sure your sign-in sheet solicits information like their major, class year, and student groups. This gives you a better understanding of whose perspectives are represented within the group. Also collect email addresses for follow-up items.

7. Encourage Participation

For your SAB to work, people need to speak up. Set a talkative tone from the beginning with light conversation and perhaps an interactive activity.

8. Save the Dates

Ask your SAB members for the best times to meet and then set your dates before students' commitments pile up.

9. Share Results

Taking time to show the SAB how their recommendations resulted in action is key to sustaining your SAB.  

10. It's a Group Effort

Ask your career center staff for agenda items and help with facilitating SAB meetings. Staff can also help with crucial tasks like note taking and sharing SAB findings with the rest of your center.  

Suzanne Helbig has over 10 years experience in university career services, including positions in employer relations, career counseling, and marketing. Helbig is currently employed at the University of California, Berkeley Career Center as Assistant Director, Counseling and Marketing.  She can be reached at helbig@berkeley.edu.

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