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Washington State University
College of Education

Tom Salsbury: Making an Impact

Making An Impact

By Kyla Emme – College of Education Intern
Feb. 1, 2017

In a previous story, we spoke with three Libyan friends named Eman, Riema and Ibtesam. After receiving their Ph.Ds together, they told us about Tom Salsbury, the advisor they credit for getting them through the dissertation process in one piece.

Tom is not just an advisor, though. You can find him teaching in multiple College of Education areas: English Language Learners endorsement program for undergrads; Language, Literacy, and Technology program for graduate students; elementary education program; secondary education program; and the Master in Teaching program. He’s a jack of all trades. And a master of them all, too.

But if you’re a student, before you start scheming to get Tom as your advisor, we have to let you know that unless you’re a graduate student, he’s out of your league. Plus, we have to get to the real point of this story.

From a different perspective

If you thought the three friends’ overlapping stories were enough, brace yourselves, because Tom’s perspective is just as important to the narrative. A narrative where loss actually becomes gain. His side of the story picks up during the summer of 2010, in an introduction to research class. A loss in the College of Education faculty actually brought the first of the three Libyan friends to him.

“Riema (Abobaker) was in that class, and she came up to me and she said, “You know Dr. Roe is leaving, and I really enjoyed working with you so would you be willing to be my advisor?’ ”

He accepted the request. Immediately.

He then proceeded to be her official advisor for the next year. It was in that following year that he was introduced to Ibtesam Hussein and Eman Elturki, but not in person quite yet. Riema told Tom about two friends of hers that had just applied to the program and were amazing.

“I tried not to be biased, but when I read through their applications I was like, wow, they would be great to work with. They were interested in what I do research in, so I said, OK, let’s take them on.”

Taking on these three Libyans students was just the beginning. People talk. Friends talk to other friends. Word got out about Tom. In the end, that year, he chaired 15 doctoral students, many of them other Libyans.

“I know that people talk, so I’m always thinking about that,” he says. “I’m always thinking about the individual, and the kind of effect I can have, and what he or she might be sharing with someone else.”

Clearly, the comments passed around were good since Tom became an advising favorite, especially for Libyan students. The influx of these international students can arguably be attributed to the Arab Spring occurring in the Middle East. In Libya, Benghazi specifically, it was dangerous to live there with all of the constant fighting. As said in our previous story about the three Libyan friends, the education system suffered greatly. This war made the experience of advising Libyan students unique.

“Everyone has experienced that conflict in very different ways, but for Riema, Eman and Ibtesam I can say one way they’re very similar is they’re all very resilient,” Tom says. “They have family back home who aren’t here, just an incredible amount of obstacles, and they came to every advising session just ready to go.”

Tom strives to deftly balance the personal and professional aspects of his relationship with his advisees. While it is in the job description to guide his students through their academics, caring for his advisees as people and helping them through their personal lives is not a requirement.

But he does it anyway.

“Just having the respect for that individual, that human person, with their own life and their own needs, and not feeling like I need to impose… understanding those boundaries, just how you can support someone to be the best person they can be just comes down to making that person the best person they can be.”

Everyday advisor

Now, we couldn’t just talk about this advisor without learning a little bit, about what he experiences day to day in his advising. Tom made it clear what the biggest roadblocks are that doctoral students face.

First, self doubt is very common, he says. It’s tough to get started and once you do, it can be hard to stay motivated and keep going. Getting a Ph.D takes a lot of time, energy – and coffee.

And then there are the questions and confusions that students might experience.

“I would say that it’s OK, for a while, to feel comfortable being a little bit in the dark,” Tom says. “But then our advisees need to work with their advisor to move forward. They don’t do themselves any favors if they’re too afraid to say to an advisor, ‘I don’t know. I’m a little bit lost. I’m a little bit scared.’ ”

While all the writing students have to do does end up being a challenge, Tom believes that just getting the idea for the dissertation is what’s actually the next biggest roadblock. Especially in education, the subject area is just so broad and the possibilities for dissertation topics are endless.

“The challenge would be coming up with an idea that aligns with what the field is actually saying needs to be done.”

The best foot forward and taking risks

While success as a graduate student takes preparation, reading, note-taking, organizing, research, and a lot of writing, advisors are always happy to give advice every step of the way.

There’s one stipulation, though.

“I’m going to quote my colleague Kelly Puzio because he said it so well,” Tom says. “‘When you send your advisor something, send them your best work.’ ”

Tom says this is not meant to put more pressure on the students. It’s actually meant to relieve pressure on both student and advisor. If the student can send their best work to their advisor, then the latter can advise even better. Tom says he knows there may still be things left undone, but there will be something to talk over.

Tom adds it is critical to take risks while in graduate school. Research as a graduate student is something unique since they can explore various research methods or ways to analyze information in a way that perhaps they can’t once they’re in the field.

“I like the student who comes to me and says, ‘I took that data set that you gave me and I analyzed it using this tool and this way, and I’m learning something,’ ” Tom says.

Making a good advisor great

This story would not be complete without hearing what makes a stand out advisor. We asked Tom to give us some insight. And why not? It’s basically like getting the answer from the horse’s mouth.

In response, he says there are three important characteristics that he believes all advisors should have in order to be great.

  • Compassion. He clarified that this does not mean just being nice and avoiding anything that might disappoint the advisee. Compassion involves caring for the student as a person, but also making sure that there is an element of tough-love too. He knows that sugar-coating can actually harm a student and their grade.“In being able to communicate and really connect with someone, they know that you’re advising and not judging, and there’s really a big difference.”
  • Professionalism. Yes, an advisor may be a professional in their field, but that doesn’t mean that they always model professionalism. It really manifests itself in the small things: giving direct feedback on work, expecting high standards, and making sure a student knows what is achievable.“That to me is the heart of advising. Just knowing what that person can do at that particular time in their career and knowing that this is what they need and this will be good enough so that they’ll finish.”
  • Fully attentive. Tom says that during advising sessions, he either turns off or silences his phone, and he gets in the right state of mind. The sessions are meant to be a time where the pair is focused intently on the dissertation; where all personal matters can be left at the door.“This person’s here to give me their all and I’m here to give them my all, and I’m going to make a difference. Otherwise, what’s the point of having a thinking session, right?”

A final word to all advisees

Tom says advisors are not people to be feared, but to be pursued.

“They are your nightlight when you’re in the dark, can be your friend when you feel you’ve hit rock bottom, and the person who would love to celebrate your successes,” he says.

That doesn’t guarantee all advising experiences will be good ones. Tom says if things really aren’t working out, the student can certainly let the advisor know. While it may pain the advisor, they’ll still want what’s best for the student.

“Most advisors will know it’s nothing against them,” he says. “Expertise and chemistry only goes so far in some relationships, and you just need to find the right fit.”

And when that right fit is found, the student may not only have help in reaching their educational goals, but they may just find a friend for life.

At a glance

Teacher of…

  • ELL endorsement program (undergraduate)
  • LLT program (graduate)
  • Elementary education program
  • Secondary education program
  • Masters in Teaching program

Advisor for…

  • ONLY graduate students (Masters/Ed.M., M.A., Ph.D)
  • Has had three or four Honors undergrads
  • Advising is more of an expectation than a requirement
    • Has been on more than 140 committees
  • When you apply to grad school you can pick a mentor/advisor
  • You want adult support

About the College of Education…

“The College of Education tries to connect with their students as people.”

Doctoral students overcoming challenges…

  • It’s OK to have doubts and then work through them
    • Be comfortable with saying “I don’t know”
  • Getting the Idea
    • Learn how to ask the right questions
    • Do the reading beforehand

Best part of the job…

Meeting people

Important characteristics for advisors to have…
Compassion, tough-love, communication/connection, BE PRESENT