When the University first opened its doors in 1825, only white men from wealthy backgrounds could walk the Lawn. Exactly 68 men comprised the first cohort of students to attend the University, alongside 8 faculty members.
Built and maintained by enslaved laborers until the end of the Civil War, the University would not accept black undergraduate students until 1955 and would not become fully co-educational until 1970.
Two-hundred years later, the undergraduate student body has grown to 17,011, and female students outnumber men by nearly 2,000. Roughly 44 percent of the undergraduate student body is nonwhite.
Yet, the still-continuing pathway to inclusivity has been one checkered with obstacles.
Until 1950, almost exclusively white students could matriculate into the University. In fact, Virginia state legislature actively incentivized black students to enroll out of state, authorizing white-only colleges to provide “scholarships” to black applicants to encourage out-of-state enrollment.
That changed when Gregory Swanson, a 26-year-old practicing lawyer and a 1948 graduate of Howard University School of Law, filed a federal lawsuit against the University to gain admittance into the Law School to obtain his master’s in law — a degree he needed for a prospective teaching job.
Although Law School faculty initially voted to admit Swanson in January of 1950, the Board of Rectors later denied his application in July, citing Virginia state laws. Three months later, in September, the Fourth United States Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of Swanson after a 30 minute trial.
Swanson, who matriculated that fall, was the first black student to enroll at the University.
Later that year, two more African American students matriculated, and Walter N. Ridley, a then-faculty member at Virginia State University, became the first black student to receive a degree from the University when he earned his Ph.D. in 1953. The same year, E. Louise Stokes-Hunter received her doctorate in education, becoming the first black woman to gain a degree from the University.
Slowly, more African American students enrolled in the University’s graduate and professional schools, but their enrollment remained minimal. However, the University’s undergraduate programs wouldn’t desegregate until after the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision, when Robert Bland, Theodore Thomas and George Harris matriculated into the School of Engineering.
Wesley Harris, who enrolled in the School of Engineering in 1960, described in an interview with Virginia Magazine his experiences as a black student during the early years of integration at the University.
“When I arrived in Charlottesville in 1960, the University was basically for white gentlemen,” Harris said. “It certainly was, to me, a very hostile environment. I remember walking through the campus, lit cigarettes were thrown at me from moving cars [and I was] spit at.”
By the end of the 1960s, black students comprised 0.4 percent of the University population.
Now, the African American population has reached 6.6 percent, but was nearly double that — 12.1 percent — in 1991.
The Black Student Alliance was established in 1969, and the Office of African American Affairs opened its doors in 1976.
Other nonwhite ethnicities achieved significant milestones in the late 19th and early 20th century as the University gradually opened its doors to students from around the world.
In 1900, Yan Huiqing, or W.W. Yen, became the first Chinese student to graduate from the University, as well as the first international student to hold a B.A. from the University. Previously, Theodore T.T. Wong was the University’s first Chinese student who attended from 1894 to 1897, but he transferred before graduating.
For the fall 2019 semester, Asian Americans now make up more than 15 percent of the total undergraduate population, Hispanic Americans more than 6 percent, and Multi-Racial Americans almost 5 percent. The Native American, Native Hawaiian, Alaskan and Pacific Islander populations collectively comprise less than 0.2 percent of the undergraduate population.
“Diverse for us kind of means something else, it means having an equitable space,” said Camille Horton, a fourth-year College student and Student Director of the MSC. “Equitable, safe, productive. At the end of the day, we’re at the University, we’re all here to learn. Why not help your students be the best students they can be?”
Women at the University
Around the same time as black enrollment started rising, the first cohort of women undergraduates stepped foot on Grounds in 1970.
By that time, women had been attending the University’s graduate and professional schools in different capacities for nearly a century. In 1880, 312 women began attending summer sessions of the “Normal School,” hosted by the University, for Virginia primary education teachers. However, only men could earn a certificate from the school.
When women were granted suffrage in 1920, demands for further admittance became stronger.
“The faculty and Board of Visitors, what I’ve seen has suggested that they sort of read the writing on the wall,” said Abby Palko, director of the University Women’s Center. “They were trying to hold off on full co-education, so they decided to let women into the graduate and professional schools as a compromise.”
Under these conditions, the faculty voted in 1919 to admit women, and the Board of Visitors ratified that vote in 1920. Women could then enter the University that fall — so long as they met three conditions.
Women at the University had to be at least 20, they had to have had completed two-years at another collegiate institution and had to come from a family of good standing — a requirement which Palko called “euphemistic code for white and wealthy enough.”
“So in September of 1920, 17 women enroll — three in the Law School, four in the School of Medicine, three in education and seven in the Graduate Division of Arts and Sciences,” Palko said. “And then we’re off and running, and women are here, except not fully.”
This situation worked for 50 years, until Virginia Scott, a graduate of Albemarle High School, filed a complaint against the University in Richmond federal court, writing that the University, “severely discriminates against women in their admissions policies.”
At the same time, the University Board of Visitors had decided to become fully coeducational, but with a caveat. The coeducation process would occur over 10 years, capping female enrollment at 35 percent in 1980.
When the court ruled in favor of Scott, the University was forced to shorten that plan to three years, admitting 450 women in 1970 and 550 in 1971. By 1972, the University was to admit students without regard for gender.
In fall 1995, the overall number of female students outnumbered male students for the first time, and that trend has continued ever since.
However, Palko said there are still structural inequities to overcome.
“We don’t yet live in a culture where there aren’t power struggles over gender,” Palko said. “Men are offered starting salaries higher than what women are offered in comparable positions, and we take fields that have been feminized and pay them less than fields that have not. That's an inequity and disparity that, it doesn't matter how hard you work, you can't topple over that structural inequality.”
According to Allyson Umali, asst. dean of admissions and outreach, the University now prioritizes inclusivity in its admissions and outreach processes. Through partnerships nationwide, admissions and outreach officers meet and assist students who may not believe they could attend the University.
Umali said these partnerships uplift underrepresented or low-income high school students across the country.
“Something that we’ve done in the office of the outreach team is to really get partnerships with community based organizations,” Umali said. “There’s one in Houston, called EMERGE, and they put school counselors in different schools within the Houston independent school district.”
In-state, the outreach office focuses on visiting high schools which are part of the “Virginia 80” — schools in which more than 50 percent of the student population qualifies for free or reduced lunch.
At the University, a variety of scholarships and financial aid exist to fund the education of students from low-income or underrepresented backgrounds.
For example, the University offers full-ride scholarships through University Achievement Awards, which are given to “exceptional students from Virginia who will add to the diversity of the student population.” Moreover, AccessUVA, launched in 2004, promises to cover 100 percent of demonstrated financial aid for undergraduate students.
QuestBridge is a national program founded in 1994 that connects students to scholarships at colleges across the country. High-performing, low-income students no longer see applying to leading colleges as a distant dream — they have the opportunity to receive full or partial scholarships so that attending college becomes both possible and affordable.
The University is the only public university partnered with QuestBridge.
Ever since it began partnering with QuestBridge in 2010, the University has welcomed more than 200 QuestBridge scholars to Grounds, many of whom are the first in their families to attend college.
“[QuestBridge has] just such a comprehensive application that looks at you as a person,” said Brielle Dotson, a third-year Curry student who is a QuestBridge scholar and outreach chair of Hoos First Look. “A huge reason why low income students don’t get into universities nowadays is because applications really do look at numbers, and it loses the whole aspect of who the student is as an individual.”
Many socioeconomically disadvantaged students have more difficulty presenting themselves as competitive applicants for admission to college. To address this disparity, University students founded Hoos First Look in 2018, an academic enrichment program created for low-income or first-generation students. In this all-expenses-paid, three-day retreat, 20 rising high school juniors are given the opportunity to experience life on a college campus and are provided with the resources they need to achieve personal and academic success.
Each student is matched with a current University student who acts as host and mentor, making sure that their college application process and transition to university life can be as smooth as possible.
“It’s not really a ‘trying to get them to U.Va.’ kind of program,” Dotson said. “It’s more of trying to show them that getting to any prestigious university is possible, that they deserve a place here.”
Continuing progress today
Decades later, the University’s student body has grown to include students from many different backgrounds, but there is still progress to be made.
This past August, the University voted to provide financial aid to in-state DACA recipients, five years after allowing DREAMer applicants to enroll in 2014. According to federal law, the use of state financial aid funds may not be applied towards students with DACA status, so the University is privately funding the effort. However, the University does not allow undocumented applicants without DACA status to matriculate.
According to the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia, individual institutions may decide whether to allow undocumented and/or DREAMers to enroll. Other public Virginia schools like George Mason University enroll undocumented students and offer privately-funded financial aid. The University does not.
A push for further inclusivity for students from underrepresented backgrounds has manifested through the work of several minority student groups.
In Oct. 2018, the Asian Leaders Council released a report entitled “We Are Not Invisible: A Report for Academic Reform,” advocating for more diverse faculty hiring practices and the creation of diverse academically oriented spaces, namely through the establishment of an American Studies department.
The same year, Latinx students released a proposal titled “Ours to Shape,” calling for increased support for Latinx students and increased Latinx representation among faculty and students. The University announced June 2019 plans to create a Latinx-only space on Grounds.
The decision came alongside plans to move the Multicultural Student Center and the LGBTQ Student Center — currently located in the basement of Newcomb Hall — to the more spacious Newcomb Game Room and Kaleidoscope Room, respectively.
In 2016, the MSC opened as a safe space for multicultural students to celebrate their own cultures while exploring others.
“For the longest time, U.Va. students didn’t look like anybody that you’ve seen in this room thus far,” said Horton. “This is who we are now, so why not encourage it and why not support it?”
The decision to expand the MSC and LGBTQ center, coupled with the new Latinx Center, are part of the University’s strategic planning project.
A first-generation student himself, President Jim Ryan crafted the “Great and Good” strategic plan, which is set to be completed by 2030 and includes goals to diversify faculty and increase opportunities for low-income and first generation students.
In line with these initiatives, the University announced this past October the establishment of a new Equity Center that aims to address socioeconomic and racial inequalities within the Charlottesville community. That same month, the Jefferson Scholars Foundation announced a $100 million gift from David Walentas, a University alumnus. The bulk of the donation — $75 million — will be used to establish a new scholarship program for first-generation University students.
Today, there still exists progress yet to be made and structural hurdles to overcome, as the University attempts to reckon with its foundational inequities and historical wrongdoings. However, the group of students who can walk the Lawn today are far more diverse than the 68 white men who did so in 1825.