Learn to govern — themselves and others
The undergraduate experience
The third in an occasional series
|U.Va. students are allowed a great deal of responsibility for governing themselves — including driving transit buses.
By Dan Heuchert
It’s a cold, rainy winter day and many students don’t feel like walking to class. Instead, they pack onto a University Transit Service bus —standing room only. Behind the wheel of the 35-foot-long, 13-ton, orange-and-blue behemoth: a fellow student.
In fact, UTS employs between 85 and 90 student drivers, who provide nearly 75 percent of its service hours, said Rebecca White, director of parking and transportation.
The University could hire all of its drivers from the local workforce, as many universities do. Instead, it gives students real responsibility — both for driving the buses, and often, for training and supervising the drivers. It’s all part of U.Va.’s commitment to student self-governance, said V. Shamim Sisson, senior associate dean of students.
“It’s educationally purposeful,” she said. “What we say is that we want to educate here in the broadest possible way.”
That philosophy dates back to Thomas Jefferson’s initial purpose for founding the University: to educate the leaders of a new democracy. “We’re still trying to prepare those leaders in a new republic,” Sisson said.
Mention “student self-governance” to many people around Grounds, and they think of students taking a leading role in organizations such as Student Council, the Honor Committee and the University Judiciary Committee. Sisson offers a subtler translation individual students learning or govern themselves.
That learning begins in students’ first hours at the University, as they move into their dorms. Though there are a few safety rules — no hot plates, halogen lamps and unframed posters — roommates are expected to negotiate and enforce their own arrangements governing visitors, study hours and the myriad other decisions that must be made mutually in order to share a room for an academic year.
“We do accord them a higher level of responsibility, a higher level of expectations earlier than they would receive in other places,” Sisson said.
That attitude pervades virtually all interactions with students throughout their academic careers — even if they don’t realize it.
Courtney Cherry, now a fourth-year student, recalls, “I don’t think I really understood and appreciated it until the summer after my first year,” she said.
Cherry had gotten involved in planning the annual dance marathon during her first year, and attended a summer conference for groups that put on similar events at other schools. She soon noticed that the U.Va. delegation was the only one without a faculty adviser.
“What I realized was that it was student self-governance at work there, and it does afford us a great deal of freedom,” she said.
This “freedom,” however, does not suggest that students and their organizations are left to sink or swim entirely on their own.
There are seemingly inexhaustible resources available to students who seek them out, from informal discussions with staffers from the dean of students office to formal classroom instruction in organizational leadership, and almost everywhere in between.
“I think the University does a good job of trying to provide us with support,” said Ellen D’Angelo, a third-year student who heads a newly revamped student leadership consulting group and serves on both the University Judiciary Committee and the Honor Committee. “If you need something, ask.”
A student’s formal leadership training at the University may begin with a program called Blueprint, which is described by its leader, Stephanie Goodell, as “a platform, a launching pad for first-year, second-year and transfer students to start to find their way toward leadership at U.Va.”
The three-year-old, noncredit program, funded by Bank of America, is by application only, and students are selected after an interview process, said Goodell, assistant director for student involvement at Newcomb Hall. Instruction focuses on leadership skills, including values, time management, and conflict and communication in groups.
The Curry School offers two for-credit leadership education and development courses: “Paradigms and Strategies of Leadership,” which covers leadership theories, and ”Leadership in Student Organizations,” meant to develop and apply those theories.
There are at least a half-dozen other leadership development programs and resources offered under the auspices of the Newcomb Hall Student Activities Center, including programs offered for African-American students, for Asian students and for those involved in the Greek system. Sisson founded the Women’s Leadership Development program 15 years ago for young female students with a degree of untapped leadership
potential; Cherry, the dance marathon volunteer, is a graduate who is now president of the Inter-Sorority Council.
The thought behind these programs is not to manage student groups by proxy, but to give students the skills they need to manage on their own, Sisson said. “Our role is to help students do the thinking in advance, so they make good decisions.”
The granddaddy of all U.Va. leadership programs is an invitation-only, week-long program held each June for student leaders of the University’s highest-profile groups. Students live together in rented sorority houses, engage in team-building exercises, learn leadership theory, introduce their own organizations to their peers and hear from University leaders, including the president and several vice presidents, deans and department heads.
“Frankly, it was one of the best experiences I have had here,” said Leadership 2004 participant Neela Pal, former vice chair of Sustained Dialogue and president of the South Asian Leadership Society. “It was a very intense week. I think it gave me a much more complete outlook of the University. … I’m part of something so much grander than my four years here.”
Besides giving a more comprehensive overview of the University, the summer leadership program is intended to build a network of student leaders who know one another and their respective organizations, Sisson said. If conflict among the groups should arise, that familiarity often prevents it from becoming too personal, she said.
The relationship-building also benefits the University’s full-time leaders, Goodell noted. Students are called upon to be partners in decision-making, and often are included in Universitywide committees and even faculty and administrative searches.
“We depend on their input and we expect it — and we really want it,” she said. “We want them to be partners in the decisions we make that
The overall effect of student self-governance is striking. Several students volunteer words such as “empowerment,” “investment” and “ownership” when describing their roles in the University. They bring their experiences with them into the next phases of their lives.
“I’ve never been this invested in a community before,” Pal said. “I’m trying to think about how I can be this involved wherever I go.”