Following an emergency meeting of the Board of Visitors Monday evening, fourth-year College student Derrick Wang’s term as student member of the Board is soon to end. He will be succeeded by third-year College student Mazzen Shalaby, whose term begins at the next meeting on June 1.
Wang ends his term grappling with the roles of both a student representative amidst a challenging time and a graduating student away from Grounds.
The student member of the Board is a non-voting position. The representative serves as a liaison between the Board and the student body to bring student issues to the attention of administrators.
In his role, Wang said he has connected with students to hear their opinions by talking to student government representatives from all schools, making himself available for meetings and calls and engaging students through his email newsletters. After understanding what issues students are most concerned with, he then voices these issues to the Board.
“Derrick was a terrific advocate for students during his term on the Board,” said Peter Brunjes, faculty representative of the Board, in an email to The Cavalier Daily. “He was thoughtful, always prepared, and contributed substantially to the meetings. Each session he highlighted U.Va. students from a different perspective.”
Wang said he has placed a particular focus on the well-being of students and underrepresented populations that the University can support further. During his first Board meeting last June, Wang brought in representatives from IfYoureReadingThis.org and Madison House’s HELP Line for a panel about the importance of mental health.
IfYourReadingThis.org is an online mental health resource that provides letters of support from members of the University community to readers who are seeking emotional support. Madison House’s HELP Line is a 24/7, student-run free and confidential service that is available to students in need of someone to talk to during a distressing time. These panelists discussed how some students are uncomfortable talking about their mental health and how the competitive environment at the University places additional pressure on students.
“The reception to that presentation was so, so positive — even more so than I was expecting,” Wang said. “After the students that I brought in gave their presentation … a lot of Board members as well as administrators in the room came up to me to let me know that they really appreciated both the substance of the topic, as well as hearing from the student presenters, and how they agreed that it was a really challenging issue and one that we needed to face as a University.”
Although Wang was unsure of how exactly this academic pressure could be alleviated, he did suggest that it would help to create a culture where students don’t feel the need to be doing everything at once. Wang also spoke about the importance of building the Student Health and Wellness Center, which will be located at the south end of Brandon Avenue and will include five core service units — General Medicine, Counseling and Psychological Services, the Office of Health Promotion, Gynecology and the Student Disability Center. Construction is expected to be completed this year.
At the September meeting, Wang focused on first-generation and low-income students, discussing ways in which the University could support them and improve their University experience, as well as how to attract more of these students to the University. These suggestions revolved around financial aid, marketing and providing advising and support resources for students.
An established example of this initiative is Hoos First Look — a program that began in 2018 to bring low-income and first-generation high school juniors to Grounds to encourage them to apply to the University.
In December, Wang brought in a panel of international students who discussed the unique challenges they faced as they transitioned to a new academic and social environment far from home. The goal was to raise awareness of the challenges associated with this growing international community that often are not recognized.
Wang specifically highlighted issues surrounding visas and immigration policy concerns, academic, cultural and social barriers and integration with the University community and domestic students.
According to Wang, one of the biggest challenges for all student leadership roles is the limited amount of time they are given to make a difference. The Board only meets four times a year, so there aren’t many opportunities to make cases to the Board about student concerns. Wang managed to mitigate this issue by speaking to administration on a day-to-day basis between Board meetings.
“I had a set of things that I thought were important, and I think I've gotten through most of the things that students care about, communicated those to the senior administration,” Wang said. “But at the end of the day, there’s always new things coming up. There's always new issues or challenges. It's just about trying to be as flexible as possible and trying to deal with things as they come up.”
Wang’s term officially ends in May, and he will be succeeded by third-year College student Mazzen Shalaby whose term begins at the next Board meeting on June 1. From now until then, Wang’s biggest priorities are ensuring that Shalaby transitions smoothly into his role and continuing to keep in contact with students to understand their concerns, especially amid the University’s operational changes.
Wang hopes that Shalaby will continue to address an issue that he thinks the University is constantly struggling with — the rising cost of tuition pitted against declining support from the state. As a public university, the University receives funding each year from the state of Virginia as part of its annual budget, but this figure has been steadily declining over the past few decades while tuition continues to rise.
It will also be important for future student members to address the financial impact of COVID-19. Wang believes that the economic downturn resulting from COVID-19 will almost certainly reduce state tax revenues, which will in turn force the state to cut spending and place additional pressure on the University.
“The University typically does really well in rankings of value for money, in terms of being a public university and trying to be able to support students with financial aid, but I think it will continue to be something that the Board has to look at, and I think student members in the future will have to look at it as well,” Wang said. “ [It’s a question of] how are we going to continue to balance our desire to do a lot of stuff, versus the fact that all of it takes money and we have a limited amount of resources.”
Wang is still part of a few committees dealing with present issues, including one consisting of a number of students and administrators who will make recommendations to President Jim Ryan and senior leadership about plans for Final Exercises. Although unrelated to the Board, Wang was invited to contribute suggestions as a graduating student leader.
He was also included in the recent emergency Board meetings regarding COVID-19, which consisted of updates to the Board about the University's response to the virus. Despite being away from Grounds, he also continues to maintain communication with students in Charlottesville to address any concerns they may have.
“It's challenging because it changes basically every day,” Wang said. “With so much uncertainty, it's hard to answer questions with any kind of certainty at this point, but those are all things we're trying to work on.”
As a graduating fourth-year, Wang inevitably feels sentimental that his final year has come to an end in this way. In a letter to the Class of 2020, he expressed the impact of the situation on his fellow fourth-years as well as his personal feelings. However, despite the effect on all students, Wang recognizes that there is an uneven impact on people who live in rural areas with low internet connectivity, people from low-income backgrounds and people who have nowhere else to go beyond Charlottesville.
While there is a sense of loss and detachment as students complete the semester online, Wang says that there are also many lessons to be learned from the difficult circumstances.
“Being a college student, your identity is so wrapped up in college and University life, and if you take all of that away, you have to ask yourself what’s left,” Wang said. “What I think we can all take away from this is to appreciate the moments that we do have at college or the things that do matter to us. I think as challenging as it is, it’s also an opportunity for resilience.”
As Wang completes his term as student member of the Board and prepares for a graduation that may or may not be rescheduled, he reflects on how grateful he is for the opportunities he’s had in his four years at the University.
“I have been just extraordinarily fortunate in my time at U.Va. to have incredible opportunities to both learn and contribute back to the University,” Wang said. “I hope that I’ve been able to elevate issues that are of importance to students and help make a difference in terms of making students’ experiences better. We've all had challenging experiences at U.Va., but in summary, I think it's been a really positive four years, notwithstanding the way that it’s ending.”
This article has been updated to correct a transcription error in Wang's comments on the University's ranking of value for money.