Adjusting to new classes and a new routine has been more challenging and unpredictable than ever for University students this semester, especially for those who have left their families and returned to live in Charlottesville. The students who were selected by their peers to live on the Lawn for the 2020-21 school year have had a particularly unique experience thus far, learning how to safely live and study among 46 other Lawn residents as well as the many students, faculty and Charlottesville residents who frequent the Lawn.
Lawn residents face somewhat similar restrictions and social distancing protocol as first years living in residence halls on Grounds. They are not allowed to have overnight guests, and they are limited to three people in their room with the door closed, though it is recommended that all occupants remain masked and distanced from each other. With the door open, they are able to have more guests both inside and outside of the room. Within the shared bathrooms, residents have assigned stalls, sinks and showers, which they are required to wipe down after use.
“Our restrictions are similar but seem slightly less strict than that of first years” fourth-year College student Hannah Hiscott said. “I think we have more free reign in general, but also more responsibility is put on us to carry the community. The image we set is what the rest of the school will follow, not because of any sort of profile or honor, but simply for the fact that people walking past or hanging out at the Lawn can see what we do.”
Lawn residents have faced pressure not only to uphold these social distancing and safety protocols as leaders at the University, but also to enforce these guidelines among the many students gathering with friends on the Lawn. Because many other gathering spaces are closed or have limited capacity, many Lawn residents have noticed students flocking to the Lawn as a hotspot for socialization. Although these students often wear masks and remain six feet from one another, Lawn residents have still witnessed instances of noncompliance. For some, this has made them feel responsible for advocating against irresponsible behavior not only to protect the health of the University community but also to protect their living space and personal wellbeing.
“It has been a lot of us yelling, ‘Wear your mask,’” Hiscott said. “Some of the policing is put on the Lawnies, especially if there are big groups of people on the Lawn, which is kind of unfair to us. Right now, the actions of others determine whether or not I am even able to stay in my own home.”
While the Lawn rooms have typically been a popular place for socialization and organizational gatherings, this semester’s social distancing protocol has taken a toll on the residents’ ability to create a sense of community. Some of the most memorable University traditions that take place on the Lawn will likely be unable to occur due to safety concerns.
“Part of what is so great about living on the Lawn is the sense of community,” Hiscott said. “That is what a lot of people want and what they expect, especially with events like Trick-or-Treating on the Lawn and Lighting of the Lawn — at least I hope those aren't happening in any capacity. That has been a really hard thing to swallow — realizing that a lot of the special events that we were excited for aren't going to occur, at least not this semester.”
The Lawn residents are leaders in many different CIOs on Grounds — ranging from the Hispanic-Latinx Peer Mentoring Program to the Student Athlete Advisory Council — yet they have been unable to use their rooms as spaces to unite students with shared passions and make everyone feel more welcome and accepted, especially for underrepresented groups.
“The Lawn is usually a very predominantly white space,” fourth-year College student Frank Valdez said. “With the Lawn room, I was hoping to create a space for my community — specifically the Latinx community — by playing music and having organizational gatherings to make people feel welcome. That was something that as a first year I remember. We always had one or two people on the Lawn, which was cool to make you feel welcomed into the space — it can be a very intimidating space especially for minority groups.”
Despite these limitations, Lawn residents have made great efforts to productively use their space for community building in safe ways. Some residents have hosted Zoom meetings and activities for their respective organizations and others have tabled outside their doors to advocate for issues they are passionate about.
“I am part of an organization called PLUMAS, which is a Latinx advocacy organization,” Valdez said. “One of my friends who also lives on the Lawn and I use our outdoor space in front of our rooms to table for a campaign we are doing to support farm workers’ rights in Virginia.”
Similarly, Lawn residents have faced obstacles in their ability to create a sense of community amongst themselves. Many of them came into the semester already knowing some of their fellow Lawn residents through shared interests and organizational involvements as well as mutual friends. However, building these friendships and gathering as a group has been more of a challenge than in previous years, though many Lawn residents have made concerted efforts to get to know each other and gather safely.
“For the most part it has been easier than I thought to get together because we all live literally right next door to each other,” fourth-year Batten student Sela Carrington said. “The first mixer that we had was us sitting six feet apart in a giant circle talking across the circle and introducing ourselves. Also another thing that I have started to do is that whenever I have classes I will take them outside of my room so that whenever people walk by I can talk to them”
Although living on the Lawn this semester looks very different than past years, Lawnies have still been able to embrace many of the benefits of living on the Lawn including the physical space and its incredible views. In a time when many students are confined to their rooms and apartments while taking online classes, Lawn residents are able to step outside their rooms and immediately enjoy green grass and fresh air.
“I honestly think waking up and walking out to see the Rotunda is unmatched,” Carrington said. “It is easily one of the top 10 things. You think you’d get used to it but you don't. It's just so beautiful.”
Lawn residents have also been able to continue using their doors as a platform for advocacy. Many have put up signs urging people to wear masks and practice social distancing. They have also used posters to spread awareness for current social and political issues such as the Black Lives Matter Movement. Valdez has used his door to advocate for farm workers rights, and other Lawnies have joined him in solidarity by putting up the same posters.
“I have a sign that says, ‘I support farm workers,’” Valdez said. “Immigrant and migrant workers in Virginia need to be advocated for … I think it is one way we can still be engaged. It is really important to be supportive of other students advocating for issues that they are passionate about. It is such a beautiful and empowering thing to see.”