An open letter to the Class of 2017
A second year reflects on lessons learned
By now, you’re probably settled into your dorm room, your parents have left you—tearfully—to make your own life choices, and the ageless behemoth that is the University of Virginia stands before you in all its intimidating Jeffersonian regalia. As you contemplate the year before you, allow a recently graduated first year—otherwise known as a second year—to give you a little advice on how to make the most of your time at U.Va. Disclaimer: as a fellow student along for the journey, I definitely don’t have everything figured out yet. I am therefore not responsible for any bad ends that may arise from taking my advice.
First: embrace student self-governance. Other than Mr. Jefferson himself, there is little else we revere at U.Va as much as student self-governance. If any of you remember your admission tours, you will probably recall hearing the words “student self-governance” uttered more times in an hour than you had previously heard in your entire life. But don’t let yourself get cynical about our obsession with student self-governance; our passion springs from a well of experience. The honor system is what I consider to be the purest form of self-governance. Students conduct the investigations, trials, appeals and counseling, as well as overseeing all organizational flotsam that accompanies running a massive system of student justice. No other university—none—gives such power to the students. It’s both frightening and empowering to fully comprehend the responsibility entrusted to the students at the University.
The honor system, of course, is not the only example of students governing themselves. There is a spectrum of student self-governance in the countless organizations on Grounds; everywhere you look you will find examples of students making decisions that have tangible ramifications for themselves and for others at the University. I didn’t appreciate the power given to students until my training for the honor system. It was exhilarating to watch students just a few years older than myself make decisions about the fate of their peers, knowing that adults will accept their judgments as final. The thought that eventually I might be in the position to help administer such a system gave me chills: that’s self-governance. And here’s the kicker: the “real world,” where we’re all adults with degrees and mortgages and jobs, looks no different. The skills and habits you cultivate as you join organizations and begin the messy process of governing yourself at U.Va will be the ones that carry through to the rest of your life. So take student self-governance seriously.
Second: resist the temptation to prepare for your career. I’m going to get on my soapbox a little here. Going to college is a period of your life unlike any other. At no other point will you have such freedom to set your schedule, pursue your passions and educate yourself as a human being. That last bit is important, not because majoring in chemistry and taking all the pre-med requirements makes you an uneducated blockhead, but because if you leave U.Va having never considered J.S. Mill’s political philosophy, having never tried out a new language, having never read Aristotle or Shakespeare or even the Bible, how can you call yourself an “educated” person? You may be a trained scientist, but there’s much more to the world than compounds and molecules. And the same message applies to English majors. The point is that college is the only place where your development as an individual is your single highest priority; therefore, make it about crafting the launch pad for the rest of your life, not about taking the courses necessary for the next step. Build that launch pad broad and sturdy, rather than lopsided and unstable, and good things will follow.
Third, and finally, buy into the honor code. It’s the third most popular tagline at U.Va, after Jefferson and student self-governance, but it is vital for the community we are trying to form here. The honor code is a collective effort to make each other better people and hold each other to high standards. Like student self-governance, honor is about learning to act with integrity in all aspects of your life so that the habits you develop sustain you throughout your life. It’s about dealing honestly with everyone in your life, including yourself, and being the type of person that would make your grandmother proud. It’s about believing in ideals not simply because they are beautiful, but because they shape our actions. Most importantly, though, the honor code challenges you to examine the root of your beliefs. Why do we set such rules for ourselves? Why follow a rule if it’s impractical or inconvenient? Should we really promote honesty over resourcefulness? To engage seriously with the honor code—to treat as something more than just a well-advertised aspect of student life at U.Va—you need to consider such questions and come up with answers of your own.
As you look forward to your first year at this incredible institution, I encourage you all to think carefully on how you want to spend your time. If you dive headfirst into the challenges of student self-governance, stretch yourself in your academic studies, and embrace the idea of living your life with integrity, then you will reap the rewards for years to come.