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On Their Own
The Undergraduate Experience
: The First in an Occasional Series
orientation session at U.Va.
Michael Bailey
Between orientation sessions July 27, these now first-year students and their parents milled about in Newcomb Hall, getting to know the University and one another.

While the primary focus of a university is to enrich the minds of its students At the University of Virginia, student life outside the classroom is viewed as equally important.

Over the next year, Inside UVA will go behind the scenes at the Office of Student Affairs to explore what it takes to create the ndergraduate experience and to graduate what Thomas Jefferson called “educated citizens” — individuals who can lead, not just by virtue of the knowledge they have acquired in the classroom, but by virtue of what they have learned as full participants in a vibrant community steeped in the principles of responsibility, honor, and mutual respect.

By Dan Heuchert

Early in the afternoon on the first of two days of orientation, about 400 incoming students and a like number of their parents, packed the lower level of Old Cabell Hall for a presentation on technology at U.Va.

When it ended, orientation director Tabitha Enoch, energetic even in the midst of her seventh orientation session of the summer, stepped up to the microphone.

Now is the time to make plans to meet your sons and daughters tomorrow morning at 10:15!” she declared.

many of them far from home and knowing few of their peers. Parents would follow their own schedule before spending the night in local hotels, while their kids would retire to Hereford College.

There was no poll taken of the parents at that moment. If there had been, though, it might well have found that many of them were thinking the same thing: My baby’s growing up.

“Mission accomplished,” Enoch would likely say.

While she sees plenty of practical reasons to split the parents from their children, Enoch recognizes that the divide is also the first step toward U.Va.’s unique student experience. “Student self-governance” is a phrase thrown around a lot on Grounds, usually in reference to student-run organizations like the Honor and Judiciary committees or Student Council. But the phrase applies to every student every day; all are expected to govern their own behavior, making their own decisions with decreasing input from their parents.

the Foggies, from the Bronx, N.Y.
Michael Bailey
Though parents may not be ready to leave their children, come move-in day, they and their offspring-turned-college-students are better prepared for the transition, thanks to the orientation program they attended earlier in the summer. Here, the Foggies, from the Bronx, N.Y., help their daughter, Justina, move in to her dorm room — Dad sets up the computer, Brother helps unpack, and Mom makes up the bed.

Hence, the harsh reality of orientation: parents are informed, nicely but firmly, that they are not invited to tag along when students meet with their faculty advisers to work out class schedules.

Most parents seem to respect their students’ need for independence, Enoch said, although some find it harder to cut the strings.

“Usually, what happens then is you see parents and students on their cell phones all the time,” she said. “‘Where are you? What are you doing?’”

The emphasis on the student experience during orientation is more than symbolic. Current students play a starring role throughout the program. Twenty-eight of them, hand-picked through an application process, undergo eight days of training to become orientation leaders, who guide groups of their future peers through the process. Students are at the front of the room for many of the orientation sessions, not as mere exhibits but as the main speakers.

The most popular session in parents’ evaluations is “Parents as Partners,” which features associate dean of students Aaron Laushway, along with student orientation leaders Rachel Dada and Tim Monaghan.

“This is your opportunity to ask those questions that would humiliate your daughters and sons if they were here,” Laushway told the parents, before offering candid advice about parenting from a distance and the challenges that both parents and students could face.

He then yielded the stage to Dada and Monaghan, who performed a skit chronicling two students’ adaptation to University life through their phone calls to home at three points in their first semester. When the parents got their chance to ask questions — ranging from the dos and don’ts of dorm furnishings to safety concerns —Laushway deferred to the students to answer them, interjecting sparingly only when needed.

“It’s an important part of the culture,” Enoch said. “[Faculty presenters] know that the students are the ones that the parents and students want to hear from. … For the most part, students do a good job of answering the tough questions.”

Likewise, one of the student’s highest-rated sessions is an evening sit-down with only orientation leaders, in which they can ask about anything that comes to mind, out from under the watchful eyes of their parents.

Deirdre Kelly, from Queens, N.Y., called the student-only panel her favorite. “They talked about what to bring, what not to bring, what professors to take,” she said. “If professors ran it, it probably would be different.”

There were explicit messages bolstering student self-governance, as well. In her welcome address, Board of Visitors member Susan Y. “Syd” Dorsey extolled the value of the Honor System, as did University President John T. Casteen III in videotaped remarks. Patricia Lampkin, vice president for student affairs, also declared, “This is now your University” and urged the students to “create your own experience.”

Later on the first day, representatives from the Honor and Judiciary committees and Student Council introduced the incoming students to their respective organizations and urged them to get involved.
The honor message showed signs of getting through. Incoming student Michael Gugel of Brooklyn, N.Y., was making his first visit to Grounds. “My high school is notorious for cheating,” he said. “Coming here, it’s refreshing. It’s a great idea.”

The orientation schedule was grueling, with events scheduled for students from check-in at 7:30 a.m. on day one until almost midnight. Breakfast was served at 8 a.m. on day two, with more events — thankfully, many of them self-paced — until 4 p.m. Check-out closed at 5 p.m.

By lunchtime on the second day, both students and parents were looking weary as they and their overloaded brains navigated Newcomb Hall. In the cafeteria, a Midlothian parent — his daughter safely out of range, chatting with newfound friends — contemplated drop-off day, then just a month away.

“I told my wife that it will be like the first time she rode the bus to school for kindergarten,” he said. “She just got on and never looked back.

“Except this time she won’t be coming back in the afternoon.”

That didn’t mean the parents were steeled for drop-off day.
Rene Hasey, a mother from Lexington, listened to her daughter, Samantha, talk excitedly about her orientation experience. She had hoped to find her way around, get her class schedule set up and learn more about clubs and activities, and had managed to check all of those things off her list. Clearly, she was ready to move in.

But was Mom ready to leave her here?

“No!” Rene Hasey said. “Not at all.”

 


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