Virginia Tech®home

Advisor of the month: November 2018

Cara Conley, Advisor of the Month for November. Advising Matters at Virginia Tech

Cara Conley

Academy of Integrated Science, College of Science


What do you enjoy about your role in advising?
One of my favorite aspects in my role as an advisor is having the privilege to be a resource for my students! It's truly an honor to be a point person, a confidant, and advisor to so many students throughout their academic career. They share their stories with me, and allow me the opportunity to glean their student experience in such a way that I can help other students and reflect on my own life in many ways. I, of course, really enjoy the one on one interactions with students, but thoroughly enjoy watching them grow! As a first generation college student, to see those students grow and thrive here at the University brings me a special kind of joy that is hard to explain!

In what ways have you contributed to advising in your department/area?
The Academy is a very small department, so organization and oneness among our advisors is crucial to the success of our students. We are lead by an amazing Program Manager, who allows me the freedom to try new initiatives that could better us as a whole. As such, I have helped our department adopt a couple practices to achieve that organization that is key to our success. When EAB/SSC was in the roll out phase, I used the system a lot and worked with other departments on campus to understand its functionality and limitations in more detail, and work out the kinks if necessary, so that we could adopt it as a team. After using the system for a semester (campaigns, reports, etc.), I helped the other Academy advisors adopt it into their advising so we can operate in more unison. In addition to using the EAB system for Academy advisees, I also created a streamlined process of accepting force add requests for all of our majors. Using the Google forms for these, we were able to look back at the requests and accurately see which courses were we receiving the most requests for. This allowed us to have more informed conversations with Division Leaders for our programs about prereqs that may or may not be necessary and ones that perhaps should be added. It also allowed us to start working with other departments to get our courses added as prereqs. For example, for the Integrated Science Curriculum, the students have had to be force added to a number of classes in many other departments on campus, because ISC wasn't listed as a prereq. Having the form allowed us see which courses were requested the most, so that we could work with the departments that house those courses on adding ISC courses as prereqs. While this starts to get into curriculum matters, the main point in this is that our Academy students benefit from this process in that their email requests don't get missed & they could request the courses they need like their peers.

In addition to the above items to help our team, I have also started a couple initiatives to aid in student support. The first, is our ISC tutoring program. The Integrated Science Curriculum is so unique and the students are challenged in a very different way than their peers in traditional courses. I worked with current and former ISC students to develop a tutoring program, with the help of our phenomenal student leader, so that our students are receiving every bit of academic support for them to be successful in ISC. They learn from and are mentored by former and current ISC students, which they all really love!

Another support initiative I helped to start was through collaborating with Katie Beach in Career & Professional Development and industry partners to put on a workshop for our Nanoscience students to recognize and put into words the skill set their major and academic career gives them to position them uniquely for jobs and internships. Nanoscience is not a well known discipline and is a very unique major, making it challenging for our students to market themselves to employers. Through this workshop, a number of students were able to objectively quantify their skills and overall value to employers. The students were able to make industry connections & love the workshop so much, we plan to do this with our Systems Biology students as well. We do so much to get our students here, but we feel strongly that we need to do equally as much to help get them where they are going after their time at Virginia Tech!

Last, but certainly not least, I am currently working with an amazing group of student leaders in each of our majors to develop an ambassadors program. We are still in the planning process, but through this program, our prospective and younger students will be able to meet, interact with, and learn from their older peers in their major. This initiative will help students to stay motivated and be a part of the growth of these amazing programs. The ambassadors will be the key group of leaders for the Academy that will be able to share their in depth and personal insight on ways to better our programs for future students!

What advice would you give to other professionals who want to a make a difference in the life of their students?
Develop relationships, and be real! It's so important for us, as advisors, to develop relationships with our students to build trust and allow us the opportunity to be straight forward when we need to be and tender where it's appropriate. Our students need to know we are in their corner and are a resource for them during the high times and the low times!

I would also say that, when it is hard, and when you get really busy, think about the overall impact you are making! It's been encouraging to me in the busiest of times of this job that my hard work in the office, ultimately will benefit my students in some way shape or fashion. Let your impact be your motivation through the madness of course request, graduation, orientation, and the like!