U.Va. President Jim Ryan, students and faculty share personal stories at Inauguration Weekend event

Inauguration event Double Take explores diversity and connection across the University

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At an event in Old Cabell Hall Saturday, which featured a variety of U.Va. students, faculty and staff who also shared their own personal stories, University President Jim Ryan tells the story of how he met his biological mother for the first time. 

Geremia Di Maro | Cavalier Daily

During an event in Old Cabell Hall Saturday, the day after his inauguration as the University’s ninth president, Jim Ryan shared his story of how he met his biological mother for the first time. At the event, entitled “Double Take: Stories that Make you Think Twice,” Ryan and nine other University faculty, staff and students shared personal stories with a few hundred attendees in an effort to express a “spectrum of diverse identities and experiences.” 

Ryan, the final speaker, told the audience about meeting his biological mother for the first time in 2013, right before he began his term as the Dean of the Graduate School of Education at Harvard University. After a closed adoption through a Catholic charity in New Jersey where he grew up, Ryan said he didn’t begin searching for his birth parents until he was 46 years old.

“I was never that curious about my birth parents,” Ryan said. “Part of that is that I had a wonderful childhood … I didn’t feel like I was missing anything.”

About six years ago, Ryan said he was out running with a friend who was in search of his birth parents — he encouraged Ryan to do the same. After some consideration, Ryan googled a series of Catholic charities in New Jersey and was able to request non-identifying information regarding his birth mother. A month later, a letter from a charity revealed that his birth mother, Anne, had emigrated from Ireland to live and work in New York City. 

Ryan said his experience of searching for his biological mother is part of what prompted his focus on building bridges at the University.

“I will tell you that this is not a bridge I expected to cross, but it has enriched my life in so many ways, and it's one of the reasons I think building bridges is so important,” Ryan said. “I eventually met my four siblings and they completely welcomed me into their lives.”

During Ryan’s inauguration ceremony Friday, members of his biological family and adopted parents met for the first time. 

“This weekend, we built yet another bridge between my extended family who are all here and my birth family,” Ryan said. 

When asked about his motivation behind hosting Double Take, Ryan said in an interview with The Cavalier Daily that storytelling helps us connect meaningfully with each other, making us think about the lives of people around us in the crowd. Ryan said he hopes to continue this process in the future. 

In addition to Ryan, the event featured speakers from around the University community, including students, faculty and alumni. Dr. Vivian Pinn, a 1967 University School of Medicine graduate who was the only woman and African-American student in her class, spoke about her experiences with discrimination in the classroom.

Pinn said one of her male classmates approached her during her first year at the Medical School and told her she did not belong there. 

“He said to me, ‘Vivian, you have no business being here, you’re just taking the place some man should have,’” Pinn said. “I looked at him and he said, ‘I read ahead in my anatomy book, and I saw that women have smaller brains than men. So you’ll never make it through medical school, because you don’t have a brain big enough to let you do that.’” 

Pinn went on to graduate and was later invited to the National Institution of Health to start up the Office of Research on Women’s Health with the goal of studying conditions that affect women and men beyond the reproductive system, as Pinn said had traditionally been the case in the past. 

“I’d really like to find him and thank him for getting me started on what has been a wonderful second career for me,” Pinn said. “[I’m] hoping that he has learned that his naive and ignorant comment was wrong, and that he’s learned the difference today.”

A medical research facility on Grounds was renamed in honor of Pinn by the University’s Board of Visitors in 2016. 

In addition to Ryan and Pinn, fourth-year Engineering student Rehan Baddeliyanage told the audience about his experience after his close friend and then first-year College student John Paul Popovich passed away in December 2015, immediately after final exams had ended. 

After receiving their acceptance letters from the University in the spring of 2015, Baddeliyanage said he and Popovich committed right away — excited to be attending U.Va. with each other. 

“JP brought me out of my shell,” Baddeliyanage said. “That semester I was having the time of my life.” 

At the end of their first semester, Baddeliyanage said he received a call from Dean of Students Allen Groves, informing him that Popovich had passed away in his sleep at his home from natural causes. 

“I shut myself off from everything … that winter break was probably the hardest month of my life,” Baddeliyanage said. “That [following] semester I shut down.”

Although he was reluctant to return to the University the semester after, Baddeliyanage said his parents forced him to do so. However Baddeliyanage said he sequestered himself from the community, withdrawing from clubs and activities and any sort of involvement in the University. 

Despite his initial detachment, Baddeliyanage then described how fellow students at the University reached out to him to help and encouraged him to get involved again with the U.Va. community, both socially and professionally. Baddeliyanage said he went on to become a resident advisor as a result of his experience to help first-year students deal with their own personal struggles as they become acclimated to the University environment. 

“Kids would come up to me —  random strangers who I’d never met in my life … and say ‘Rehan I’m so sorry for your loss. You know what? Let's go grab dinner on the Corner tonight. Lets go to a basketball game together. Why don't we take this class together next semester?’” Baddeliyanage said. 

“What matters here is the people,” Baddeliyanage added. “Even though I quit on U.Va, U.Va never quit on me.” 

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