Academic Advising Initiatives, part of the Office of the Executive Vice President and Provost, recently announced the recipients of its 2023 advising awards. It's a mix of professional advisors, program directors, and professors with one common denominator: their guidance impacts their students for good. 

Emily Metzgar, winner of the 2023 Provost's Award for Excellence in Advising

COVID-19 derailed one of undergraduate academic advisor Emily Metzgar’s students in the Kevin T. Crofton Department of Aerospace and Ocean Engineering, part of the College of Engineering. By the end of the semester he was failing four of his classes and questioning whether he wanted to stay in aerospace engineering at all. Metzgar came to the rescue. In biweekly meetings, they discussed success strategies, resilience, and resources. Now the student has the best grades of his life. “Having Emily as my academic advisor served as the skeleton for the success I am grateful to have today,” he wrote in a nominating letter.

What was your path to becoming an academic advisor? 

I spent a dozen years teaching science in high school and middle school, but I wanted to find another avenue to work with students. Advising has been perfect for me. I love that I'm supporting students every day. Working in aerospace and ocean engineering, I get to talk to students who are doing incredible things in science. I do a lot of active listening, which was something I did a lot of as a teacher too.

What in your work makes you most joyful? 

Seeing students flourish, and seeing them willing to seek help. Last spring I went to a graduation celebration where students came up to me and said, “I don't know if I would have graduated if I hadn't gone and talked to you.” That's really meaningful for me.

What’s your favorite office decoration? 

I have these big LEGO sets that my two kids have built, like the Saturn V rocket and the International Space Station. Sometimes students who have never met me before will look around and say, “I have that Lego set.” Seeing students who are a little nervous opening up, that's cool.

Renee Eaton, winner of the 2023 Alumni Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Academic Advising

Though she has her hand in many pies in the Department of Human Nutrition, Foods, and Exercise, in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, from teaching first-year experience courses to supervising the advising center to leading study-abroad trips, undergraduate program director Renee Eaton excels at advising some of the department’s 920 undergraduates. “I would not be a nurse or public health advocate if I had not had the opportunity to work with her,” said alumna Marya Hubbard. “I often refer to her as one of the most influential women in my life.”

What challenges do you help your undergraduates overcome? 

It can be something as simple as “These two courses are scheduled at the same time” or “I've changed my mind about a career.” But sometimes it's having a family member with significant illness and trying to make adjustments for classes.

What’s a time you felt you had an impact on a student?

 One student was not doing well in classes and didn’t know what he wanted to do after graduation. He followed through with things we talked about, to the point that he got to know a professor well and got involved in research in multiple labs. The student ended up doing a master’s at VT before med school. His journey was not straightforward, but he found a way to use his strengths.

Do you have a mantra?

 From Dr. Jane Goodall: “Every day you make an impact, and you have to decide what kind of impact you’re going to make.”

Megan Dolbin-MacNab, winner of the 2023 Alumni Award for Excellence in Graduate Academic Advising

Since 2004, associate professor Megan Dolbin-MacNab has chaired or served on almost 70 percent of doctoral committees for marriage and family therapy students — a sign of how beloved she is. “In the context of graduate advising, she embodies attention, respect, integrity, availability, personal connection, individualization, and transparency,” wrote Pamela Teaster, interim head of the Department of Human Development and Family Science, in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences.

Does your training as a therapist make you a better advisor?

Being attuned to people's nonverbal behavior and emotional states, being intentional about how you nurture a relationship that is strong and safe, and understanding that different people need different things at different times are all pieces of my clinical training that help me as an advisor. 

What’s your favorite question to ask your graduate students? 

Often, graduate students say, “I don't know what I want to do for my dissertation,” or “I'm not sure what to do after graduation.” I think asking them, “What really matters to you? What kind of impact do you want to make on the world?” helps them answer many questions related to their dissertations and their future careers.

What are you doing when you aren’t working?

Recently I joined a pottery studio. I’m learning to make all sorts of things, including mugs and bowls, and have been having a lot of fun meeting fellow potters. 

Michael Kender, winner of the 2023 Award for Excellence in Career Advising

A former Citibank managing director who joined Virginia Tech's Pamplin College of Business as a professor of practice after his early retirement from Wall Street, Michael Kender’s greatest joy is helping students — about 100 every year — find jobs. Not only does Kender connect finance students with potential employers and a strong network of alumni, he coordinates nearly 60 guest speakers a year and teaches courses about careers and job search strategies. “He has been a godsend for the department,” said Vijay Singal, head of the Department of Finance.

How did you get interested in career advising? 

As part of my job at Citigroup, I recruited college students, and I saw a lot of kids from other schools getting great jobs at the firm. My thought was, “Why can't Virginia Tech kids be getting these jobs?” I really wanted to create a path to Wall Street jobs for Virginia Tech students who wanted them. Career advising is about getting students aware of what opportunities are available to them and preparing them for those opportunities, which includes not only the textbook knowledge but other skills like how to network, how to research jobs, how to interview, and how to draft an email to a 40-year-old.

What do you wish more students knew about career advising? 

I wish more students would hit it harder sooner. You're not going to get the best internship after your freshman year, but at least you start developing the contacts so that after your sophomore or junior year, you're positioned for that prime internship that launches into the prime job.

How does it feel when a student lands a dream job?

To me, it’s the best feeling to know that I've positively impacted somebody's life. A few days ago, I saw on LinkedIn that one of my former students got promoted to chief financial officer of his company. I remember trying to help him get that first job eight or nine years ago, and now here he is, almost at the top of his company. That's what keeps me wanting to get up in the morning.

For 2024, Academic Advising Initiatives will add two new awards: outstanding administrator and outstanding new advisor. Please visit the awards page to learn how to apply or nominate a colleague.

Written by Melody Warnick