Supporting engineering students via the screen
Amid chaos, the general engineering advising team's pandemic pivot improved connections with first-year engineering students.
First, COVID-19 claimed Carly Daffan’s senior prom. Then her high school graduation.
What the pandemic didn’t take from her in 2020 was a smooth transition into Virginia Tech’s College of Engineering thanks to the team of 10 general engineering academic advisors.
The team transitioned overnight from in-person to online to care for the 2,583 first-year engineering students who, like Daffan, now a sophomore industrial and systems engineering major, struggled to start college amid a pandemic.
The advisors “were always there for any kind of issues,” Daffan said. “Family issues, mental issues, academics. And if they didn’t have the answer, they would get back to you as soon as possible. I felt like they did more on their part to make it feel like we weren’t alone.”
In March 2020, Marlena Lester, then director of advising in the Department of Engineering Education, was about to leave for vacation when she got the news that Virginia Tech was moving classes and services online because of the pandemic. The announcement came at the busiest time of the year for her staff: in the middle of fall course registration and first-year orientation preparations.
“We were asking, how do we support each other?” Lester said. “How do we make sure everyone around us is supported? What are some best practices for teleworking? How do we get office chairs? How do we get video cameras? How do we Zoom?”
In the pre-pandemic world, advising was all in-person and as regular as the seasons.
Each summer, advisors held on-campus orientations to onboard engineering students who would matriculate in the fall. They helped students fill out paperwork, finalized class schedules, and conducted visits with family members. Once students arrived in the fall, advisors hosted workshops on time management and study strategies as well as to introduce the 14 degree-granting disciplines offered in the College of Engineering. The next spring, they guided first-year students through the major selection process, helped those struggling academically, showcased the college’s clubs and internship opportunities, and prepared anew for the following year’s class.
The pandemic, of course, broke the cycle.
Transitioning to all-virtual meant a complete overhaul. Unsure of their students’ internet situations at home, advisors tried to streamline their resources. Rather than working from multiple online platforms to guide a student’s academic journey, they consolidated information down to one site — one PDF, if possible.
The university adapted as well, allowing one-time policies for grade assignment and change-of-major requirements to account for the sudden disruption and shift to online course delivery.
While the changes were implemented to support students, they generated many questions. Advisors were on the front line of helping students navigate them. Class registration — typically a one-week affair — took several weeks because the advisors each had up to 300 students to assist one-on-one by Zoom.
“Trying to convey those different options to those different populations was very challenging,” said Lester. “I think for me, it was the moment that I just said, ‘OK team, we have a question and we’re going to make zero assumptions about what we’ve always done.’”
“Zoom is old hat now,” said James Newcomer, advising coordinator for engineering education, “but back then we were still fumbling around it. We had to come together as a team and figure this out. There was no more just sticking your head out of your office to ask a colleague a question.”
Daffan appreciated the new weekly electronic newsletters she received from her advisor, not to mention the regular check-ins by Zoom and responsive emails to her questions about her schedule, her grades, her classes, and her life.
“She always had an answer, which was really comforting,” said Daffan, a Fairfax, Virginia, native. “I know a lot of upperclassmen, pre-pandemic, didn’t know who their advisor was. I think the pandemic made the advisors re-evaluate their approach.”
“I needed help the first day of classes and my advisor was there to help me figure everything out,” said Spencer Macturk, sophomore in mechanical engineering and undergraduate lab assistant in the Frith First-Year Makerspace. “Because of them, I am now in the right math class, have completed a schedule that has set me up for the rest of college, and accepted a co-op for the summer and fall semesters. I couldn't have done what I did at Virginia Tech without my advisor.”
Despite pandemic challenges, the team was able to forge an improved advising process.
Paper forms migrated to electronic records. An on-campus workspace once filled with the whole team is now home to just two, as the staff rotates in and out on a weekly basis as part of a flexible work pilot that provides a combination of in-person and online advising in line with student needs.
Thanks to the pilot, the open space is used for other academic purposes. Zoom allows advisors to meaningfully interact with students. They can provide resource links in the chat feature, share screens to navigate schedule changes, and take better notes on a student’s struggles and successes.
“All of the technology makes it more efficient,” said Newcomer. “And we were able to better connect to the students through a format that was a natural extension of their culture.”