Fourth-year College student Sarita Mehta is entering into the final months of her tenure as student member of the Board of Visitors after entering the role in June 2021. While on the Board, Mehta has worked to connect as many students as possible with the Board and University administration in order to give them a voice in a body she feels many students feel disconnected from.
The student member of the Board is a non-voting member chosen through a rigorous application and interview process. Mehta was selected from a pool of 23 candidates last March after interviews with both the former student member Mazzen Shalaby, and the Executive Committee of the Board.
Mehta said she aimed to connect students to the Board and University administration, especially any who might feel ignored. More specifically, Mehta strove to directly interact with the community by meeting over coffee with randomly selected students and learning about their unique experiences at the University.
“How do you connect the student that isn’t going to go out of their way to reach out to admin, the student that doesn’t know who the provost is … how do you get that person plugged in?” Mehta said. “You are one for 20,000 — so it takes a lot of active outreach on my part.”
Along with building relationships with students, Mehta said that some of her most memorable experiences on the Board involved getting to know the Board members at meals before and during meetings. There are 18 members on the Board, whose occupations range from private investors to chief executive officers of companies including Dominion Energy and real estate investment trusts. One of those members is also a faculty member at the University, and serves as the faculty representative.
“I’ve learned a lot and really enjoy these conversations,” Mehta said. “It’s nice to have those personal relationships when you’re sitting at the Board table … and just get to know them as genuine people.”
Often the only student present during meetings with administrators, Mehta learned to work with experienced leaders and connect on a personal level with other Board members. Being able to connect in this way with her colleagues helped her find common ground when working together.
“A fundamental value of mine is in humanizing people,” Mehta said. “It’s easy to write off the Board of Visitors as just the Board, it's easy to write off Madison Hall as just the people in Madison Hall, but when you sit down and get to know each of those people, I think that goes a really long way to show that at the end of the day, we all want the same thing.”
One of the most public issues the Board took on this year was its decision to raise tuition for the 2022-23 and 2023-24 school years following a tuition freeze last year. Tuition will increase by 4.7 percent for next year, and by 3.7 percent the following year. The Board typically determines tuition changes annually, but this plan reflects part of the administration's larger goal to improve transparency for students by improving foresight of future University policy changes. Much of this increase will go toward increased operating costs with inflation, minimum wage increases and staff salaries.
Increasing tuition gave rise to controversy for the Board, particularly as the University becomes increasingly less affordable for some students. The economic downturn of the pandemic widely hurt household incomes, and the path back to stability has not been as quick for many as it has been for the University. Additionally, a survey created by Student Council and promoted by Young Democratic Socialists of America in February 2021 titled “Tuition Payment Difficulty” demonstrated that 42 percent of students and their families struggled to pay tuition that year.
While acknowledging that the higher costs are not ideal, Mehta challenged the misconception that the tuition increase was made to “line people’s pockets” rather than address the inherent needs at the University.
“A lot of [the increase] stems from the fact that tuition was frozen last year, and then there's a need to increase staff and faculty salaries,” Mehta said. “ There's a lot of things that go into running the University that most students don't see … there's so much behind the scenes.”
Additionally cognizant of rising student mental health concerns, Mehta focused on revamping the advising process, improving mental health care through services such as Timely Care and supplementing second-year activities to benefit students who missed out on many first-year traditions — including an in-person orientation, convocation and first-year formal. To fully welcome the Class of 2024, the University hosted a delayed convocation this fall, as well as a second-year formal in the winter.
The ability to create “tangible, long lasting change” was what initially compelled Mehta to run for the position, and after a year serving as student member, Mehta says she feels fulfilled by her time on the Board.
“It's been a really challenging, but really, really fulfilling year — I've learned so much,” Mehta said. “I've met incredible people. And I've been able to contribute to this university in a way that if you would have told me this four years ago, I probably would have laughed in your face.”
Offering advice to her successor, Mehta emphasized the importance of working towards small steps of progress to avoid being overwhelmed by the magnitude of tasks and the resulting public reaction.
“U.Va. has no shortage of problems, and you're not going to be able to make every single person happy,” Mehta said. “And I think once you accept that, you'll be able to get a lot more done because you're not trying to just solve everything and please everyone.”