Commons Room

Yes, And...

To better connect with students, Pitt advisors and mentors take a page from theater's playbook.
Illustrated by
David Plunkert

watering can man gives ideas to flower ladyThe troubled student avoided eye contact with his advisor. He gave curt, evasive replies to routine questions, despite the advisor’s friendly demeanor. Something was wrong—was the student unhappy with his classes? Was there a problem outside the classroom? Beyond campus?

He wasn’t forthcoming, but such a challenge is nothing unusual for Pitt’s student advisors. Part of their unwritten job description is overcoming tightlipped, measured responses to find out what troubles a particular student.

However, it’s definitely unusual for the advisor to face this challenge in front of an audience. In this case, the troubled student was actually an actor, and the advisor was taking part in an improvisational training session in a room full of advising and mentoring colleagues. Olivia Hartle, a professional actor trained in improv and a project manager in the Office of the Provost’s academic innovation staff, said the activity's purpose was grounded in an often-overlooked cultural norm: People don’t like being vulnerable. It makes them feel uncomfortable and act defensively, qualities that make constructive interactions difficult in both improv theater and life.

Hartle and her colleagues put the workshop together using a grant from the provost’s Year of Creativity initiative, which encourages the creative spark on campus, particularly when it bridges disciplines. The goal of the event, which was held late last year, was to offer advisors, mentors and consultants throughout the University an opportunity to learn to use improv theater techniques—such as listening, supporting, and being present—to improve interactions with students.

These are necessary skills every semester—but they took on a new importance this spring, when the COVID-19 pandemic made it impossible for advisors to meet with students in person. 

“This is an unprecedented moment in history,” says the workshop’s co-presenter April Belback, director of undergraduate advising and mentoring. “But improv enables students and advisors alike to navigate this uncharted territory together.”

Specifically, she says, the practice can help advisors foster a more holistic advising experience. It’s about finding a way to create meaningful conversation—one human being to another—which leads to productive relationships.

So, for three hours on a Friday afternoon, Hartle and Belback helped about 30 advisors, mentors and consultants develop their improv aptitude, which included participating in advising meetings with student actors, who were given specific roles.

Despite having minimal experience with improv, many staffers said they found the approach very effective. “As the people who are helping the students, if we are practicing being vulnerable and being open, then it rubs off on the student,” said Carol Balk, a career consultant in Pitt’s Career Center who took part in the workshop. “Advisors and consultants help students put words to what they’re experiencing, put words to the process of discovery, [and] advocate for who they are.”

Sure enough, in the role-play that took place in the front of the room that day, the advisor, using improv strategies, uncovered that the student’s troubles were related to his brother’s injuries in a car accident. The stress prevented him from focusing on his schoolwork.

By listening, supporting, and being present, the advisor helped the student find a path forward in an unscripted world —a vital task, now more than ever.


This article appears in the Summer 2020 edition of Pitt Magazine.