Austin Holloway’s favorite thing — other than studying wildlife conservation in Virginia Tech’s College of Natural Resources and Environment (CNRE) — is spreading the word about the college to others. Every week, he volunteers his time as a CNRE student ambassador, leading tours and information sessions and providing the inside scoop on the college to prospective students and their families.

“I tell everyone, ‘If you want a college that feels like home, where your professors and advisors truly care about what you do during and after you get out of school, that’s what you get at CNRE,'” Holloway said.

That level of personal attention starts right inside the front doors of Cheatham Hall, where the CNRE Advising Center guides students from their initial campus visit through getting their degree and landing their first job after graduation.

“We are full circle. We have a comprehensive academic advising model that very few colleges of natural resources in this country have, which is recruitment, advising, and employer relations all integrated and working together with students in one place,” said Paul Winistorfer, dean of the college. “I’m very proud of the individual attention that we are able to bring to our students and to the employers we work with.”

As Virginia Tech celebrates 150 years of excellence, CNRE’s Advising Center is marking some impressive numbers of its own. Eight years of serving students. Ten stellar employees. And since its inception, more than 20,000 academic advising meetings have been completed; student enrollment doubled; admissions applications increased 183 percent; and hundreds of graduates have made career connections.

The Advising Center officially opened its doors in 2015, marking the first time that a team of dedicated professional academic and career advisors were assigned within the college to work one-on-one with students. That responsibility was previously handled by faculty members alongside the roles of teaching, research, and mentoring. With the new center, Winistorfer also consolidated recruitment, advising, and career assistance in one convenient location.

“It is an open, bright, accessible front door to our college, and it is recognized by our students, faculty, and families as a place with the expertise to navigate the complexities of college life,” Winistorfer said. “The Advising Center has exceeded my expectations. We have a great team of people, a fantastic model, and it’s working out really well.”

John Freeborn, John Gray Williams, and Jarek Campbell, standing in a row.
(From left) Director of Employer Relations John Freeborn, Director of Recruitment John Gray Williams, and Assistant Director of Recruitment Jarek Campbell recently attended the Virginia State Fair to meet with prospective students and connect with industry and agency partners. Photo courtesy of John Freeborn.

Recruiting with a passion

The first person — and Advising Center team member — many CNRE students meet is Director of Recruitment John Gray Williams, whose expertise and enthusiasm for the college dates back to 2005, when he first arrived as a geography student. Today, Williams travels the Eastern Seaboard to recruit high school and transfer students, targeting those with an interest in science and the environment, and visiting science classes, science fairs, and STEM camps across the state. When not on the road, Williams is in the Advising Center, one of several staff available to lead college tours by appointment for prospective students and their families. One of those staff members is Student Services Coordinator Cathy Barker, who has been with the university for over 40 years and also plans and organizes the college’s commencement ceremonies.

Along with the previously mentioned increase in admission applications, CNRE’s yield rate — the percentage of students receiving an offer of admission who decide to attend — has increased to nearly 65 percent since Williams started the job in 2015. It’s the highest yield rate for any of Virginia Tech’s academic colleges and well above the average national average of 40 percent.

“Students who apply to CNRE and get an offer of admission overwhelmingly choose to accept their offer. We are the No. 1 choice for a lot of students,” he said. “The feedback I’ve gotten from parents and students over the years has been unequivocal. When they come to visit us, we are having a profound effect on their decision.”

Williams said the college owes much of that success to its nearly 40 student ambassadors — volunteers who help conduct tours, open houses, and information sessions for prospective students. They also host “Lunch with an Ambassador” and meet one-on-one with prospects and families over a meal for further discussion about the college and its majors. Holloway, a senior first-generation transfer student from Abingdon, Virginia, as well as the recipient of the Henry S. Mosby Scholarship, is a highly involved CNRE ambassador.

“Every time I meet with a prospective student, I give them my phone number and email and say, ‘Wherever you decide to go, let me know,’” Holloway said. “Just last week, two students who visited from Chicago and Louisiana let me know they chose CNRE. Virginia Tech and CNRE just put in a lot more effort to make students feel welcome. The fact that we meet with students the way we do absolutely does make a difference in their choice to enroll here.”

This fall, the college’s recruitment team expanded to two, with the arrival of Jarek Campbell ’21, M.S. ’22 as assistant director. A former CNRE ambassador and geography major himself, Campbell will support undergraduate enrollment efforts, with a focus on on-campus recruitment initiatives to help grow majors with additional capacity.

Eight people in front of Cheatham Hall on the Virginia Tech Blacksburg campus
CNRE’s Advising Team (from left): Melissa Cumbia, Dana McGuire, Lauren Varboncoeur, Cathy Barker, Keith Goyne, Stephanie Hart, Linda Fitzgerald, and Julie Burger. Not pictured: Maggie Johnson. Photo by Krista Timney for Virginia Tech.

Advising the whole student, leading within higher education

One of the hallmarks of a CNRE education is that students have a dedicated and consistent academic advisor throughout their entire college journey. Students overwhelmingly say the personalized attention they receive from their advisors makes a difference.

Rachel Starr, a senior majoring in environmental conservation and society from Charlottesville, met her advisor, Melissa Cumbia, at first-year orientation and has relied on her as an ongoing source of support ever since. She now meets with Cumbia at least three times a semester.

“Melissa has impacted my experience at Virginia Tech in the best way possible,” Starr said. “I know without a doubt I would have made many wrong turns in terms of taking the right classes if it weren’t for Melissa’s guidance. She does so much work for me. She finds classes she’s knows I’ll enjoy and that will align with my goal to become an environmental lawyer. Maintaining a 3.6 GPA for my scholarship and the Honors College has been a point of stress for me. Melissa always calms me down and works with me to create a successful path to achieve my goals. I would be lost without her.”

Just four years ago, 71 percent of CNRE students met with an advisor. Today, approximately 93 percent of CNRE students visit the Advising Center to tap into a range of services including exploring majors, minors, and classes; transferring credits; staying on track to graduate; and finding resources for overseas study, internships, and jobs. That number is impressive, considering that students are not required to visit with advisors unless they are on academic probation. The college also regularly maintains a high first-year student retention rate of about 90 percent, compared to a national average of 76 percent.

“First and foremost, it is the people of the Advising Center that make the unit extremely successful,” said Stephanie Hart, the unit’s director. “The whole team — recruitment to support staff — makes a huge difference in the experience our students get from start to finish. It’s no longer just course registration. It’s working with the whole student throughout their four years to create the experience they’re hoping to have. We have the right people, doing what they love, supporting our students.”

“We do much more than help students work through a checklist of classes,” said Cumbia, who has been a CNRE advisor since 2017. “We help them navigate a broad range of experiences that shape what they do in college and after. We hear about their interests, plans, and goals, and work with them to see that they develop over the course of their time in college. When a student reaches an achievement and says, ‘I couldn’t have done it without you,’ that’s really encouraging.”

Many CNRE faculty members have also welcomed the Advising Center’s expertise. Professor Carolyn Copenheaver in the Department of Forest Resources and Environmental Conservation said Cumbia has worked closely with faculty in her department to ensure that students succeed personally and academically.

“I view Melissa as an important partner in helping students to navigate and take ownership of their education,” Copenheaver said. “She provides excellent support for students who may be having academic or life challenges. When I reach out to Melissa about a student, she schedules a meeting with them to identify whether the problems they are experiencing in my class may be related to a broader issue impacting several classes. If a problem is identified, Melissa works with the student and their faculty members to help find a solution that allows the student to be successful. I sense from how our students speak about Melissa that they perceive her as caring and committed to their success — and this is an accurate perception.”

Bridging college and careers

CNRE students looking for a job or internship opportunity have a keen advocate in their corner. John Freeborn joined the college as its director of employer relations in 2019, and has worked steadfastly alongside faculty and staff to connect CNRE students with career resources and employers. 

Twice a year, Freeborn and Academic Support Specialist Linda Fitzgerald organize the CNRE Career Fair, which provides all CNRE students with ample opportunities to shop for and land a job in their field of interest. The event features three days of networking, learning about employers, and one-on-one interviews. In years past, the event has attracted 45 employers and as many as 400 students. 

This fall’s event, being held Oct. 4-6 on campus, includes employers ranging from large international companies and government agencies to small businesses and nonprofits. Freeborn said many students who visit the career fair end up with internship and job offers that later turn into permanent positions.

“We see employers coming back year after year, telling us that our students have excellent academic preparation, are excited about working, and are ready to learn on the job,” he said. “We also work with a large percentage of alumni who return to campus to recruit students, and they genuinely have a great experience reconnecting while they are here.”

Throughout the year, Freeborn keeps internship and job opportunities from all over the country posted on his office door. He also sends out emails three times a month with dozens of job listings and application links.

Noah Turner, a senior from Salem majoring in environmental conservation and society, has obtained two summer jobs — as a youth corps member with the U.S. Forest Service and as a whitewater rafting guide — thanks to Freeborn’s regular listings.

“I really appreciate how CNRE goes the extra mile to help find unique internships and jobs for us,” he said. “It’s been invaluable to be able to explore different career paths while earning my degree. At a bigger school such as Virginia Tech, it’s great to be part of a college that genuinely cares about my success.”

Initially funded by a generous donation from Ken Morgan of Morgan Lumber Company, the director of employer relations position is here to stay. Winistorfer said it’s an essential part of CNRE’s comprehensive Advising Center model.

“We have the largest career fair of natural resources in the nation right here at Virginia Tech,” Winistorfer said. “Global organizations and companies come here because they know students in this college are getting a great education and will be excellent employees. Students and families see that these are valuable career paths as evidenced by career placement. I’m super-pleased at how we serve our students.”

“The Advising Center is continually working to enhance student success and the student experience,” said Keith Goyne, professor and associate dean of the college, who oversees the unit. “For example, this semester Dana McGuire, assistant director of the Advising Center, led the development and implementation of our Wayfinding series, which is designed to increase community among our first-year students and inform them of academic opportunities. The services required and desired by students are continuously evolving through time. Consequently, services and programs offered by the Advising Center will co-evolve as we seek to best support our student body and help them achieve their personal and professional goals.”

CNRE’s Career Fair is taking place on Wednesday, Oct. 5, from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. in  Commonwealth Ballroom at the Squires Student Center. The event is open to all Virginia Tech students.

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