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After four years of sweeping changes, graduating students weigh in on their University experiences

The graduating class looks back on COVID-19, monumental changes to the Honor system and a shooting that took the lives of three students

The undergraduate class of 2023 has experienced profound challenges and loss, from a pandemic that prompted global lockdowns to a tragic shooting that shocked Grounds in November and resulted in the death of three students. Departing students shared the lessons learned about finding their place both within and beyond the University’s classrooms before receiving their diplomas and officially beginning the next chapter of their lives. 

Charlottesville native and fourth-year College student Camille Kielbasa said she originally wanted to attend college far from home, but that staying local ended up being her best option. Despite the University not being her first choice, Kielbasa said she knew she was in the right place as soon as she arrived on Grounds as a first year. 

“I didn’t want to [attend the University] at first, but it’s ridiculously embarrassing how it’s proved me wrong,” Kielbasa said. “Within my first week here, I was like, ‘Oh, this is amazing.’ The people have just been so wonderful.”

Fourth-years were only in their second semester at the University when the COVID-19 pandemic began. Students were sent home for spring break and did not return to Grounds for the rest of the year while the virus spread through the country and globe. 

The next academic year was almost entirely virtual, with strict testing and isolation requirements completely altering the university experience. Life around Grounds did not begin returning to normal until almost two years later when the first mask mandates were lifted

“I feel like I missed out on a full year and a half, two years,” Kielbasa said. “The thought of leaving is kind of scary because I feel as if I haven’t completed my time.”

But if she could go back, Kielbasa said she would not have done her four years any differently. The people she met during her time at the University were what made her experience. 

Fourth-year Engineering student Claire Cofield entered the University as a second-year transfer student in the midst of the pandemic. Cofield said that while she did not have the chance to build connections in first-year dorms, she found community in other spaces. 

Cofield said the chance to connect with other students through Contracted Independent Organization activities and events ended up creating some of her fondest college memories. 

“I think clubs and social events through clubs [were my favorite experiences] because those have been times where it feels most like college community,” Cofield said. 

Many CIOs continued to meet throughout the pandemic, finding ways to host virtual or socially-distant outdoors events. 

The pandemic’s challenges also brought personal growth for fourth-year College student Maggie McDermott. She said the pandemic pushed her out of her shell after having to work harder to meet people through the obstacles of required isolation and social distancing.

“During COVID, you really needed to put yourself out there to make new friends,” McDermott said. “I was never super interested in hanging out with people that I wasn't super great friends with, so COVID-19 helped me to go on like one-on-one coffee dates and whatnot with people that I didn't really know.”  

Following the struggles of the pandemic, University students were once again shaken by last November’s shooting that took the lives of three students, Lavel Davis Jr., D'Sean Perry and Devin Chandler. Shocked and grieving, the University community came together to comfort one another. By the next night, students had organized a silent candlelight vigil. Flowers and messages soon covered Beta Bridge. 

“I was pleasantly surprised to see how something so horrible and scary could draw a lot of communities closer together,” McDermott said. “It helped a lot of people come together and see our school as more of a family and community and less just an academic institution.”

Kielbasa said she worries the shooting has left lasting scars on the community. She cited the overall increase in gun violence and gun-related homicides in Charlottesville during 2023 — as of Saturday, Charlottesville Police Department has responded to 98 shots fired incidents this year, compared to 64 between Jan. 1 and May 13, 2022. 

“Especially from living here my whole life, I've definitely seen a distinctive change [in feelings about gun violence],” Kielbasa said. “I think that from now on, anyone who comes to the University is going to feel as if they've been impacted by gun violence, just because it seems to be consistent in Charlottesville, which is really scary.”

While healing from tragedy, the University saw history unfold this past March when students voted to expand the Honor system from a single-sanction model to a multi-sanction system — the first of its kind since Honor was founded in 1842. The new multi-sanction system allows for a range of new sanctions catered to each offense — including but not limited to a temporary leave of absence, expulsion, education or amends. 

Kielbasa said that the new Honor system feels like a step in the right direction, as she described the old system as overly harsh in relation to most offenses. She expressed hope that the revised system will allow for a more equitable, holistic approach to considering sanctions. 

“Expelling someone from college ruins their life and I think that in almost every single situation when there's an Honor code violation, there's a lot of things that are happening deeper like within the person, within the class, within the professor and within the system in general, that need to be investigated,” Kielbasa said.

Looking back on the waves of emotions throughout the past four years, graduating students turn to face futures outside of the University. As the year comes to a close, Cofield said she is preparing to bid farewell to the halls and classrooms. She said the hopes and convictions the University taught her will continue long after she leaves Grounds. 

“I think a lot of the classes I've taken here have given me a sense of trying to make the world a better place,” Cofield said. “So I want to try and do that with my career, to figure out a way to do things that help the world.” 

Final exercises for graduating students will be held this Friday to Sunday.


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