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Prepared Remarks: Welcome to Parents

August 20, 2016

Greetings and Welcome

Good afternoon. I’m Teresa Sullivan, and I have the honor to serve as the president of UVA.

I want to thank the Hullabahoos for performing for us. This is just one of many a cappella groups on Grounds. If your son or daughter enjoys singing and performing, he or she may want to audition to join one of these groups. Information about them is available on the UVA web site.

After my remarks, several UVA colleagues will join me on stage, and you’ll have plenty of time to ask us questions. But let me begin by asking you a few questions …

How many of you are bringing your first child to college today – a show of hands?

How many of you are bringing your last child to college today?

How many of you traveled more than 300 miles to get here?

How many of you traveled fewer than 10 miles to get here?

How many of you are UVA alumni?

To our alumni, I say an enthusiastic: “Welcome back!” To our non-alumni parents, I say an equally enthusiastic: “Welcome to the University of Virginia!”

Whether you’re bringing your first child or last child to UVA, whether you traveled hundreds of miles or just a few blocks to get here,  we’re delighted to have you with us. All of us who share connections to UVA are part of an extended family. This family includes our students; their parents and other family members; faculty and staff; and alumni and friends who are scattered all over the world. We’re delighted to welcome all of our new parents to the University family today.

A Unique Time for Students at UVA

I want to begin by talking about a unique opportunity that your students will have while they’re at UVA. It’s “unique” because no other student in the history of the University has experienced it, and it only comes around every couple of hundred years. 

Fourteen months from now, in October 2017, we will launch the University’s bicentennial celebration. The first events will take place on October 6th to mark the 200th anniversary of the laying of the University’s cornerstone at Pavilion VII, just a short ways up the Lawn from here.

Bicentennial events will continue through the anniversary of the University’s charter on January 25, 2019, and culminate in May 2019 with the graduation of students who will become the first alumni of our third century. Students in this Class of 2020 will be among those first graduates of UVA’s next century.

The celebration will feature many activities for students, including academic and social programs, research opportunities, guest speakers on Grounds, exhibits in our museums, and so on. An advisory group that will include students will give advice to the Commission that’s overseeing the bicentennial, and students are even helping us select the official bicentennial logo.

In addition to the bicentennial, there’s another reason that right now is a great time to be a UVA student: We’ve just completed a multi-year renovation of the University’s most iconic building, the Rotunda. The building has a new roof; a new skylight; and 16 new marble capitals that replaced old, crumbling capitals on the columns, among other improvements.

But the most dynamic changes to the Rotunda are the ones happening on the inside.

Many alumni say that they never set foot inside the Rotunda when they were students here; they saw it more as a museum than a space for students. UVA is the only American university on the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Through the years, students seemed to know that the Rotunda was an important building, but perhaps they thought it was too important for them to enter.

All of that’s about to change …

When the Rotunda reopens this fall, it will once again serve as the center of student life at the University, as it did in Thomas Jefferson’s day. Classes will be held in the Rotunda, and there will be new, comfortable spaces for students to study. Rooms throughout the Rotunda will be used for seminars, dissertation defenses, and student meetings.

The bicentennial will be a time for us to look back at UVA’s past 200 years, but also — and perhaps more importantly — this is our moment to look forward.

We face complex global challenges in the 21st century — problems related to national security, cyber-security, disease pandemics, political divisiveness, and so on. To address these problems, our country will need elite teams of well-educated, highly-trained, tech-savvy problem-solvers.

That’s where your sons and daughters come in. As parents, you have guided their growth and learning to help them reach this day. Now their education at UVA will prepare them to assume their roles as 21st-century leaders and problem-solvers.

And that’s why, as we welcome them to UVA this fall, we see something much more profound than another incoming class of first-year students … we see our best hopes for the future.

So let me offer some words of advice on how you can help your students get off to a good start at UVA.

The Challenge of Fitting In

New college students face a lot of challenges in their first year: more-demanding academics; the responsibilities of living on their own for the first time; basic life-skill issues, such as managing their time and creating study habits.

But I want to discuss one particular challenge. Few students talk about this issue, but almost all students experience it. I’m talking about the challenge of fitting in.

A 2015 study showed that the majority of new college students in the U.S. feel emotionally unprepared for college life. Half of the surveyed students said they feel stressed out “all the time.”

Students don’t like to talk about not fitting in, so they often think they’re the only one struggling. About 45% of the students in the survey agreed with the following statement: “it seems like everyone has college figured out except me.”

Students who are smart enough to be admitted to UVA are skilled at presenting a polished veneer of perfection. It can be hard for them to acknowledge that they don’t have everything in their lives completely mastered at age 18.

As parents, it’s important for you to realize that your students may be facing these challenges. So I have some advice for helping them find their fit ….

Academic Fit

First let me talk about academic fit. Your sons and daughters are high-achievers. Almost 90% of our first-year students graduated in the top 10% of their classes. These students are perfectionists who are used to succeeding at the very top. And you, as their parents, are used to watching them succeed at the very top. 

Now, simple math will tell you that, at UVA, 90% cannot be in the top 10%; only 10% can be in the top 10%.

All of these students are academic super-stars. But being a super-star feels different when you’re surrounded by 16,000 equally talented super-stars.  Your child will discover that the level of competition has changed when they start their classes at UVA. They might not be able to get the perfect grades that they got in high school.

Students may lose sight of how highly accomplished they really are. They may experience what psychologists call “impostor syndrome;” this is when high-achieving people fail to recognize the validity of their own achievements when surrounded by other high-achievers, and become afraid of being exposed as a fraud. Some studies have shown that impostor syndrome is particularly common among high-achieving women.

There are no impostors at UVA; every student earned the right to be here. But these pressures can still be difficult for students.

Some students who come to UVA have never experienced failure of any kind; some have never gotten a “B” in school.

It’s a cliché to say that we learn more from failure than we do from success — yet it’s true. Students need to know that it’s okay to get an occasional “B” in class, especially when they’re new to college and exploring new disciplines; it’s okay to run in student elections … and not win.

The lessons learned from minor setbacks and failures build character, durability, and leadership-potential in our students. Students acquire resilience through successive encounters with what we might call “manageable failures.”

They should not be afraid to push themselves into uncharted academic territory. As they plan their course work, encourage your students to explore the full range of the curriculum. Some first-year students may feel an urgency to rush into an area of specialization; some may have already decided on careers.

But their undergraduate years are the best time to explore academically, and to shore up weaknesses while building on strengths. They will have plenty of time to specialize later. Now is the time to be expansive in their academic pursuits.

Encourage your students to engage in research and the arts. We have awards that support undergraduate research, and we have similar grants to support projects in the arts.

Today’s students need to prepare themselves for a global economy, so encourage your son or daughter to study or work abroad while they’re here. We have a Global Internship Program to match students with opportunities overseas. Make sure your students understand the value of gaining a global perspective while they’re in college.

Part of finding your fit academically when you’re a new college student is just being aware of all the options that are available. Encourage your students to enter UVA with their eyes wide open, and to explore the many academic opportunities that a great research university has to offer.

Social Fit

Now let’s talk about fitting in socially. In high school, your son or daughter probably had a close-knit friend group that served as a sounding board and a source of security. They’re separated from that group now; at UVA your child may know only one or two people, or maybe nobody at all. Fitting into a social group is one of the big challenges of the first year, but there are ways to make it easier.

Public service is a big part of the UVA student experience, and it’s an entry point for social life. Madison House, our student volunteer center, has 19 programs and coordinates over 3,400 student volunteers each week. Students can serve as tutors, construction workers, youth mentors, and in other roles. By participating in these activities, students meet new friends and build social connections while doing good in our community. So encourage your student to get involved in public service.

Students can learn more about service programs and other opportunities at the Activities Fair this coming Tuesday, August 23, from 11:00 AM to 2:00 PM, on the lower end of the Lawn.

Encourage your student to choose a few activities that appeal to him or her — but also advise them not to sign up for every program available, or they’ll soon find themselves overwhelmed by their commitments.

To fit in socially, students need to embrace the great diversity we enjoy at UVA. And by the way: embracing diversity means more than a student from Fairfax County mingling with a student from Loudon County. 

Students in the first-year class come from 45 states and 76 foreign countries. We have students from many races and religious backgrounds, different socio-economic situations and varied life experiences. Getting to know people from various walks of life will prepare your student for the diverse global economy they’ll enter after graduation.

Encourage your students to make the effort to get to know someone who comes from a completely different background than they do; encourage them to seek out these encounters — even if it means stepping outside their comfort zones.

The effort to fit in socially involves peer pressure of various kinds. We are aware of the health and safety hazards associated with alcohol use among our students, and we have a number of programs to address this issue. The Gordie Center, based in Student Health, serves as a central point for outreach. Many of us are engaged in education and prevention efforts, including faculty, staff, medical personnel, police … and the students themselves.

As parents, you have a part in this dialogue: I encourage you to talk to your sons and daughters about your family’s expectations regarding alcohol and drug use. In fact, I encourage you to talk to them about one particular event that’s taking place tonight. I mentioned this event in letters that I sent to parents of first- and second-year students a few weeks ago …

Each year for the past several years, on the Saturday night of opening weekend, there has been a massive, off-Grounds block party in the area along Wertland Street, near The Corner. The party draws thousands of students to a chaotic scene, fueled by excessive drinking, that lasts into the morning hours.

This environment can be dangerous for students, especially those who are new to UVA and to college life generally.

Please encourage your students to avoid the block party, and urge them to participate, instead, in UVA-planned activities tonight. Those activities include a concert at the John Paul Jones Arena with musician J. Cole, beginning at 9:00 pm.  From 9:00 pm until 2:00 am, we will have sports and social activities at the Aquatics and Fitness Center, and Charlottesville food trucks and UVA Dining will be on hand with plenty of food options. In the first-year dorms, RAs will lead a variety of programs including movies and games; students can check with their RAs to find out about the events in their dorm.

We encourage our students to look out for their own safety and for the safety of their classmates, and to intervene if they see a student who needs help.

UVA students are extremely smart; they may believe they’re so smart that they can take care of themselves on their own, without any help.  

But consider this analogy … 17 athletes and two coaches from UVA participated in the 2016 Olympics, including UVA swimmer Leah Smith, who won a gold medal and a bronze medal. If you watched the swimming competition, you may have noticed something curious: at Olympic swim meets, where the very best swimmers from all over the world compete, they still have lifeguards on duty. 

Like those Olympic athletes, your students are some of the best and brightest from the nation and the world. But they still need to look out for each other; they still need to serve as unofficial lifeguards for each other in our community. I hope you’ll reinforce that message of shared responsibility.

Eventually, your students will find their fit at UVA, both academically and socially. Your sons and daughters were offered admission to UVA because of who they are now— their academic achievements and other qualities that distinguish them. Their UVA education will be about who they will become in the future — through their intellectual growth, through their social development, and through their maturation as young adults.

Advice for Parents

Now that I’ve suggested how you can help your child get off to a good start, I have some brief advice on how you can get off to a good start this academic year.

This is a big day for you. This day marks a major milestone in your child’s life … and also in your life as a parent. This is an emotional day, as excitement mixes with anxiety, sadness, and a dozen other emotions.

It’s normal to feel a sense of loss today; it’s normal to feel miserable … it’s also normal to feel exhilarated. 

My advice is to give yourself permission to experience all those emotions, with all their complexity and contradictions.

I encourage you to provide support for your sons and daughters, but I also urge you to stand back and let your children learn by doing. Every new college student makes mistakes — so does every parent, as all of us know.  These mistakes are part of your children’s education and part of their maturation as adults. By finding their own solutions, they will learn to adapt and to overcome. Allow room for those mistakes, because those mistakes become life lessons. And those lessons become the foundation of experience and awareness in the adult who will soon emerge before your eyes.

Although you face mixed emotions today, more than anything this should be a day of celebration. Feel proud of your sons and daughters, and feel proud of yourselves for what you have done to bring them to this day. 

Moms and dads across the nation and around the world strive to help their children get admitted to the University of Virginia … and you succeeded. Congratulations.

This is Your UVA

Before we open the floor to questions, let me mention a few resources that are yours now as a member of the UVA family. The Handbook for Parents includes details about student self-governance, housing and residence life, technology, and other aspects of student life.
Copies are available in the lobby, and the handbook is available online in a searchable format at virginia.edu.

You will have opportunities to participate in your local community through UVA Clubs, and to be part of our lifelong learning activities. To find out more, visit our parent-and-family web portal at virginia.edu/families

You should know about the Parents Fund Committee, which supports student initiatives, including alcohol-education programs, club sports, arts groups, and the UVA Career Center. Information about the Parents Fund Committee is at uvaparents.virginia.edu. I encourage you to get involved.

Please come visit us often. Come to sports events, performances, honors ceremonies, and other gatherings on Grounds.  Join us for Family Weekend, which takes place November 4 - 6.

Now that you’ve officially joined the UVA family, I hope you’ll feel a sense of ownership and pride in this great University.

This is your UVA now. And we’re so glad to welcome you. Thank you very much.