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Advisors as Validation Agents: Cultivating A Sense of Belonging and Student Success for Racially Min

Published on 12/2/2021 12:26:26 PM
Orginially published in Academic Advising Today.

Rafael R. AlmanzarTexas A&M University

Higher education institutions are experiencing an influx of racially minoritized students enrolling at historically high levels (Ponjuan & Hernández, 2021). However, racially minoritized students, who are often first-generation students, lag in degree completion compared to White students (National Center for Education Statistics [NCES], 2019). Dr. Laura Rendón (1994) argued that higher education institutions must change to support these students entering a world that was not designed with them in mind. Rendón's validation theory, developed in 1994, is an assets-based social justice framework to help higher education professionals understand how to work with racially minoritized students by building supportive relationships.

This article aims to provide academic advisors with the following: (1) enhance their knowledge and understanding of the challenges experienced by racially minoritized students at predominantly White institutions; (2) explain Rendón's validation theory and its six tenets; and (3) provide some practical implications, utilizing validation theory, to foster a sense of belonging and student success for racially minoritized students at predominantly White institutions (PWIs).

Racially Minoritized Students Experiences at Predominantly White Institutions

A predominantly White institution (PWI) is a higher education institution with White students accounting for 50% or more of its student population (Lomotey, 2010). Despite the efforts to create welcoming and inclusive spaces, PWIs have a more extended history of exclusion than inclusion (McClain & Perry, 2017).

Racially minoritized students are students who hold one or more historically minoritized social identities. Racially minoritized students are likely to be first generation and come from low-income households (Santa-Ramirez et al., 2020). Additionally, they tend to hold multiple identities that shape their lived experiences and how they view the world (Museus & Ravello, 2010). Harwood et al. (2018) stated that racially minoritized students at PWIs experience hostility and exclusion daily. Rendón-Linares & Muñoz (2011) pointed out that many racially minoritized students encounter overt and covert forms of racism, sexism, and oppression. To put it concisely, racially minoritized students face challenges at PWIs that impede college retention, persistence, and degree completion (Palmer & Maramba, 2012).

Racially minoritized students are more successful at other institutions compared to PWIs. For instance, further research has shown that historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) and Hispanic serving institutions (HSIs) provide racially minoritized students with a higher level of support and graduate students at a higher rate compared to PWIs (Kendricks et al., 2013; McCoy et al., 2017; Museus & Liverman, 2010; Palmer & Maramba, 2012; Winkle-Wagner et al., 2020; Winkle-Wagner & McCoy, 2018). PWIs are not cultivating and maintaining supportive, affirming, and welcoming environments to support racially minoritized students (McCoy et al., 2017).

Rendón's Validation Theory

Notwithstanding these challenges, academic advisors at PWIs can build a sense of belonging and support racially minoritized students by utilizing Rendón's validation theory as a theoretical framework in their advising practices and programs. Rendón (1994) defined validation as "an enabling, confirming, and the supportive process initiated by in and out-of-class agents that foster academic and interpersonal development" (p. 46). Validation theory will allow advisors to work with racially minoritized students in a way that recognizes and affirms them as knowers capable of college-level work and that builds supportive relationships (Rendón et al., 2020; Rendón-Linares & Muñoz, 2011).

Validation theory postulates the following six tenets:

  1. Validation is an enabling, confirming, and supportive process initiated by in- and out-of-class institutional agents that nurture academic and interpersonal development.
  2. When validation is present, students feel worth, gain confidence, and are capable of learning.
  3. Validation is a prerequisite to student development—when racially minoritized students are constantly feeling validated, they are more confident in themselves, can learn, and are more involved in college.
  4. Validation can occur both in and out of class. Validation theory argues that other institutional agents such as administrators, faculty, academic advisors, and peers can validate racially minoritized student groups.
  5. Validation is a continuous developmental process. The more validation racially minoritized students receive, the richer their academic and interpersonal experiences.
  6. Validation is critical early in the college experience, particularly during the first weeks of class. Rendón (2002) suggested that institutions take an assertive approach to validating students to ensure retention and degree completion once students are enrolled in college.

Practical Implications to Cultivate Sense of Belonging and Student Success

Academic advisors are in a unique position in cultivating a sense of belonging and success for racially minoritized students. Advisors are often the first person students engage with before and after starting their higher education experience. Utilizing validation theory as the theoretical framework, below are some practical implications for academic advisors to adopt into their advising practices and approach.

Operate Using an Asset-Based Mindset. Racially minoritized students often experience deficit-based assumptions of their abilities and success (Harper, 2010; Rendón et al., 2020). For instance, a myriad of empirical research characterizes racially minoritized students as individuals who need additional support to succeed (Harper, 2010; Johnson-Ahorlu, 2012; McNairy, 1996). This characterization implies that there is something wrong with racially minoritized students and they need to be fixed. However, this narrative is false, and these students do not come broken. Instead, advisors must recognize the systemic structure of higher education that continues to disadvantage racially minoritized students. Advisors must critically examine and analyze how policies, programs, and procedures hinder the success of racially minoritized students.

Educate Racially Minoritized Students Towards Success. Advisors must recognize that their role is more than just telling students what courses to take for degree requirement and completion. Advisors are educators who can educate racially minoritized students about an institution's rules, norms, and culture. Racially minoritized students are often the first in their families to attend college, and advisors cannot assume that they have the social and cultural capital to successfully navigate higher education.

When advisors meet with racially minoritized students, they should follow up with them for updates or further assistance to build rapport and develop trust. Advisors should not place the responsibility upon racially minoritized students to initiate outreach or follow-up appointments. Advisors may argue that this approach is making students weak because they are not taking the initiative towards their education. However, validation theory is not about viewing students as weak; it is about empowering students, boosting their confidence in their abilities to be successful, and building self-worth (Rendón-Linares & Muñoz, 2011).

Practice Critical Self Reflection. Practicing self-reflection helps advisors grow both personally and professionally. Academic advisors come from different lived experiences and adopted beliefs and values that have shaped their lives. Additionally, self-reflection helps advisors challenge their implicit biases and how that informs their work with racially minoritized students. This is vital for advisors who identify as White due to the United States' history with racism (Holmes et al., 2000), and institutional White supremacy (Haynes, 2017) impacts the climate for learning for racially minoritized students, which ultimately affects a sense of belonging and student success.

In addition to practicing critical self-reflection, advisors must engage in cultural competency training and professional development opportunities to learn about the lived experiences of racially minoritized students and how to serve them better. There is an array of professional development opportunities (i.e., podcasts, documentaries, articles) that are cost-effective for advisors to take advantage of.

Constantly Enhance Interpersonal Skills. Interpersonal skills are essential for academic advisors to cultivate rapport with racially minoritized students. However, due to academic advisors' diverse educational and professional backgrounds (Almanzar, 2021; Poe & Almanzar, 2019), not all entered the profession with the essential skills necessary to build rapport and trust from racially minoritized students. Essential skills include, but are not limited to, active listening, engaging, and effective communication. Rendón-Linares and Muñoz (2011) stated that calling racially minoritized students by name is a form of validation. This is critical for racially minoritized students at large PWIs who are struggling to build a sense of belonging. Having these skills seems like common sense, yet it's essential to iterate for academic advisors with large student caseloads. Students will not visit their advisors if they are seen as unapproachable or inaccessible (Rendón-Linares & Muñoz, 2011).


The implications above are not an exhaustive list. However, validation theory has emerged as an important concept for amplifying the ways to reduce marginalization and educational inequities faced by racially minoritized students (Hurtado et al., 2011). Regardless of institution type, advisors must adopt this framework to support the influx of racially minoritized students matriculating into higher education. Now is the time for advisors to use words and actions to respond to a higher calling to build a sense of belonging and support racially minoritized students for student success (Rendón, 2021).

Rafael R. Almanzar
Academic Advisor III
Office for Student Success
Texas A&M University


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Cite this article using APA style as: Almanzar, R. R. (2021, December). Advisors as validation agents: Cultivating a sense of belonging and student success for racially minoritized students at predominantly White institutions. Academic Advising Today44(4). [insert url here]