“People have a misperception about the definition of academic advising,” said Kimberly S. Smith, associate vice provost for Student Success Initiatives in the Office of the Executive Vice President and Provost. “They believe academic advising is equated to course registration. Academic advisors do much more than that.” 

Mentor, sounding board, and cheerleader may be better descriptors for the 2022 winners of three universitywide advising awards, Holly Belcher, Helene Goetz, and Holly Matusovich. “Given how much they do and what contributions they make to retention and persistence and timely graduation,” said Smith, “why would we not want to acknowledge them and the work that they do?”

Holly Belcher, 2022 Provost’s Award for Excellence in Advising

Waiting for her name to be called at her college commencement, Belcher had one panicked thought running through her head: “What now?” No one had talked to Belcher, a first-generation college student, about post-college options like graduate school. Now she felt lost. “I quickly discovered there's such a thing as a quarter-life crisis,” Belcher said. “And it's a very vulnerable place to be.”

As the advisor for the new major and minor of philosophy, politics, and economics (PPE), Belcher assumes that the college students she works with may be struggling like she was. In her advising appointments, which she schedules for an hour so no one feels rushed, she asks questions like How are you doing? or How's your mental health? or What are some of your post-graduation plans? “That really just opens the door to a lot of students, because they simply don't know who to talk to, what questions to ask, or what resources are available for them,” she said. 

PPE courses come from multiple departments and colleges, and Belcher loves suggesting just the right class to pique a student’s curiosity. “If you can find just that one tiny sliver of interest, that may be enough to propel them forward” and make them fall in love with a difficult subject, she said. If it’s a struggle, she reminds students to show themselves some grace. Success is not always linear. 

Belcher is a self-taught guitarist and percussionist who often goes solo when she writes, produces, and plays her own music. But she doesn’t want her students to feel like they have to go it alone. “Just a little bit of guidance can take you a long way,” she said. “That's what I try to do for the students. I try to be that little guiding light that can help them make educated, well-informed decisions.”

Helene Goetz, 2022 Alumni Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Academic Advising

When Goetz earned her master’s degree in history at Virginia Tech in 1989, she thought she’d become an archeologist. Surprisingly, the work she’s done as an academic advisor with University Studies for almost 33 years is not that far afield. “If you think about a historian, you think about someone who gathers data, comes up with a hypothesis, and acts upon that data,” said Goetz, who often goes by “Ms. G.” “I tell my students they’re my little archaeological projects. I keep digging and digging and digging.”

Digging for Goetz means ushering undecided and transitional students into her comfortable, warmly lit office and asking them questions: What do you like? What are your dreams? What makes you happy? What do you see yourself doing? What’s important to you? She wants to get to know them deeply so she can help them identify patterns that might point to the right major or career. Her favorite thing is seeing a student have an a-ha moment about their life plans. “When they take ownership and they’re just excited, I love that. It’s like seeing your baby walk for the first time.”

Last semester, Goetz met Ethan, a junior who was on academic probation and struggling with a mountain of personal problems. “He was having a very, very rough time,” Goetz said. Throughout the fall , Goetz provided Ethan with nonjudgmental accountability, support, resources, and hope. She celebrated his wins and helped him bounce back from failures. 

By the end of the semester, they had connected 21 times — and Ethan’s GPA had risen from 1.89 to 2.25, returning him to good academic standing. “She’s truly not only an amazing advisor but also an amazing person as well,” Ethan wrote in his support letter for Goetz’s advising award. “Without Ms. Goetz, I wouldn’t still be a student at Virginia Tech.” 

The experience reminds Goetz of her hobby of refinishing old furniture. A dining room table that belonged to her grandmother looked like mahogany until Goetz sanded it, revealing the oak underneath. It had simply been covered with years of wax. A little elbow grease showed its true nature.

She sees the metaphor. “I take things and I try to make them better. I tell my students, ‘That's what I do with you. I try to make you the very best that you can be.’” 

Helene Goetz (left) and Holly Matusovich
Helene Goetz (left), academic advisor with University Studies, and Holly Matusovich, professor in the Department of Engineering Education, both won 2022 advising awards from Student Success Initiatives.

Holly Matusovich, 2022 Alumni Award for Excellence in Graduate Academic Advising

The first person Matusovich, a professor in the Department of Engineering Education, emailed when she heard she’d won an award for graduate student advising was her own Ph.D .advisor at Purdue University. “I said, ‘Thank you. You role-modeled good advising.’”

Not every graduate student is so lucky. As the co-director of the Dissertation Institute, a one-week summer program to help underrepresented graduate students in engineering finish their dissertations, Matusovich has heard some horror stories. For instance, one first-year student said, “My advisor never has time for me, so I just sit outside their office for hours so I can walk with them to their next class.”

Matusovich wants life to be better for graduate students. To promote systemic change in the culture of graduate student advising, including how faculty members talk with their students about race, she helped start the Rising Doctoral Institute. A $370,000 National Science Foundation grant will allow the program to train leaders on how to build graduate student–focused programs at their home universities. “We're providing a little bit of seed funding, and we're providing lessons learned from what we did,” said Matusovich.

With her own graduate students in the SMILE (Studies in Motivation and Identity in Learning Engineering) research group, Matusovich works hard to create a culture of belonging. She instituted a weekly meeting on Friday afternoon because it’s a time when it’s easier to laugh and get a little silly. She and her students share good news, anything from an academic success to getting a dog. Then there’s a weekly spotlight where members get to talk about topics they care about. “It's built a community where they support each other outside of research group,” said Matusovich. “We do attend to the business, but we also try to make sure we're having fun and connecting with each other in meaningful ways.”

Written by Melody Warnick