To anyone who believes that advisors simply herd students through checksheets of graduation requirements, Virginia Tech’s 12th annual Advising Matters conference offered a far different take: Advisors are life-changing purveyors of hope.

“My core conviction is that hope is our superpower,” Frank Shushok Jr., vice president for student affairs, told a group of 125 professional and faculty advisors gathered for the conference on March 4.

The one-day conference, held at The Inn at Virginia Tech, provided advisors from Virginia Tech and other local institutions — including New River Community College, Radford University, and the Edward Via College of Osteopathic Medicine — with professional development, networking opportunities,  and the chance to share best practices. Shushok’s keynote address about building and sustaining a culture of care struck a chord with attendees. “You’re helping people to have confidence in themselves, to believe in themselves, to believe that they add value, to believe that they matter,” he said.

In an academic journey that could include obstacles like depression and anxiety, financial stress, and overwhelming pressure to succeed, not to mention a pandemic, academic and faculty advisors provide a first line of defense.

“Through regular student interactions, academic advisors gain meaningful insights into students' personal experiences and needs,” said Kimberly S. Smith, the associate vice president of Student Success Initiatives, which organizes the Advising Matters conference. “These insights are crucial in helping advisors to facilitate successful transitions for students as they engage in new academic and social communities, develop sound academic and career goals, and ultimately, become successful learners.” 

Nicole Gholston, an advisor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, agreed that "advising is about relationship building. It's about being their cheerleader. Sometimes, we're the only person on campus that they're willing to talk to. We're kind of that liaison. If they don't know where to go, we tell them where they can go. If they're having a crisis, we might be the ones to walk them over to Cook Counseling.”

By engaging students in meaningful conversations about their goals, directing them toward pathways to achieve them, and encouraging them to believe in their own abilities to make progress, advisors can foster hope in students. And when students are struggling, “we have to link arms with and walk alongside them until they believe they can make progress toward their goal,” Shushok said.

A panel of five current Virginia Tech undergraduates confirmed the importance of advisors in supporting their academic progress and emotional wellness. “My advisor, Amy Kokkinakos, always makes time for me in her office,” first-generation college student Javier Ortiz Alvarado, a senior in chemistry, told the conference attendees. “I can just walk in, and I never feel like I'm taking her time away. Because of her, I've been able to really take care of my mental health, and I'm very grateful for that.” His advice to advisors: “You should, of course, make sure your student graduates, but you also need to make sure they're in the right mental space.”

Another student, senior Alyssa McCormick, told the story of how a transitional advisor in the Pamplin College of Business “was a huge help for me” when she wanted to change her major from statistics to accounting and information systems. Now McCormick serves as an Advising Ambassador to connect students to academic advising help. “When students are struggling, be open to kind of working on, ‘What is that Plan B, or Plan C, or Plan D?’” she said at the conference. “Because I didn't really consider a major change at first. It wasn't something that was really talked about to first-year students, that it's OK to change your mind.” 

Afternoon conference sessions focused on best practices in working with students on probation, helping students access study abroad opportunities, and handling communications with a case load of several hundred students. Even then, meaningful relationships remained a through line in the discussion. Christina Minford, an academic advisor in the Department of Psychology, part of the College of Science, agreed that advisors aim to listen and offer support. “That's what we're here for. We've done it, we've gone through undergrad, and we know how to help you.”

Ultimately, students who develop a relationship with their advisor find in them a devoted ally. “I mean, we're going to move mountains for them,” said Gholston.

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