By Charlotte Crystal
Carpenters possess an inner vision: where others see a muddy hillside, a slab of raw concrete and a pile of boards, a carpenter sees a house that simply hasn’t been built.
That’s how Gabriel Silver views his life at U.Va. and beyond – not just what is, but what could or should be.
Silver, 21, a third-year student from Ivy, is concerned about the environment. To address this issue, the Echols Scholar is pursuing an interdisciplinary major in environmental thought and practice. He’s also working on a minor in politics – how, after all, can one effect major change except through the political process?
But the health of the environment is not the only issue that worries Silver. Public health is another. Silver is keeping his career options open by simultaneously completing a pre-med program. And in the spring he crafted an independent study project that allowed him to explore the intersection of his interests in medicine and environmental science by studying the impact of the environment on human health.
But a potential career in environmental science or public health is years away. In the meantime, Silver sees problems close at hand, such as families in the Charlottesville area who need a decent place to live. Luckily, that’s a problem he can do something about right now. Silver, a full-time student who works part-time as a carpenter, serves in his spare time as the project director for Madison House’s home improvement program.
The home improvement program connects student volunteers with community partners — there are currently three: Greater Charlottesville Habitat for Humanity, the Albemarle Housing Improvement Program and the Charlottesville Redevelopment and Housing Agency (the partnership with CRHA will launch in the spring of 2006) — all local nonprofit organizations that use volunteer help to build and maintain “safe, decent and affordable housing” for local families.
About 40 student volunteers — both men and women, many of whom may not know how to hold a hammer and saw, at least not initially — head out to work sites around Charlottesville and Albemarle County to help build new homes for Habitat and repair or renovate homes for AHIP.
“Students who volunteer know Charlottesville in a way that students who don’t volunteer don’t,” Silver said. “They learn that even in a place that looks so affluent, counterbalancing that affluence is a lot of poverty and working-class people who find it hard to afford homes.”
The students may also learn how physically demanding construction work is -- earning blisters and sore muscles from work not generally associated with a student lifestyle.
“I also like that in neighborhoods where we do work, the residents get to see U.Va. students not being stereotypical U.Va. students but doing something constructive,” Silver said. “It’s a good way for people in the community to see us in a different light.”
The students receive benefits as well. “We see each other about once a week, it’s an interactive activity, it’s a good way to make friends and we’re doing good,” he said.
When applying to colleges, Silver found two compelling arguments in favor of U.Va.: the University’s proximity to his home – his family lives in Ivy, a few miles west of Charlottesville -- and the multitude of opportunities offered, both in academics and in student activities. After arriving on Grounds, Silver found as an added benefit that U.Va. has the feel of a small school.
“It’s a place where smaller communities can thrive,” Silver said. “There’s a place and things to do and a group of people for everyone here.”
Silver found his place not only through his involvement with Madison House, but also through challenging academics. Memorable courses he’s taken include an intensive, three-week course in marine biology taught by Fred Diehl, associate professor emeritus of biology, that met for a week on Grounds and for two weeks in the Bahamas. “It was a super-intensive learning experience,” he said. “We spent a lot of time in the water.”
He also has enjoyed the teaching of Stephen White, professor of politics, whose course on political theory made complicated theories understandable, and that of Janis Antonovics, an “irreverent” professor of biology, who waxed eloquent about plant diseases.
Silver’s U.Va. experience hasn’t been perfect – he believes that undergraduate advising needs improvement, particularly for students majoring in the sciences. “The focus of science professors tends to be on research and not on advising undergraduate students,” he said. And he is troubled by “a certain amount of elitism here that can stand in the way of the humility that a liberal arts education should instill in you.” But overall he gives the University a big thumbs-up.
He treasures U.Va. experiences that have left their mark, such as serving as a juror for an honor trial and, his first year on Grounds, joining hundreds of classmates outside for a snowy Lighting of the Lawn.
When he walks the Lawn in May 2007, Silver hopes to leave behind a stronger housing improvement program at Madison House, one that will give more U.Va. students “a chance to get out and understand the community they’re living in.” And he will take with him a lifelong commitment to integrity and public service, though the structure of that commitment is still taking shape.
2006 by the Rector and Visitors