Last year, the University asked an anonymous sample of alumni who graduated within the last 10 years to recall someone on Grounds who had made an extraordinary effort on their behalf during their time as students. Lois Myers, associate director of U.Va.’s Office of Institutional Assessment and Studies, which managed the surveys, thought the question would provide a more personal understanding of the residential college experience.
“We know that survey respondents report high levels of satisfaction with their education at U.Va., but we’ve never asked them, ‘Who made a big difference for you, and how?’”
Myers says she often hears stories from faculty and staff across Grounds about working with individual students to improve their writing skills or teaching them how to use the library effectively—moments that are hard to capture in typical assessment tables and charts.
“We thought that asking students and alumni about who helped them, who inspired them, who cared about them, and what that was like, would help us understand their experience better,” Myers says.
More than 1,000 different faculty, teaching assistants and staff members were mentioned by alumni in the survey. Here are just a few of the people mentioned, each answering the question: Why do you help?
John Arras | Professor of Bioethics
Alumnus/a: John Arras is a good example of how professors should interact with students. He is incredibly friendly and always willing to engage with students as if they have something important to say. More importantly, he would argue with you when he thought you were wrong.
Arras: I see myself as being in the business of helping students become who they are going to become. I love being around young people, prodding them, arguing with them. There is a Socratic element to it, an intense connection between the teacher and student. It’s a kind of secular blessedness, to love what you do over a very long stretch of time. That’s as good as it gets.
Lilia Travisano | Associate Professor of Slavic Languages
Alumnus/a: Lilia Travisano was always available to help her students—whether the problem was homesickness or Russian declension—from the very first semester of Russian. She even scheduled an hour every week to help me and another student work on our Russian conversational skills. She is absolutely dedicated to her students.
Travisano: Sometimes when students don’t do well on a test I think it is because I didn’t lead them to the test. I didn’t figure out a way to get to their hearts or bring out their souls. So I want to help.
I am selfish. Helping someone is what makes you happy in this life.
Shigehiro Oishi | Professor of Psychology
Alumnus/a: Shigehiro Oishi made the textbook research come alive with demonstrations in the classroom. His final lecture to my class was the best relation of classwork to real life I’d ever seen. He talked about how neuro images of a person’s brain while they are in pain are different when they are holding another person’s hand than when the person is alone, and how everything is better when we have each other. It was beautiful and I still remember it vividly.
Oishi: When you look back on your college life, how much do you remember about what you learned in the classroom? Not much. So I try to make my classes resonate with students in some way, relating it to their romantic relationships, or friendships or parents or whatever. I think kindness is something extra someone does for someone else. Students help me, so I owe them. It’s not altruistic; I’m more returning the favor.
Mary Beck | Lecturer, Department of Engineering and Society
Alumnus/a: Professor Mary Beck went out of her way to sit down with me and be honest about where she thought my math skills were. She gave me probably some of the best advice I received as an undergrad as far as my route to earning my degree. I know I was a lot better for it in the end, because I went from barely passing calculus to earning As in other math courses.
Beck: I can be pretty blunt with students. It’s the Midwesterner in me, I suppose. For a lot of students, I am the first person they run into who tells them they might not be as good as they had been told they were. But I look at them as if they were my kids. I have three, and I think about what I would want their professor to say to them. It’s not always good news, but it is honest.
Kevin Everson | Professor of Art
Alumnus/a: When I was cold and hungry with no place to go, Kevin Everson took me in and got me on my feet. I owe him everything.
Everson: That student (quoted above) was speaking metaphorically, but I feel flattered that students take my class, so I do try to create a family environment, a supportive place for students. When you create art, you want to be looking ahead, not over your shoulder. You always remember the times in your life when you were young and someone treated you like you were an adult, like a peer. That’s what I try to do. I try to give students time and space for them to be creative.
Tabitha Enoch | Assistant Dean of Students
Alumnus/a: Tabitha Enoch was a mentor to me. She never failed to provide a strong listening ear, a friendly smile and enthusiastic encouragement. She informed and inspired my personal leadership style.
Enoch: I am one of the first faces people see when they come to U.Va. I also happen to be one of those people who is always smiling, and people tend to gravitate toward that. When new students come to U.Va., I want them to feel seen. I want them to know their presence matters. I know how I feel when someone makes me feel seen. There is nothing greater, so I try to pass that on.
Doug Burgess | Undergraduate Secretary, Department of Religious Studies
Alumnus/a: Doug always kept his office door open to students and frequently had snacks there for us. He knew the answers to every question I had about administrative matters, and he never made me feel like I was putting him out by asking him for help. It sounds small, but it made such a big difference.
Burgess: Why did people mention me? I think it’s just the food I have in the office. A doughnut is a big deal when you’re a hungry undergraduate and don’t have the time to cook. But while they’re eating, they’ll sometimes ask for advice, about different professors or whatever, and I try to be frank with them. I think students appreciate that. When I was an undergraduate, I felt invisible. I didn’t feel any connection to anyone. Students should know that they matter.