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Natural-Born Leader At U.Va. Puts Teaching Over Politics

May 6, 2002-- Anyone who despairs over the future should spend a little time with Abby Fifer for an in-depth class in optimism and dedication.

The Roanoke native and outgoing University of Virginia Student Council president epitomizes leadership and self-reliance, traits that were put to the ultimate test in the hours following the Sept. 11 attacks. Skills and poise developed over a lifetime and honed during her years at U.Va. culminated in a night of quick thinking and helping hands.

When she got to Old Cabell Hall for the students’ candlelight vigil for peace and understanding, the place was already overflowing its 840-person capacity. The organizer was panicking.

"You’ve got to hold it outside in the amphitheater," Fifer told him. "We can do this."

But how would that work in the dark with no sound system? Fifer knew facilities technicians at Newcomb Hall, where her Student Council office is located. She made a few phone calls, and some student workers came from home to set up lights and microphones.

But there was another call Fifer wanted to make. She dialed U.Va. President John T. Casteen III and said, "I think you might want to come down here and see what your students are doing."

He did come. And over the next few days, Fifer, Casteen, his staff and a few others organized the University’s memorial service on the country’s day of mourning.

During her semesters and summers here, Fifer has "spent a lot of time getting to know how U.Va. is organized, and I’ve met a lot of people who give of themselves in ways most students don’t get to see," she said. They’ve shown her that "students matter, the community matters. The people I’ve had the privilege to work with are really living for the students at this school. It’s not just a day job."

The administrators and faculty who have gotten to know her have seen her take that observation to heart.

"Abby Fifer has been uncommonly principled, smart and focused in her work as Student Council president," said Casteen.

She is proudest of the legacy she leaves with Student Council, she said, because "working with great people, you help improve things and help others develop programs that reach out to many people," she said. The programs she has created or supported involve building community and connections: researching the need for a new student center; helping make the case for University-sponsored health insurance for graduate students; and reorganizing the Student Council committee structure to widen representation.

Another example of how Fifer saw a need and found a way to take care of it came from an observation about her Echols Scholars peers. Because they don’t have to take classes in certain subjects, Echols students theoretically could go through all four years without being exposed to a diversity of ideas and perspectives. She designed a seminar for first-year Echols students last year that was facilitated by third- and fourth-year students. It focused on issues of ethical importance, with different topics and guest speakers each week. The short course has been adopted permanently.

Fifer’s "intentions are always for the betterment of the community or the other person," said Patricia M. Lampkin, interim vice president for student affairs. "She is courageous, intelligent and has a humility that is refreshing."

"I never wanted to be in politics," Fifer protested. "I like to think of myself as a teacher, [someone] who points people in the right direction."

She’ll put her words into action next year, teaching in a private school. Eventually, she’d like to pursue a master’s degree in theology or religious studies.

She was elected to Student Council as a College representative in the second semester of her first year and served two more semesters. Joe Bilby, then-Student Council president, appointed her chief of staff and encouraged her to run for the top post after him.

Making first-year students feel more welcome has been another major area of influence. Fifer participated in the summer orientation program and, as Student Council president, performed a skit and gave a talk to incoming students at last fall’s Convocation. She also led the first-ever orientation team in a new summer program after her first year, and she set the bar high, according to Laurie Casteen, interim assistant director of orientation.

"As a leader, you always hope that the principles you stand for are present and active in the space you helped to create," Fifer said. "You hope you’re contributing something positive."

It’s clear that Abby Fifer has done that at U.Va.

Anne Bromley, (434) 924-6861

FOR ADDITIONAL INFORMATION: Contact the Office of University Relations at (434) 924-7116. Television reporters should contact the TV News Office at (434) 924-7550.

SOURCE: U.Va. News Services

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