On any given day, driving on one of the numerous bus routes, second-year College student Austin Jennings, better known in the student driving community as “Tex,” is waiting for the next batch of students to flood onto the bus.
Jennings, with a patriotic spirit and cowboy boots — hence the shortened “Texas” nickname — is one of the 25 student bus drivers who have the essential task of transporting the thousands of University students who hop on and off of the bus.
Driving alongside the 40 full-time and 20 to 30 part-time drivers, this eclectic group of student bus drivers is tasked with one of the most unique jobs that the University has to offer its students. Overlooked by some and thanked by many, student drivers not only live out their days as college students but also perform their jobs of operating 35-foot-long buses.
Signing up was just a matter of looking in the right place. Based on the numerous ads present in every bus, Jennings contacted the University Transit Services and inquired about a job. Although combining a college student schedule and bus driving job can be hard, student drivers have relied on networking behind the scenes, carried out by UTS Operations Manager Allison Day, to structure a system that adheres to the student drivers’ needs and schedules.
“That was one of the most appealing things about becoming a bus driver,” Jennings said. “Not only that the pay was pretty good, but they are just about as flexible as you possible can be in terms of schedule.”
With the convenience of combining their class and work schedules and with salaries for students starting at $10 per hour, many of the student drivers navigating around Grounds have found that serving their community through UTS has been a valuable, worthwhile experience. This has certainly been the case for fourth-year College student Brian Cameron, who described his job as “one of the best jobs on Grounds.”
Though he has only been on the job for less than a month, Cameron — trained by Jacob Weitzman, third-year College student, Student Supervisor and long-time driver — has already experienced the warmth and community of UTS.
“I think that's actually an element of the job that I've come to appreciate,” Cameron said. “That balance between normal people working [their] careers versus students — they’re all just the friendliest folks.”
Weitzman, who has been driving for two years, has observed cars recklessly cross double yellow lines, pedestrians disregard the crosswalk and many box trucks get stuck under the 14th street bridge.
UTS is self-insured through the University’s Risk Management Office in the case of an accident, there is a standard procedure regardless of whether the driver is a student or not. Depending on the case, the procedure involves police, emergency or supervisory responses, forms and follow-ups with the driver.
Although he’s a veteran driver, Weitzman is still learning and enjoying the techniques and strategies of being a student driver.
“I mean, sure, it’s hard at first, but UTS has a very good training program with a full time training specialist,” Weitzman said. “By the time you're done training, you're a pretty decent driver for a 18-, 19- [or] 20-year-old.”
Through the intensive training, which includes written and practical tests, student drivers work alongside the full-time drivers to navigate their way through the pedestrian, scooter and car-filled streets around Grounds.
“Trainees experience both classroom style training and hands on training,” Rebecca White, director of the Department of Parking and Transportation, said in an email to The Cavalier Daily. “Trainees first get behind the wheel on a cone course and eventually graduate to on-road and then on-route, both during the day and at night.”
Training for the student drivers comes in two different formats. Sessions offered in late May, early August and during J-Term concentrate 100 hours of training in about 2 weeks. However, mid-semester training spreads those 100 hours over the course of about 8 weeks.
“After initial training, there is another 20 hours of what we call ‘senior driving’ where the trainee is on route with a more senior driver,” White said.
Even after they learn to operate behind the wheel, student drivers must go on a series of required ride-alongs and in-service training modules to become proficient in all aspects of driving.
By learning numerous driving techniques including backing, using the wheelchair ramps and tie-downs, student drivers are thoroughly prepared for the challenge. Successful trainees receive a commercial driver’s license at the end of their training.
“[The training] was super intense, so that was like, kind of a big wake-up call — but it was definitely worth it because I knew that I wanted to be a driver for a pretty long time,” Cameron said.
Every job comes with its challenges, and this one comes with sharp right turns on the difficult Inner U-Loop bus route, rush hour traffic, Lime and Bird scooters and the occasional over-enthusiastic rider. But the ability to “see all sorts of different people from all different walks of life on the day-to-day basis” as Cameron expressed, is one that the student drivers have collectively come to cherish.
“It's changed my experience at U.Va. because when I get on a bus now, it's not just a bus driver — it's like a friend of mine, and I think it's cool to have a job on Grounds and work for the University,” Jennings said.
As recruitment numbers have fluctuated over time, White — once a student driver herself many years ago — relies on the effective tool of having great student drivers recruit other great student drivers, hinting at the responsibility and opportunity that comes with the job.
“Not a whole lot of students know that you can drive the bus,” Weitzman said. “Everyone tries to look for the library job and some easy desk job, but it's nice to drive a bus, because you get away from doing your school work … you can't really do a math problem and drive [the] Inner Loop at the same time — it’s nice and it’s a completely new skill you learn and you have it for life.”