Saturday, June 17, 2023

Back to UVA, 10 Years On

Usually the Foreign Service keeps us abroad, and reunions are rarely feasible to attend. So I was especially thrilled to discover we'd be Stateside for my 10-year reunion since graduating from the University of Virginia (UVA). I didn't know a lot of people at the reunion since I graduated a year early and most of my friends graduated a year after me, but I was excited to explore my old haunts and see how the university and Charlottesville (Cville) have changed since I attended. I'm also glad M (who spent a lot of time at UVA while dating me long-distance from Virginia Tech (VT)) and S could join me, and the reunions team did a great job of including family members.

We drove down to Cville on Friday morning to make it in time for the first event we wanted to attend: a student dormitory (dorm) tour. I lived in dorms all three years at UVA, including as a resident advisor (RA), so I was interested to see what the experience was like today. At risk of sounding like a bit of a curmudgeon, I have to say that kids these days will never know what we went through! All dorms now have air conditioning and elevators, but I spend multiple years in dorms without either of those. M and I will never forget the struggle of carrying furniture up and down stairs and laying out surrounded by fans trying to cool off in the summer. They even have adjustable beds, now, so students can decide what height bed they want! In all seriousness, I'm delighted to hear that dorms now are more accessible and comfortable for students so they can really focus on what they should be there for: to learn.

The newest dorm is called Gibbons House, named after Isabella and William Gibbons. They were an extraordinary couple who built a family, pursued their own education, and gave back to the community as leaders despite being born into slavery and enslaved at UVA for decades. Isabella Gibbons wrote in 1867, "Can we forget the crack of the whip, cowhide, whipping-post, the auction block...the hand-cuffs, the spaniels, the iron collar, the negro-trader tearing the young child from its mother's breast as a whelp from the lioness? Have we forgotten these horrible cruelties, hundreds of our race have been killed? No, we have not, nor ever will." I am glad my alma mater is honoring their stories with this dorm and with prominent displays about their history, and I'm sad I never knew them before.

While I attended a lecture (some things never change), M joined a solar panel tour. Apparently, UVA has a goal to be carbon-neutral by 2030 and fossil fuel-free by 2050. Some of UVA's rooftop solar panels are owned by a local power company that is just leasing the rooftop space, while others are owned by the university. The ones owned by the power company are connected to the grid. UVA has already achieved its shorter-term goal for 25% of its power needs to be met by renewables thanks to an agreement to purchase energy from two solar farms.

My favorite thing I saw the whole reunion weekend was the Memorial to Enslaved Laborers. This memorial was an idea that students passionately advocated for when I was a student (with some vocal opposition), so I got chills walking the site of the actual memorial realized in physical space. I learned that the memorial planning process included a huge range of stakeholders: not just the university administration and students and alumni but Charlottesville community members and descendants of enslaved laborers. That process resulted in an extremely thoughtful and profoundly symbolic memorial recognizing and honoring the ~4,000 enslaved laborers who built UVA and kept it running. You can read more about the effort to get the memorial made and the meaning behind its design on the memorial website. I took a tour of the memorial led by a UVA alumna and descendant of multiple enslaved people, including Sally Hemings and the Maupin family. If you want to learn more about supporting efforts like the memorial, genealogical access, scholarships for descendants, and more, check out the nonprofit Descendants of Enslaved Communities at UVA (DEC-UVA).

I was also touched to see so many signs and memorials around campus and town for the three UVA football players killed in a campus shooting in November 2022: D’Sean Perry, Devin Chandler, and Lavel Davis. Both sides of Beta Bridge were painted in their memory, seven months after they were killed. Moreover, the UVA Alumni Association continues to lead a fundraising effort to support the victims, survivors, and their families; if you would like to contribute please consider supporting UVA Strong.

We also took the time we were in Cville to visit several of my favorite old haunts and restaurants, including Take It Away sandwich shop, Marco & Luca dumplings, The Virginian, and Twisted Branch Tea Bazaar. We even swung by the UVA Bookstore to pick up an outfit for S, because somehow he wound up with way too many VT clothes and not a single UVA item (until now).

It was really nice to bring the family with me down memory lane. It'll be years before I get the chance to visit again, so I'm glad we made it this time. The Alumni Association and UVA administration and staff did a phenomenal job of helping us alumni feel right at home again on campus, and they definitely made me want to come back again for a future reunion. Until next time, UVA/Cville! Wahoowa!

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