Each semester, like the beginning of a New Eve’s Year countdown, campus anticipation builds. And the hope of a new day shimmers, as Virginia Tech students await registration and the drop of new course schedules.

In these moments of potential, Hokies are not left to wander the newness alone. Enter the advising community, the fearless guides of students’ academic journey, who now have a weeklong celebration in their honor — Global Advising Week. Karen Watson, director of academic support for the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences, calls advisors the unsung heroes of academia, and she hopes that recognizing their work will bring more awareness to the importance of advising.

Sometimes the advisor’s role is a quiet but pivotal one. At other times, these champions of learning are the stuff that makes for legends. Take, for instance, the time when a group of students in the School for Performing Arts made t-shirts. The front side read, “You know you are a music major at VT if…” And the back listed 10 items. Number nine was, “You talk to Tammy more often than your own mother.”

Tammy is Tammy Henderson, who joined the university 22 years ago. For the past six years, she has provided academic support and advising services in the music program, but that has been enough time to have a large impact on students.

And Henderson is not alone in being a vital part of advising in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences. According to Watson, more than 100 staff and faculty advisors are involved, not even including some faculty who do advising in some of the larger departments. 

“We need to recognize the efforts of academic advisors all across the board,” she said. “They work really hard, and their efforts are worth recognizing. In a traditional sense, their role is to help students navigate schedules and course loads, but it can be so much more.

“Advisors help their advisees gain self-confidence to handle other problems,” she said. “Advisors challenge students to step outside of their comfort zone — to do something they’re afraid of doing, such as taking a specific class, embarking on a study abroad program, or looking for that internship or field study they thought they could never do. The students say, ‘This has been my dream,’ and their advisor responds, ‘So here’s your chance, but you’ve got to be the person who steps out there to get it.”

Portrait of Karen Watson
Karen Watson is director of academic support in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences. Photo by Leslie King for Virginia Tech.

Global Advising Week is a way to acknowledge this work done by the academic advising community internationally. The celebration is in its second year and is the brainchild of NACADA: The Global Advising Community. The educational association originated as the National Academic Advising Association, but once it became an international organization, it became known as NACADA. It designates the first week of May as a time to celebrate the work of advisors, tutors, counselors, and coaches who advise students around the world. 

This year’s Global Advising Week will be held May 2–8. Through academic advising initiatives in the college’s Office for Undergraduate Academic Affairs, advisors will enjoy swag, an online congratulatory board, and a virtual scavenger hunt with a drawing for NACADA conference registrations.

Watson looks forward to reading the board and seeing the comments from co-workers and peers, but also from the students.

“Knowing that you have made even a small difference in a student’s life can really make your day,” Watson said.

Portrait of Courtney Thomas
Courtney Thomas is an academic advisor in the Department of Political Science, where she also serves as acting director of undergraduate studies and a collegiate assistant professor. Photo by Leslie King for Virginia Tech.

Courtney Thomas, acting director of undergraduate studies in the Department of Political Science and a collegiate assistant professor who also serves as an academic advisor, remembers a first-year experience course she taught in the fall of 2020. Recent alumni from the department participated in a virtual panel discussion.

“Dozens of our graduates participated, and it was like one big multi-year reunion,” she said. “Listening to them speak about their undergraduate experiences and all they’ve accomplished since leaving Virginia Tech was overwhelming. The best part of my job, the most powerful part, is also the most humbling — it is knowing that you’re part of the journey your students are taking. If you’re lucky, they take you with them.” 

Laura Belmonte, dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences, understands the important role advisors play in the life of the university. At the start of her deanship in 2019, Belmonte held a listening campaign to understand the needs and best practices of the advising community.

Watson, who works closely with Belmonte, said the dean is so supportive she is developing a plan to bring in more academic advisors in a central advising center. This is not to replace the current advising force, but to help lighten advisors’ heavy loads; some have more than 500 students they advise at any one time. The college will implement this plan gradually over the next five years, to avoid any disruption to current students’ progress.

“Advisors are critically important to the success of our students,” Belmonte said. “They not only provide guidance on courses, scheduling, and degree requirements, but they are often pivotal figures in students’ lives. It is through their perseverance and desire to help others succeed that their work has implications not just for the present, but the future for our alumni. We are happy to take Global Advising Week as an opportunity to salute them.” 

Written and photographed by Leslie King

Insights from Advisors

Andrew Dolbin-MacNab

Andrew Dolbin-MacNab, Academic Advisor, College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences: “Academic advising can be a transformative experience for students. Advising starts with imagination — imagination that encourages students to expand their thinking of what is possible, and then helps light the path to achieve it. As an advisor, when you believe that all students can be wildly successful and you work to encourage their discovery of that success, amazing things happen.”

Holly Belcher

Holly Belcher, Business and Marketing Manager and Advisor, Kellogg Center for Philosophy, Politics, and Economics: “One of the most fulfilling aspects of being an advisor is empowering students. When I work with my advisees, I take my time to carefully explain the resources that can help them make well-informed decisions throughout their academic career. When my advisees face a problem, I encourage them to research their options and to use their resources to find answers. I believe that exercising these research and networking skills is incredibly important, as it’s something they can build now and take into the workforce later. Students quickly learn the value of research in academia, but I emphasize the importance of research outside of academia as well. When a student is able to exercise these skills independently and confidently — to me, this is empowerment.”

Jennifer Hanratty

Jennifer Hanratty, Academic Advisor and Instructor, Department of Political Science: “As a Hokie alumna and advisor, I love seeing students enjoying Virginia Tech, our campus, professors, and classes. Luckily, as an advisor I have so much student contact that I get to share my love of all things Hokie and orange and maroon. However, one of the best parts about being an advisor is helping students realize their potential and encouraging them to work toward their goals. I love getting to know students, hearing about their goals, and encouraging them to go forth and accomplish those goals.“

Dee Hopkins

Dee Hopkins, Recruiter and Advisor, School of Performing Arts: “For four years, I get to encourage, connect with, and celebrate students and witness their intellectual and personal growth. That’s why I love advising!”

Brenda Husser

Brenda Husser, Director of Academic Advising, Department of Sociology: “As advisors, not only do we work with students to navigate their chosen majors and minors, but we also help students identify a path about which they are passionate. We also are that individual a student feels comfortable with and more apt to open up to and we can help identify problems they may be having and can direct them to other campus resources.”

Victoria Lael

Victoria Lael, Director of Undergraduate Studies and Instructor, Department of Human Development and Family Science: “Fulfilling Virginia Tech’s rigorous academic expectations can be challenging, and navigating the many programs and systems of a large university can be overwhelming without guidance. In addition to providing information that helps students access the resources they need to engage fully, academic advisors have the opportunity to engage in meaningful interactions with students. These interactions can help meet students’ innate need for connection and belonging, which can help them be more resilient as they face new and challenging opportunities for growth and development.”

Amanda Villar

Amanda Villar, Academic Advisor, Department of Religion and Culture: “Why is advising important? Advising empowers students to make well-informed decisions. And well-informed students graduate on time, don’t take unnecessary classes, and understand what is expected of them to meet the criteria necessary for graduation. Additionally, advisors are a wealth of knowledge about the resources Virginia Tech has to offer.”

Hannah Wildman Short

Hannah Wildman Short, Director of Undergraduate Studies and Instructor, Department of Philosophy: “I want students to have a positive college experience, and key to this is having the support of advisors and developing good relationships with faculty. I know that the support, mentoring, and friendship I received from advisors and faculty as an undergraduate was a vital part of my college success, and I’m very pleased to be able to provide that same support to students at Virginia Tech.”