Sometimes, the hardest part of being an academic advisor is convincing students they need an academic advisor.

“I think students don't quite understand what advising is all about,” said Leigh Anne Byrd, an academic advisor for the Department of Computer Science. “And I think that some of them are intimidated by having to talk to someone.”

Once they break the ice, though, students generally come to see their advisors as not just the person who helps them figure out next semester’s classes, but the trusty fonts of wisdom and guidance that they are. “Advising really is a pivotal touchpoint for students,” said Lauren Thomas, director of Academic Advising Initiatives

To help Virginia Tech’s approximately 400 undergraduate academic advisors become even better at their jobs, Academic Advising Initiatives offers the Academic Advising Academy each spring. Small cohorts of advisors work together through a series of five classes around topics such as technology, student development theory, university resources, and cultural humility, forming their own community of support and knowledge-sharing along the way.

Whether advisors have been working here for 30 years or three months, enrolling in the academy offers benefits. “For some of our newer advisors, it’s an opportunity to understand the culture of where we started, where we are now, and our trajectory for the future,” said Thomas. “And then we also welcome our seasoned advisors to come and share their best practices as well as rejuvenate themselves within the advising field, because we know it can be a lot of work and wear and tear every day.”

For the 22 participants in last spring’s Academic Advising Academy, takeaways included solutions to challenges including: 

Communicating with students

Gen Z students famously have a love-hate relationship with email, which makes the endless emails most advisors have to send not only annoying but useless.

Because of what Byrd and her team in computer science learned in the Academic Advising Academy, they’re developing an instructional Canvas site to act as an information repository for transfer students. Answers to questions such as “How do I know if I’m on track for graduation?” will live on the site, along with announcements, club and internship information, and deadlines, creating a one-stop-shop for students. No more wordy emails. “Hopefully my transfer students know if they have a question, go look on the Canvas site first,” said Byrd.

After completing the academy, Grace Burden, an undergraduate academic advisor for the College of Science, and her colleagues not only spent the summer building out their own Canvas advising site, but working on on-trend communication approaches such as QR codes and video messages. “I mean, I hate making videos, but I understand why Gen Z likes them,” she said. “And so I'm getting out of my comfort zone to serve them.”

Moving past prescriptive models of advising

Twenty-five years ago, advisors mostly told students what to do. Take this class. Sign this form.

During last spring’s academy, Kim Smith, associate vice provost for student success initiatives, advocated for appreciative and developmental models of advising and encouraged participants to write their own statements of advising philosophy.

“It's not just, ‘Hey, these are the courses you have to take,’ but ‘What do you want to do when you graduate? How can I help you do that?’” said Thomas. Advisors coach students into reflecting on hopes, dreams, and visions for the future, then making a plan to achieve their goals.

Working with all kinds of students

While some employees treat cultural competency courses as a box to check, the advising academy made diversity, equity, and inclusion a core component of its programming, urging advisors to make their offices inviting and inclusive spaces, use language carefully, and show interest in their students’ activities and culture.

“We started talking about cultural humility,” said Byrd, which she described as lifelong learning. “It’s recognizing that there are power imbalances and that we don't live in each other's shoes. My lived experience is probably very different than your lived experience. It’s just being more humble about being open to learning.”

Another value-add of the academy was the sense of community and shared learning that arose among the participants. For Burden, who was hired in September 2021, the academy was a key opportunity to expand her network beyond her college. “It was a different way to network where you knew you were going for more than just a conference or a two-hour seminar,” she said. “It was throughout the whole semester. We all kind of realized we have similar aspirations and goals. It was a lot of, ‘Oh, we should work together in the future on these projects.’” 

For advising teammates who take the course together, the academy is more impactful. Byrd’s supervisor encouraged all the department’s advisors to enroll last spring. “That has given us a chance to kind of bring those ideas back and talk about them even more,” Byrd said.

The Academic Advising Academy is currently open for enrollment to all Virginia Tech academic advisors, but it’s best suited for those who want to push themselves to be better. “We have to continue to develop as academic advisors,” said Thomas. “There's always something to improve on as our students' needs are always changing.”

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