Many first-years come to Grounds cherishing the dream of living on the Lawn their fourth year. Bryanna Miller (Col ’18) went them one better. She knew which room she wanted.
She had a friend who’d lived in that very room, and Miller liked its proximity to the Rotunda. Miller is an Echols Scholar, president of the Black Student Alliance and the student member of the Board of Visitors. That she was selected for the Lawn this academic year attests to her being extraordinarily accomplished. That she managed to snag the exact room she wanted means she’s also extraordinarily lucky.
Living on the Lawn is one of the University of Virginia’s greatest honors and most enriching experiences for undergraduates. (Never mind the outdoor walk to the bathroom amid the elements and the tourists.) For Lawnies, the concept of the Academical Village isn’t merely academic; they live it, in the same rooms that Thomas Jefferson designed for UVA’s first students, only now with sinks and central heating in addition to the still-working fireplaces. To live on the Lawn makes you part of a community of similarly high-achieving students and of the several deans and other distinguished faculty members granted the privilege of living in the pavilions.
Christian Goodwin (Col ’18) is an executive board member for Shakespeare on the Lawn who spent his summer at a Harvard University public health think tank. He remembers his awe of Lawnies when he was a first-year. “It was always like, ‘Wow! Wonder what those people did? They must be curing cancer or something like that,’” Goodwin says. “There’s an allure to it.”
To win selection, this year’s Lawnies prevailed in a multistep, deliberative process. Landing a Lawn room requires determination and feats of excellence. Like Miller’s story, it starts with the dream and, when it comes to choosing up rooms after being selected, ends with an element of chance—a room-choosing lottery.
It hasn’t always been such a rigorous competition. It used to be that students applied to live on the Lawn the way they would put in for any other dorm, and because the University’s oldest form of student housing offered the fewest amenities, sometimes rooms sat empty. “People didn’t fight to live on the Lawn,” says UVA historian Sandy Gilliam (Col ’55). “All you did was simply apply at the housing office. If you did it early enough, you got to choose your room.”
Retired UVA Director of Housing Chester Titus helped change that around the late 1960s. He undertook some upgrades, including turning doubles into singles and repairing fireplaces. The changes stimulated demand. Titus then recognized the need for standards and a methodology. He formed two committees: one to choose the criteria and the other to pick the residents. “I’m concerned that they select good people, ‘good’ meaning that they have participated in student life and made a contribution not solely academic,” Titus told the University Journal in a 1983 interview, keeping the clipping from the since-disbanded student newspaper among his mementos.
“When I returned to UVA in 1975, things had changed,” says Gilliam, who served in the Foreign Service and State Department in the 1960s, “and people fought to live on the Lawn.”
The process has been governed by students ever since Titus introduced his Lawn selection committees. And it has evolved considerably since the bygone time when applicants didn’t have anonymity and could get blackballed by fellow students, says Vice President and Chief Student Affairs Officer Patricia Lampkin (Educ ’86), who worked with Titus in the Residence Life department.
Today’s selection process covers 47 of the Lawn’s 54 rooms. The remainder, which have special designations, get assigned separately (see sidebar below). For the 47, the process begins with the convening of the Lawn Selection Process Organizing Committee, which reviews and approves the selection criteria and the application form. The group consists of 11 fourth-year student leaders and three administrators, including Dean of Students Allen Groves (Law ’90), who chairs it.
The criteria used to select this year’s Lawn students essentially followed those of the previous year. They put emphasis on a “demonstrated commitment to academic exploration and growth,” “meaningful and engaged participation” in extracurricular activities and a “willingness to embrace the ideals of the Lawn community.”
While students must put their GPAs on the application, there hasn’t been a minimum required since the 1980s, when it was 2.5, according to Lampkin. Now students must simply be in good academic standing, with applicants having the option, in 100 words or fewer, to explain their GPAs. Groves notes that the space to indicate one’s GPA was recently moved from the top to the bottom of the form, lest anyone think a selector won’t read past a suboptimal number.
That’s where the written portion of the application comes in. In four short essays, aspirants are asked to describe their most significant extracurricular activities, discuss the impact they’ve made in the University and Charlottesville/Albemarle County communities, summarize their academic paths and detail the ways they would uphold their responsibilities of living on the Lawn.
“It’s very different than living in an off-Grounds apartment,” explains Lampkin, who lives in Pavilion V. “You have to not just live for yourself. You have to actually think about others every day, because if you don’t, they’ll remind you.”
Once the Organizing Committee blesses the criteria and the application form, a Lawn Selection Committee is assembled. It consists of 52 fourth-years, half chosen by virtue of their leadership positions, such as Honor Committee chair, Student Council president, Judiciary Committee chair, and representatives from each of UVA’s seven undergraduate schools, as well as delegates from multiple racial and ethnic organizations, the fraternity and sorority system, and the LGBTQ community, among others. The other 26 are chosen from the class at random, a recent innovation designed to make the process more representative and less insular.
Applications pour in in January, 300 of them this year, up from the previous year’s 291, according to Cavalier Daily figures. Then the winnowing process begins. The Selection Committee divides itself in two and splits the applications between the halves. After each subgroup makes a first cut of its batch, the groups recombine to review the applications that survived. This year 115 applications advanced to the second round, at which point the committee members read those they hadn’t previously. From there, after much discussion and deliberation, the group comes up with its list of 47.
But that’s not necessarily the final step. Last year, Lampkin and Groves introduced what they call a “Calibration Committee,” a mechanism to give them the opportunity to review the composition of the list and allow the selectors to adjust for any unfair omissions of significant portions of the University community. The concept arose in response to the situation two years ago, when the list included no African-American students, and to the instance one year ago, when the list had no one from the School of Nursing. The quick fix both years, respectively, was to arrange for an African-American student and a nursing student to live in the Lawn’s Crispell Room, an endowed room ordinarily reserved for a pre-med student.
The newly created calibration device has yet to be used, and the details of its operation yet to be worked out. Groves envisions the Calibration Committee as some subset of students from the Selection Committee, who would decide whether changes need to be made. He describes his role as simply the trigger in the process. After he invokes calibration, it’s for the students to decide what, if anything, should be done. Adds Lampkin: “It’s a break in there, to take a breath, to see what did happen. … How did it turn out? Nothing would ever happen without the Selection Committee.”
Not that there won’t always be disappointed applicants every year, no matter the process. Groves and Lampkin came to grips with that some time ago. Says Groves, “We’ve got way more people than 47 who deserve to live on the Lawn.”
A student’s Lawn fate isn’t entirely in the hands of the Selection Committee. A handful of rooms have their own separate selection process, with the occupants approved by Dean of Students Allen Groves or by another committee. If a student should get picked for one of these rooms (see below) and is also chosen by the Selection Committee, then it frees a room for someone from the wait list. Groves says usually at least two students make it off the wait list every year.