College is both an exciting and challenging time under any circumstance, but the college experience has changed dramatically due to the ongoing spread and threat of coronavirus, a global pandemic. With most colleges well into the throes of the Fall semester, many institutions, large and small, are struggling to find effective solutions for fostering students’ sense of belonging while teaching/learning remotely. Indeed, COVID-19 has introduced new and complicated challenges for connecting with learners, providing academic support, and communicating with them in ways that facilitate student success.

Frequent, consistent communication between students and their advisors was uncommon before COVID-19, according to research by the Higher Education Research Institute at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA); but, the transition to remote learning makes it that much more difficult. One solution to this is intrusive advising, which has launched at a number of universities. Intrusive advising is a strategy that promotes intentional contact with students in a deliberate effort to develop caring and mutually beneficial relationships built on care, trust, and mattering that lead to increased academic motivation, sense of belonging, and persistence.

Remember, intrusive advisors aren’t intruders, forcing entry into students’ lives without permission or with malicious intent. No, intrusive advisors initiate contact with students on purpose, showing genuine care, as a way of reaching out early to anticipate opportunities, avoid pitfalls, signal that they matter, and strengthen their success. Available research suggests intrusive advising tends to lead to higher achievement, retention, and graduation rates – meaning it can be a crucial factor in a student’s decision to remain in college. Given the current context, faculty and professional advisors are strongly encouraged to use virtual intrusive advising to foster college students’ sense of belonging and success.

Ways to Foster Belonging via Virtual Advising

Some of the best ways to leverage intrusive advising virtually that are beneficial for both advisors and students include:

  • Begin building trusting, caring authentic relationships on Day 1. This is especially important for incoming freshmen, learning remotely, who may not have ever set foot on campus. They will need special attention to feel assured that they belong. Host a formal online orientation that introduces first-time, first-year and transfer students to the institution, its history, campus leaders, and their advisor(s). Find ways to personalize the orientation experience, incorporating photos of students, avatars, candid shots of faculty and administrators “having fun” in school gear, or beautiful scenes from “hot spots” (favorite spaces) on campus. Get to know your advisees by name and listen to their concerns, aspirations, goals, and hesitations. Don’t just listen passively; act intrusively to help them avoid pitfalls, reconcile conflicts, resolve issues, and achieve their dreams, not our dreams for them.
  • Be prepared for advising appointments. Advisors should make sure they have an agenda set before the appointment to ensure the conversation is productive, focused, engaging, and addresses any specific concerns the student may have. Show up on-time, even in online spaces. Be prepared to “greet” them at the virtual door, so to speak; take a moment to check-in about their adjustment to learning remotely. Inquire about the status of current courses and feel free to ask about their plans for the future. Then, move through the planned agenda directly addressing the specific needs and concerns of your advisee. At times, advisors must share generic information about registration deadlines, “add/drop” procedures, and graduation requirements, as a few examples. But, whenever possible, tailor your advising style and session to the particular needs of your advisee. Customized messages delivered through virtual intrusive advising are an effective way to show students they have your attention, they’re important, and their success matters to you.
  • Maintain regular contact. Reach out to students proactively, even during unscheduled times. Strive to develop a regular cadence of communication between you and your advisee(s). A quick email, a phone call, text message, or even a video chat can really help to make the student feel cared about, connected, and signal that they matter to someone important in the college community. If your institution’s student information system (SIS) or learning management software (LMS) doesn’t provide instant messaging, then use apps and technology available in the public domain to share inspirations (e.g., “Don’t stop; keep shining), schedule appointments, or offer “just in time” answers to pressing questions like “How do I drop a course?” or “Where can I get tutoring in [said subject]?” Virtual advising offices are encouraged to post responses to frequently asked questions (FAQs) on the web and to establish a centralized virtual helpdesk for advisors. We’ve established something similar at Virginia Union University to serve as a “clearing port” where students questions are answered, redirected, or elevated to the appropriate campus official.

Other solutions are likely needed to help students during this uncertain time. Institutions can enlist the help of educational researchers, consultants, and professional associations like the National Association of Academic Advising (NACADA) to help them devise a plan for promoting sense of belonging and student success amid COVID-19 by developing high-quality virtual intrusive advising initiatives.

“Sense of belonging matters. The present challenge is to find new ways to stay connected with students, while we’re physically apart”

— Dr. Terrell Strayhorn


  • Terrell L. Strayhorn, PhD

    Consultant, DEI Expert, Professor

    Virginia Union University

    Terrell Strayhorn is a professor, public speaker, writer, entrepreneur, and influencer in the fields of education, psychology, corporate training, and community engagement. He contributes to Entrepreneur, AllBusiness, Huffington Post, Diverse Issues, Thrive Global, The Tennessean, Charlotte Observer, and more. Dr. Strayhorn is a leading DEI expert, consultant, and life coach who specializes in helping corporations and institutions build cultures of belonging that truly unleash human potential. He is Professor of Education and Psychology at Virginia Union University, where he also serves as Director of the Center for the Study of HBCUs and Principal Investigator of The Belonging Lab.