• Confessions of a Community College Dean

    In which a veteran of cultural studies seminars in the 1990s moves into academic administration and finds himself a married suburban father of two. Foucault, plus lawn care.

Title

How the Other Half Matriculates

Orientation at UVA.

August 4, 2019

Did you know that the University of Virginia charges hundreds of dollars for an “orientation fee?”  

Brookdale’s is free. I’m just sayin’.

To be fair, UVA does a pretty impressive job at orientation. Each incoming student spent a night in the dorms, and each incoming student could bring a parent to campus for each of the two days of the program. (TB reports that hijinks ensued in the dorm that night. I found his report credible.) TW went with him on the first day, and I went with him on the second.

On the first day, I took The Girl to visit Monticello. Neither of us had ever been. She pronounced it “just so...extra…,” which seemed about right. I went in skeptical that they’d treat the questions of Sally Hemings and slavery seriously, but to their credit, they did. One of the tours even focused on the enslaved people who worked the plantation, of whom Jefferson had 607 over the years. I’d bet that when I was TG’s age, the tour would have been much more evasive on that side of his life.

We had dinner that night at the pedestrian mall in downtown Charlottesville, where we saw the folk monument to Heather Heyer. It was in the spot where she had been hit by that car. The street itself is narrow and steep, with multi-story buildings on either side. In a crowd of people with a car speeding towards you, you’d have nowhere to go. Looking at the signs and candles, I didn’t have to tell the kids to be quiet. They knew.

As a community college administrator, it was hard not to notice the sheer wealth of the university. The dean who opened the second day of parents’ orientation threw out a few statistics -- four-year grad rate of 88 percent, six year grad rate of 95 percent -- that established that I wasn’t in Kansas anymore. She was in charge of the Arts and Sciences school. She distinguished the “liberal arts” from the “servile arts,” noting that there are no “conservative arts.” That drew a laugh, but I’d guess that it also served a purpose. Thirty years ago, I doubt that her predecessor would have felt the need to make that point.  

The sidewalks had been chalked with various messages welcoming the “class of 2023,” and offering directions to key buildings. I appreciated the directions, but had to smile at the “class of 2023.” At my college, we don’t refer to the “class of 2021” upon enrollment. That’s because we have programs of varying length, students routinely attend part-time, students bring varying levels of transfer credit, and some students plan to transfer out before graduating. But the student body at UVA is traditional enough that the university can simply append a grad year onto an entering class and assume that it’s broadly correct. Wealth manifests in small ways, as well as large ones.

Still, some aspects of student life cross sectors. Someone else mentioned that over the last few years, anxiety had surpassed depression as the most common psychological issue for students.  That’s consistent with the findings of last Spring’s student survey at Brookdale. The campus police officer who addressed the parents referred to dealing with students who had been “over-beveraged,” which was a new term for me, but the translation was clear enough.  

A surprisingly sparsely attended session on financial aid yielded the nugget that the university charges a flat rate of tuition per semester, so if you transfer in a class or two, you don’t save any money.  Similarly, the dining hall runs on an “all you can eat” plan, so you don’t save money by eating light. In my world, neither of those would fly. I also discovered that there’s something called “tuition insurance,” which they recommended for out-of-state students. If a student has to withdraw for medical reasons during a semester, and it’s too late for a refund, the insurance kicks in. Given out-of-state tuition levels, that’s considerable. But I was struck that in lieu of refunds for emergencies, they counsel insurance. One way or another, they will be paid.

TB is pre-med, so I attended a session on the various health-related majors. I’m glad I did. Among other things, I discovered that the basic expectation of when to apply to med school has changed.  When I was in college, my roommate who went on to med school -- “my roommate, the brain surgeon” is literally true in my case -- applied in the fall of his senior year, and started the fall after his senior year. That was normal at the time. Now, it’s apparently expected that students finish the bachelor’s first and take a “bridge year” during which they take the MCAT and apply, with the goal of enrolling after that.

I did not know that. Neither did TB. The counselor recommended spending some time in the bridge year doing something career-related, “like scribing or being an EMT.” He’s an EMT now, so there’s that. They also mentioned a “common read” for pre-health students over the summer: The Health Gap, by Michael Marmot. He grumbled when I told him, but hey, college may very well involve reading. It has been known to happen.

After the orientation, we spent a couple of days at Virginia Beach to make it feel like a vacation. At one point, the young woman behind the counter at the hotel asked me about the Brookdale Summer Shakespeare Festival t-shirt I was wearing. She mentioned that she had never seen a Shakespeare play. I suggested that the local community college might be a good place to look. She seemed satisfied with that answer. When I mentioned that outdoor community college summer productions are often free, she seemed especially happy with that.  

Economic reality has a way of creeping in, no matter how pretty the bubble. Back to reality...

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