Hundreds of students audition for UVA’s student-run University Guide Service each semester. About 70 advance to the interview round; fewer than half of them become guides.
Those who do make it are charged with the tall task of telling the complex story of Grounds, past and present.
About 150 guides lead more than 3,000 admissions and historical tours of the University each year. The guides don’t work from a script provided by the Office of Admission or a historical committee; instead, each guide crafts hourlong tours that call upon UVA history and his or her own student experiences to give visitors a taste of life at UVA. This autonomy is one of the best aspects of the UGuides service, says guide Cameron Cross (Com ’16): “We get to tell the story of our University in our own way. It’s the ultimate example of student self-governance at work.”
Each guide is responsible for knowing several hundred pages of information about UVA. Students spend months as probationary guides, attending a weekly three-hour class to learn historical and current information and taking mock tours with more seasoned guides. All guides attend at least two tour-improvement sessions each semester, learning new and updated information.
The University Guide Service has long had the reputation of being a very social organization. And it’s true—when 150 outgoing, ebullient students get together to talk about an institution they love, things are bound to get a bit rowdy. But over the past few years, the group has “redoubled its efforts and focus on giving really, really good tours,” says University Guides chair Mark Heneine (Col ’16). Once the University started looking at its past and present through a more critical lens, the UGuides followed suit.
Historical tours previously focused on Thomas Jefferson’s political and architectural accomplishments. Guides now aim to give a more complete view of him, one that lauds his accomplishments while also talking about some of his other choices—such as his ownership of slaves. Plus, adds Heneine, Jefferson may have built the University, but he is just one of the hundreds of people who shaped it over two centuries—people like William and Isabella Gibbons, a husband and wife enslaved by two professors and living in two different pavilions in the mid-19th century. Once emancipated, William Gibbons became a minister at Charlottesville’s First Baptist Church and Isabella Gibbons taught at the Freedmen’s School.
When the University named a new dormitory in the couple’s honor last March, Heneine says, he and other guides were excited to add the stop—and a new dimension of University history—to their tours. “If you’re talking about UVA in the 1800s, slavery is crucial,” says guide Charlie Stephens (Col ’16). “In order to understand the University at the time, you have to understand the role that slavery played.”
Guides don’t shy away from addressing these difficult topics, nor should they, Heneine says. “These stories are how we can best engage people on our tours and give them a true feel of the history of the school. You can come to a greater appreciation of a story when you understand the nuance.”