Connecting Students to Values and Purpose Before They Choose a Major

I recently attended an incredible webinar from NACADA featuring one of my heroes, Bill Johnson, who spoke about Incorporating Coaching into the first year experience.

I thought back to when I needed to make these crucial decisions in my first year of college. Luckily, I came from a home where I was encouraged to think about my self-identity and purpose, but I didn’t really understand how my major would help me reach it. I couldn’t make the connections with how higher education would help me achieve my goal, because my purpose was not to be in a career.

I find that students are going through the motions of an education without connecting the dots with what they feel they are meant to do, what their interests are, and the likelihood that they will be able to accomplish what they set out to do.

Similarly, going from home life to college life is a unique transition. During this time period, if it is the first time away from home, students are often presented with challenges of self-identity, and start grappling with their purpose.

Multiple studies, research, and literature discuss the importance of helping first year students identify their value and purpose, guiding them through the process of feeling confident in their decision to pursue majors and careers. 

Bill shared a life design program with the advising community that is already showing some incredible returns as a result. In the webinar, he talked about 4 things that students need in order to grapple with/wrestle/contemplate/reflect on their value, beliefs and purpose, including: 

  1. Who am I meant to be (Purpose)
  2. Why do I matter (Meaning)
  3. What am I here to do (Mission)
  4. Where do I want to go (Where do I want to go)

Life design initiatives and techniques may work for some advisors who love the challenge of acting as a guide into these deep-rooted belief systems. However, I have spoken with others who do not feel fully equipped to have conversations that teeter on the brink of counseling-like conversations. 

Before I understood the frameworks, methodology, and techniques I use today, I was often overwhelmed with helping students navigate their self-identities. I realized that it was because I was overthinking how to do it.

Here are some tips that helped me figure out how I was going to approach the value/purpose conversations with my students:

Read, Research, Analyze

  • There are various methods/techniques that work for other advisors, but it was important that I first understand as much as I could about them:
    • Instead of reading articles posted on Ebsco or Google Scholar, I started by searching for articles posted on higher education specific organizations websites including: NACADA, NACE, NASPA, UNM Mentoring Institute, NCDA. These organizations have built strong repositories and communities full of information, original sources, and data around higher education-specific topics.
  • Part of my research included having informational interviews with professionals and scholars using these techniques. 

Try it On

  • My mission was to find an approach and technique that felt intuitive, like I didn’t have to fake it so much – something that came naturally. 
    • Just like the students we serve, not every advisor is the same….and THANK GOODNESS. After finding several approaches and techniques, I would choose one and try it on.
  • I made sure my students knew what I was doing. Being transparent about this process actually increased the trust I developed with my students. 
    • I would say something like, “I am going to try a new approach where I will be asking a lot of questions and we will do some exercises. My purpose is to help you connect the dots of your values and beliefs and how they plan into your interests and then talk majors. Most likely this could take several appointments. How do you feel about that?” 

Every Advisor Will Bring Different Strengths to the Process

  • Some experts might argue that there is ONLY ONE APPROACH for discussing values/purpose with students. I would argue that each advisor has certain strengths that guide them through certain approaches. 
  • It is only through trial and error that I was able to find a style that suited my strengths and also helped me reach student outcomes. 
  • As a supervisor over other full time advisors and also over student employees who were developing these methods, I needed to be patient as they discovered what worked for them and for the students they served. 
    • If there was concern on how the individual team members approached these conversations, our team needed to re-evaluate systemic and organizational goals, including: 
      • Mission, vision, value, scope
      • Hiring practices: identifying the characteristics we felt supported our mission, and overhauling job descriptions, interviewing and application materials (perhaps even looking at how we were hiring – online video sifting versus in-person conversations), inviting students to sit in on interviews, simulation role plays, etc.


Advisors are poised to have conversations with students that will stretch and help them take ownership of their schooling experience by first helping them connect with their values, beliefs and purpose. My advising experience completely changed as I first researched what others were doing to help students get to this level, tried on different techniques, and realized that there wasn’t one way to help students make this connection.

Research (there is so much more)