Thursday, July 14, 2011

The College Quest--Part II: Kicking off with the University of Virginia

   Walking into college information sessions is always terrible unless you are the first kid in there. As soon as you go through the door you have all the rest of these students turning right around and sizing you up. I guess it works like the first episode of Survivor, when the strong look to root out the weak and establish who the real competition is. These people already are trying to step on your toes. What a nightmare.
   Going into University of Virginia’s Maury Hall, my dad and I grab seats toward the back (You think anyone wants to sit next to each other in these things? Wrong) and wait for the assistant Dean of Admissions to begin her presentation. She asks where everyone is from. Anyone from Virginia? Couple kids raise their hands. How about East of the Mississippi? A lot more hands. West of the Mississippi? I raise my hand, and would you believe it my dad and I are the only ones. Budda-bing budda-boom sucker. We proudly declare that we represent Arizona (I tried to avoid saying Scottsdale if I could help it, I wasn’t sure if it had a snobbish reputation back east too), and she seems impressed. Things are looking good.
   Sitting in the back proved to be a mistake, however, because all of the UVA students who were handing out literature (That’s what they all call it—literature—like they’re handing you some leather-bound book. You think your word choice is going to make or break my decision? Call it what it is, for crying out loud) missed us when we moved closer to the front so we could hear. It meant an extra trip for me later, and this trip would prove costly. You will see.
   The most obvious thing that I took away from the info-sesh (We’re going to have all sorts of lingo, just you wait. A couple weeks of this and it’s going to be like we’re texting) is that the admittance process for non-Virginians is noticeably more difficult than that of in-state residents. UVA is required to maintain a 70% majority of Virginians, and the result of this restriction is a feistier applicant pool for the rest of the country. To make matters worse, 66% of UVA’s applicants are out-of-state. A majority of kids are applying for a minority of spots. This equates to a committee that wants to see better test scores, better transcripts, and more impressive extra-curricular activities than usual.
   The tour of the campus followed the info-sesh, and we were lucky enough to have a good, animated guide (in this case a junior girl from Baltimore, we tried to go with the out-of-state kids if we could). You learn pretty quickly on these tours that it is really important to have the right guide. If the guide appears enthusiastic, you will be more inclined to enjoy the school. It is a small thing, but it is important.
   Virginia’s campus itself was, simply put, quite nice. The school was founded by Thomas Jefferson (they call him TJ), and you can bet that they throw that in your face. The main quad alone has three statues of the guy (the most sought-after dorms on campus are also found here). The campus admittedly declines in impressiveness as you go farther away from the center of things, however, as the vast lawns give way to more buildings. Everything is consistent with the traditional colonial brick with white trim, and the uniformity looks great. At the very least, it was a place one could be proud to attend.
   Our first stop was all about housing. There are three main residence halls at UVA, and our guide made it seem like there was not really any hierarchy between any of them. It made sense, because she would go on to say that on-campus housing is only required for freshmen. After their first year, only 50% of UVA students stay on campus. Personally, I was not too thrilled about this. Something I want in a college is a great sense of campus community, and if everyone is looking to abandon ship after only a year in, that is a little worrisome. We never saw the inside of a dorm, so unless these things are absolute trash and everyone is leaving for a reason, I would have liked to see a better demonstration of unity among the student body.
   One of the first things that had been brought up in the info-sesh was that UVA has a heavy emphasis on student-professor relationships (this was critical to TJ). Our guide was able to give us some hard numbers, and I have to admit that for a state school, the statistics were pretty impressive. Out of all classes, 95% are taught by a professor, and the remaining 5% are typically intro-level classes overseen by a TA. Larger classes (again, the introductory courses tended to be much larger, upwards of 200 students) are compensated with accompanying discussion sessions, and each of these would be no more than 25 students. So even if you take a lot of classes in the lecture halls, it is still possible to obtain a more intimate classroom setting with the discussion sections, and it was certainly refreshing to see a larger university taking that approach.
   A lot of schools like to use the phrase “work hard and play hard” to describe campus life, and UVA was no different. They offer over 700 different clubs and student organizations, far and away the largest total I saw on my trip. Many of these were geared toward community service and fundraising, and our tour guide shared numerous examples of students interacting with Charlottesville to raise money for this charity or that charity. UVA really felt like it flowed well with the surrounding community, rather than the whole “us and them” atmosphere. The town was full of Cavalier pride, and the students also seemed to harbor a deep respect toward where they lived.
   It is about time we talked about sports (our guide was a theater person, so some outside research was required here). The thing that jumped out the most to me was UVA’s student gym. The place was top-notch. It had great basketball courts, a vast array of equipment, a dining area, a lounge, and what was definitely the nicest pool I have ever seen. If there was ever a place where one wanted to stay active, it seemed like it was hard to go wrong here. Plenty of varsity and club sports are offered, and as someone who is looking to keep playing water polo (at a club level), going to an ACC school would be pretty awesome.
   When athletics were discussed on our tour, one underprepared mother asked what might have earned Dumbest Question of the Trip: “Is this a Division I school?” The guide handled it well, but I almost lost it. I will be honest, I did not do a whole lot of research prior to my tours, but that is about as basic as it can be. Remember, there are no stupid questions, only stupid people who ask questions. Please do not be a stupid person. My advice: save any questionable inquiries for after the tour; these guides always stick around for a few minutes afterward to help you.
What Jumped Out at UVA:
   Aside from exasperating potential peers and their parents, I came away from UVA impressed. I went in not knowing much about them except for their renowned English program, but several things jumped out at me while I was there. The campus was a great showcase for traditional architecture, and the historical influence was wonderfully apparent. The effort to establish relationships between students and professors was something that was reminiscent of a private school, and from an athletic standpoint, the ACC brings some exciting competition.
   While the school’s relationship with Charlottesville seemed tight, the one-and-done housing gave me reason to worry about the student body’s overall sense of community amongst themselves. Other schools that we saw viewed on-campus housing as a way to bring the students together, and a commuter school may not be exactly what I am looking for.
   No club water polo is offered, unfortunately, but the pristine athletic facilities gave me reason to believe that I could keep myself busy. The admissions process for out-of-staters may be more intense, but UVA claims to offer one of the best state-schools in the nation. For that, it is understandable to require more legwork to acceptance.
   A Founding Father spearheads all of their tradition and philosophy, and TJ’s influence definitely shows. This is a public university that offers an experience comparable to a private university, or even any of the Ivys. Student-professor interaction has just as much emphasis here as it does at any prestigious institution, and alongside a standout academic experience, you have a competitive athletic presence in the ACC. How many Ivys can offer that?
   History is what drives UVA, and it looks like it takes them as far as they need to go. I was skeptical going into the visit, but after I left I had a new school on my radar. They made their pitch, and despite a few minor issues I have, they sold me.

   When the tour began to wrap up, my dad went back to the parking lot to start the car so we could pull a Dukes of Hazzard and get out of there to be on time for our next tour. It was my job to finish the tour and grab all of the “literature” I had missed at the beginning. The guide let us go, and I followed her directions into the UVA Office of Admissions, where a table in the center had all of the pamphlets and flyers I could want. I grabbed all the papers I saw everyone else receive back at the info-sesh, and I was ready to leave when I saw a flyer about the college essay. I figured that it must have something useful to say, so I took one of those too. As I did, a gentleman behind me smirked, “I wouldn’t believe a word of it.”
   He had on one of those weird smiles that no one can ever read, but I figured he must be someone’s father from the tour and was just trying to be funny. “Yeah, I usually don’t. But it looks good if you take one, right?” I flashed him a smile and headed for the door. It was here that I received the knock-out punch.
   “Well, I wrote it.”
   I only had time to give him what was probably the fakest laugh I have ever supplied before turning back around and focusing on getting the hell out of there before I offended any more faculty members. I decided when I joined back up with my dad to let it sit for a while before I told him. This place was only our first stop after all, and I figured that it would be better if he did not know right then and there that I was already potentially screwing up my future.
   Maybe at William & Mary I would find a way to prevent messing up my application before I even apply.

Questions or additional comments about UVA? Share them in the comment section! I’m sitting on everything from hard numbers to more detailed information, so feel free.   

TJ is everywhere here, and it’s awesome. Yes, that is a Notre Dame Track shirt.

Their amphitheater. Makes the one in Senior Commons look like a joke, right?

A residence hall.

The English Department.

Their chapel (and before you freak out, they have no official religious affiliation).

   The nicest pool I have ever seen. They put it to good use too; the women’s swim team won the ACC Championship last year.

   My dad thought it would be a great idea here to call out, “Tyler!” and then the instant I look snap a picture. This happened several times. I was enjoying myself, contrary to how this looks.

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