In the demanding environment of the five-year professional architecture and four-year industrial design programs at Virginia Tech, academic advisor Vern Ferguson is a beacon, helping students navigate the complex curriculum they must complete to earn their degrees and plan for new journeys.

This commitment to guiding and advocating for students has always been appreciated, even under normal circumstances, but Ferguson’s efforts have become all the more important as the university responds to the current COVID-19 pandemic.

Ferguson was recently awarded the prestigious Virginia Tech Provost’s Award for Excellence in Academic Advising, the university’s highest honor given to an academic advisor. He was nominated based on a variety of strengths ranging from empathy and listening skills to his use of a technology-savvy model that empowers students while making advisors more accountable.

His efforts have also been recognized on the national level. This May, Ferguson received a Certificate of Merit for Outstanding New Advisor Award from NACADA, the Global Community for Academic Advising.

Ferguson calls his approach “flipped advising.” Drawn from the “flipped classroom” concept, the process makes students responsible for knowing requirements, options, and opportunities before in-person meetings.

Because students arrive to their meetings well-informed, Ferguson’s guidance can be richer and more personal, as students already have their paperwork completed and a list of questions to ask. Ferguson then helps them consider the potential impacts of those choices while plotting a course forward.

Since his students already had practice in making many of their own academic decisions, they were more prepared for the changes brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic and last spring's rapid transition to remote learning.

Vern Ferguson speaks to a student in the A+D administrative offices
Ferguson holds an advising session with architecture student Ojima Glover in the A+D administrative offices in fall 2019. Though he doesn’t have a professional background in architecture and design, Ferguson was immediately intrigued by the discipline’s students. Photo by Maura Perez.

Ferguson himself knows how to weather difficult waters.

Although he always wanted a college degree, circumstances prevented this achievement until he was in his 40s. Nearing the end of one career at Kroger, where he worked in customer service, a chance opportunity through a part-time job working as a webmaster for the Miss Wheelchair Virginia pageant made it possible for him to complete a semester at Virginia Western Community College in 2011.

At the end of the semester, he had a 4.0 GPA and was on the President’s Honor Roll. Encouraged, Ferguson worked with an academic advisor to craft a plan of study that eventually led to a master’s degree in political science at Virginia Tech in 2017. Student employment opportunities introduced him to the possibility of being an advisor himself. When a full-time academic advising position in the College of Architecture and Urban Studies (CAUS) became available, he was hired for the job.

Though he doesn’t have a professional  background in architecture and design, he was immediately intrigued by the discipline’s students. During his interview for the position, he saw the studio’s messy desks littered with projects at all stages of completion.

“I need to know these people,” he thought.

Bitmojis of Vern Ferguson
Bitmojis are illustrated caricatures of people doing easily identifiable tasks. Ferguson often uses them in his communications with students to quickly relay important information, reactions, and reminders. Images courtesy Vern Ferguson.

Ferguson quickly made a mark. Working closely with fellow advisors Tamela Gallimore and Susan Rosebrough, the School of Architecture + Design advising office became an early adopter of the university’s Navigate software, a platform that combines predictive analytics and communication tools for academic advising and tutoring. He also began using technology to schedule appointments and keep contact with students through the virtual meeting site GroupMe.

Ferguson’s positive influence has only grown from there. “Vern’s presence has brightened and freshened everything in the three years he has been here – not just in advising, but in the School of Architecture + Design and even the college as a whole,” said Rob Jacks, director of academic advising for CAUS.

When some university employees were encouraged to work remotely this past March in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Ferguson said their office was fully ready for online advising. “The transition has been seamless,” he said.

Ferguson noted that he learned a lot about people in his first career, and he credits that experience with teaching him creative and efficient communication. He commonly employs memes and bitmojis in his messages to students. Bitmojis, which are illustrated  caricatures of people doing easily identifiable tasks, quickly signal concepts, requirements, expectations, and even agency in an effective mix of text and images. “They see a bitmoji of me and a calendar, and they know what to do,” Ferguson said.

Students have responded to this technique with enthusiasm. “Vern’s creative ways of getting in touch with us make our days brighter in what can be an increasingly stressful studio environment,” said Zai Cook, a fifth-year architecture student.

CAUS also has many domestic and international off-campus programs. During the pandemic, Ferguson’s attention to detail has been essential to knowing where students are physically, what issues are foremost on their minds, and how they can keep their studies on track in a rapidly changing environment.

“When the COVID-19 situation first worsened in Italy,  I realized I was the only person who knew where all of our students were because I keep track of all the international programs, the off-campus programs, and the professional internships,” Ferguson said. His ability to give quick updates about students’ status has been an important source of information for college leaders during the crisis.

In this current environment, what would Ferguson want to communicate to his students, some of whom he might not see in person again any time soon?

“I would tell them they have been strong, strategic, and smart, and they had a plan before they did anything,” Ferguson said. “They didn’t panic, and they took this crisis in stride,” Ferguson continued. “I’m so proud of them, and they will get through this.”

—Written by L. Maria Ingram