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What Defines Us?

Alumni share views of the student experience at UVA

From left to right: Al Park, Meghan Sullivan, Cheryl Mills, Larry Sabato and Tim Ingrassia Illustration by Kerry Talbott

Global events and cultural trends inevitably give each generation of UVA students an individual identity, but no matter the era, students find their time on Grounds defined by common values and traditions that create a shared experience. To articulate the ingredients of UVA’s “special sauce,” members of the Board of Visitors invited five alumni from four decades to participate in a panel discussion in the Rotunda Dome Room. The panelists shared the differences as well as the similarities among their experiences at the University and beyond, illustrating how UVA provides a special blend of academics, extracurricular activities and self-determination that has shaped their lives.

On Grounds

Meghan Sullivan:“I tell people glowingly about the experience on the Lawn. ‘I got to live in this really old room! There were no bathrooms! We had to walk out in the snow every day and there were tourists everywhere—it was wonderful!’ People really do think you’re crazy unless they have some kind of affiliation with this place.”

Al Park: “That first year is critical. Resident advisers are very important [when you’re] 18, 19 years of age, and that’s such a valuable thing to have when you’re away from home for the first time—that authority figure, that person who is a life coach. I know a lot of RAs who did some academic advising, too.”

Cheryl Mills: “[When you meet someone who also went to UVA], everyone always starts out with, ‘What dorm did you live in?’ because that grounds the experience. That first-year experience was a very holistic one and a very binding one.”

Larry Sabato: “I came in with the first coeducational class. It was interesting … because of civil rights and Vietnam, and the new voting rights for 18- to 20-year-olds. … You had an empowerment of young people, and so they were even more engaged than in some other periods of time.”

Academic Life

Tim Ingrassia: “[There is a] shared experience of legendary teachers who are really good at teaching. You can walk away [from class] and be excited and proud, and it doesn’t matter if it’s a seminar or a lecture with 300 people in it. The difference between someone who is really good at teaching—at motivating a group of students who want to learn—and someone who is just getting information across is palpable. … These are formative experiences that you’re proud of for many, many years.”

Meghan Sullivan:“One thing that could be emphasized more at the University is the connection between the student experience and academics. As a student here, you often feel like ‘I’m majoring in two things, in U-Guides and politics, and these are two separate things. I have my life in the Academical Village and then I have my academical life.’ And there’s no reason at a place like this—with the incredibly generous faculty members, with a strong sense of community and identity—that these should be such separate spheres.”

Tim Ingrassia: “You realize, only after you leave, that this was an experience where you learned as much from peers as you did from professors.”


Cheryl Mills: “There were lots of ways in which you could dream up [an activity or club] and actually support it and grow it. The University was prepared to help support you. There were so many spaces where our common values—be they in residence life or in Honor or in Madison House or in something that you actually generated and created yourself and convinced your friends and peers to participate in—created an opportunity for appreciation of shared experience.”

Meghan Sullivan:“By the time I got my footing in my second year, I had this close community of friends. We weren’t just college friends playing Frisbee on the quad, though we did a lot of that. We were also involved in running the Honor System. We had real responsibilities, responsibilities to other students who were going to hold us accountable.”

The “Secret Sauce”

Al Park: “When you talk about the secret sauce that is the University, you ask, ‘Who are the ingredients?’ And it seems to be that the people have the same core values. Those core values are a sense of excellence and achievement, and a desire to be competitive but not at the misfortune of others. People have a sense of mentorship and stewardship, of giving back and being part of something bigger and larger than you, which is inculcated every year you are here. It shows a pattern of learning that doesn’t end in your senior year, [a pattern] of mentoring and fostering community.”

Cheryl Mills: “UVA … [makes] its students effective in being able to make decisions and be willing to risk failure, accept that failure and grow from it, and accept their successes and be humble about it.”

Al Park: “Self-governance and the Honor Code [are] beliefs that transcend decades as a kind of glue that keeps people together. And whether things are perfect or not, we owe it to the current undergrads to constantly remind ourselves and them that this is their time … to get engaged and as alumni we can help create a safety net for them. But we have to give them the ability to conquer the world while they’re here at the University.”

Larry Sabato: “The academic experience is absolutely essential here. But as a university grows, one way to link people together and strengthen the link is to strengthen good traditions. There’s nothing wrong with traditions. You don’t throw away traditions because they’re old. … We’ve had plenty of bad traditions. … But the good traditions—calling yourself first-year, second-year, third-year, fourth-year, having professors addressed as Mr. and Ms.—that’s important. And that links everybody together, whatever school they’re in, however big the place gets, then they feel a special part of a special place.”

What defines your student experience? Leave a comment below.