Echols Scholar Program holds town hall meeting to discuss upcoming plans for spring semester

Program director Kelsey Johnson constitutes an advisory committee to experiment new ideas and create a richer community for scholars

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Kelsey Johnson, the Echols Scholars Program director and an associate Astronomy professor, speaks at the Echols town hall.

Andrew Walsh | Cavalier Daily

The Echols Scholar Program hosted a town hall meeting last week to discuss new plans for the program during spring semester.

The Echols Scholars Program was created in 1960 and gives selected undergraduates academic opportunities and privileges, as well as Echols-only housing. About 10 percent of College students are Echols Scholars. 

Before the meeting last Thursday began, Kelsey Johnson, the Echols Scholar Program director and an associate astronomy professor, explained her hope to retain communication about the program among the scholars going forward.

“The main purpose in my mind for the meeting is just to keep open lines of communication with the scholars,” Johnson said. “I want everything we’re doing — me and the administration — to be transparent, and I want to get [Scholars’] feedback with questions as they arrive.”

Johnson explained in the meeting that she has constructed an advisory committee composed of smaller subcommittees covering issues for the Echols Scholars program such as diversity, alumni engagement and recruitment. These committees, including alumni, current Echols Scholars and faculty, have focused on creating a stronger program for the incoming and alumni Echols Scholars community.  

The five subcommittees are Housing and Community, Alumni Engagement and Development, Diversity, Programming and Academic Requirements, and Admissions, Recruitment and Program Size. 

Housing and Community is working to ensure a “true living learning community” for Scholars, and is tackling the issue of whether to maintain Echols-only housing. Currently, Echols Scholars may choose to live in Echols-only housing in Balz-Dobie and Tuttle-Dunnington residence halls.

Admissions, Recruitment and Program Size is focusing on the ideal program size, as well as trying to change the perception that the Echols Scholars Program is “arbitrary.” Programming and Academic Requirements is looking into Echols-only courses and implementing programs to support the mission of the program.

Diversity focuses on ensuring a diverse and comfortable setting, and Alumni Engagement and Development is trying to build a more useful advising network for students and alumni.

Although no decisions have been decided within the committees yet, Johnson said she urged her team to think critically about questions she’s designated for each subcommittee. Johnson said these goals may take time.

“Some of these [questions] I need to have answers to by the end of the year, some of them are going to be longer term,” Johnson said. “It might take years for us to … make progress on them, but that’s okay.”

Johnson, who assumed the position of director in May, said she hopes this year will be a time to test ideas out and see what works best for the program.

“That’s what this year is about,” Johnson said. “We are playing with things. We are experimenting. We are trying to see how we can make it a richer community and richer network, so not only that you benefit during your years at U.Va., but when you go out into the world after U.Va., you are part of an unbelievable alumni community.”

Last summer, a survey was sent to the alumni community of Echols Scholars, and with roughly 1,000 responses, Johnson and her team were able to extract key points from the survey that make the program unique. These responses were also used to allow Johnson and her staff to find ways to better improve the connectivity of the program. Johnson said she wanted the scholars to hear the feedback from these surveys.

According to Johnson, many of the responses from the alumni stressed how important peer networks were to the relationships and connection of Echols Scholars. Johnson said it’s easy to remain close during the first years, but the effort becomes harder overtime. 

“It’s a lot easier in your first year if you’re in the Balz-Dobie dorm because you're around these people every day, but really make the effort to stay in touch with these group of peers all four years, if you can,” Johnson said.

Another popular response from the alumni survey was that they regretted the peer network of the Echols program falling off after their first year.

“After they graduate and they go into the real world, [the alumni] realize in large numbers...that...at the time when they were launching out into the world from U.Va., what they most could have used and benefited from this rich connection of diverse and talented people around the world was exactly when their connection from the program was the lowest,” Johnson said.

Toward the end of the meeting, the scholars were able to ask questions and give feedback to the plans for spring semester, such as suggestions and ideas. Jordan Bridges, a second-year College student and student representative for the advisory committee, said she values the students being able to have a voice.

“Professor Johnson is very aware that a lot of Echols Scholars are thinking about the advisory committee and thinking about potential changes,” Bridges said. “It’s very important to everyone to hear student voices, concerns and suggestions.”

Johnson and her team have many events and activities planned for the spring semester, such as workshops, retreats and mentoring days. One activity to occur soon are class dinners, where Echols Scholars have dinner with other scholars in their year to network and build relationships. 

Johnson also stressed that a student may become a Echols Scholar after their first year at the University. Johnson said she hopes to debunk the myth that all Echols Scholars were admitted before coming to the University, and take away the “elitist” persona the program tends to have. 

“One of the things I think should be the core of the program is that it has to be more than living together in your first year and more than priority enrollment,” Johnson said. “There has to be more to the program than that.”

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