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Graduating student leaders reflect on how they impacted the University community

Student leaders in the Class of 2024 helped shape clubs and student self-governance organizations after the pandemic

<p>The Class of 2024 was the first to <a href=";cv=cbox_latest"><u>begin</u></a> their time at the University amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, navigating a delayed move into University housing as well as a year with both virtual and in-person classes.</p>

The Class of 2024 was the first to begin their time at the University amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, navigating a delayed move into University housing as well as a year with both virtual and in-person classes.

During their time at the University, the Class of 2024 navigated several challenges, from the COVID-19 pandemic to the Nov. 13, 2022 shooting. Their class was the first to begin their time at the University amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, navigating a delayed move into University housing as well as a year with both virtual and in-person classes. Amidst these tumultuous events, students within the class rose to positions of leadership. As they created clubs and represented students through work in traditional student self-governance organizations, this graduating class demonstrated its resilience over the past four years.

Adjusting to life at the University amidst the pandemic meant that students had to forgo certain traditions and limit their contact with others to keep the community safe and healthy. Kyle Woodson, class president and fourth-year Commerce student, and Karina Reynolds, class vice president and fourth-year College student, said they felt a responsibility to cultivate a sense of community after the isolation that the Class of 2024 experienced during their first year due to the pandemic.

According to Woodson, many classic first-year traditions, such as first-year formal and first-year Rotunda dome dinners, were canceled due to pandemic restrictions in the Class of 2024’s first year on Grounds. As he entered his second year at the University, Woodson said he aimed to make up for some of these lost opportunities by holding similar events during the Class of 2024’s second year.

“To our knowledge, we hosted the first ever second-year formal … to try to reinvigorate that tradition as well as make up for most of us losing out on prom,” Woodson said. “We did a Rotunda dinner in our spring second year that allowed students to come and try to relive that [dome dinner] experience that we missed out on first-year.”

Reynolds also said that she and Woodson aimed to create a sense of normalcy around the Class of 2024’s student experience by being transparent with their peers through bi-weekly class newsletters.

“I hope that we were able to facilitate the feeling of being a U.Va. student and having this as our home for the next four years,” Reynolds said. “We tried our best to be very open and transparent … so that we could work together to create that community and connection that we all know that we needed.”

Kirstin O’Donoghue, fourth-year College Student and vice president of Students For Equity and Reform in Virginia, is another student leader who said that the challenges of pandemic restrictions inspired her to serve her fellow students and be an active member of the University community.

“[The pandemic] made us appreciate life at U.Va. because as soon as we were able to… we took advantage of every opportunity that came our way,” O’Donoghue said. “When things started to open back up again, and life started to reemerge, we all jumped at that with such excitement. It made us much more eager to spend time in community with one another because we lost that [opportunity].” 

O’Donoghue said that she co-founded SERV while she was a first-year in response to the Black Lives Matter Movement as a way to promote equitable legislation involving criminal justice, education, healthcare and gun reform. According to O'Donoghue, her proudest accomplishment at the University was creating an organization that will outlast her time as a University student, and she hopes that other students will continue to engage with and improve the University she loves.  

“I hope that people who come to U.Va. carry on the tradition of continuously trying to make it a better place that reflects the values of its students and of its leaders,” O’Donoghue said. “It's not easy, and it requires a love of the place. But I hope that people love U.Va. enough to make it better and to continue that hard work.”

One engaged student leader who dedicates herself to bettering the University is Lilian Rojas, outgoing Board of Visitors student representative and fourth-year Batten student. According to Rojas, her role as the student representative to the Board consists of voicing and advocating for both majority and minority student opinions to the Board, which comprises representatives appointed by the Virginia governor and approves certain policies, as well as the University’s budget.

Rojas said that while the pandemic was one example of a challenge the Class of 2024 faced, it was not the only one. She said the Nov. 13th, 2022 shooting that resulted in the deaths of University students Lavel Davis Jr., D'Sean Perry and Devin Chandler, as well as the recent police clearing of a pro-Palestine encampment on Grounds, have taken a toll on the student body and shaped the University experience for many graduating students. Rojas said she is grateful to be a voice and a resource to students during these difficult times.    

“With everything that went on this year, meeting with students of different religious and cultural backgrounds, hearing their honest, unfiltered thoughts and opinions on the actions that the University has taken … and just knowing that they felt comfortable with me and that they really saw me as a resource was a true honor,” Rojas said. “I can't imagine how hard this semester has been for some students so the fact that they felt as though they could come to me and they could rely on me, that's what the role is.”

According to Rojas, the Class of 2024 is defined by its resilience. Rojas said that through the many challenges endured over the past four years, this year’s graduating class learned to come together and be a support system for each other. 

“I really do think that my class has learned that relying on other people and finding space is the best way to move forward,” Rojas said. “I think that honestly equips us to be able to successfully engage with other challenges that may lie ahead.”

Another significant event the graduating fourth-year class witnessed was the approval and implementation of a multi-sanction Honor system. The new system allows students found guilty of an honor offense to receive a variety of sanctions, which are assigned by Committee members based on the severity of a specific Honor violation. The switch to a multi-sanction system was the biggest change to the Honor system since its inception in 1842.

Overseeing this transition as chair of the Honor Committee was fourth-year College student Hamza Aziz. Aziz said he faced the large undertaking of creating procedures and sanctions for the multi-sanction system during the interval between when he assumed the role of chair in April 2023 and when the new system went into effect that July.

“We had about a three month period to actually make the system … so once my term as Chair began, that was kind of the biggest and most pressing thing to do,” Aziz said. “There were no procedures at the time, so we had to think about what Honor’s new sanctioning phase was going to look like.”

New possible sanctions that the Honor Committee created for students found guilty of committing an honor offense include a seven week restorative ethics seminar and “XYZ case studies,” where students write anonymous reflections on their honor case, which are then published to the Honor Committee’s website.

Aziz said that he hopes students see that they have the power to change the Honor system if they think something should look different, but also said that the Honor Committee must continue to take initiative to gain interest and foster trust amongst students in the future.

“I hope students can see that Honor is in their corner and exists to support students and promote a community of trust,” Aziz said. “If we consistently as a Committee push ourselves to always show up for students and support them, that’s what’s going to get buy-in and interest.”

The Class of 2024 will celebrate their graduation from May 17 to May 19. Retired Washington Nationals baseball player and University alumnus Ryan Zimmerman will deliver a speech to graduating fourth-years May 17 at John Paul Jones Arena. Final Exercises for the College and Graduate School of Arts & Sciences, School of Education and Human Development and the Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy will take place May 18 on the Lawn. All other schools will hold their Final Exercises May 19 on the Lawn.  


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