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Vox Alumni: Meet Gen V

They attended college amid the tumult of our times, the triumphs and the tragedies, the basketball victory and the virus. Meet the rising generation of Virginia alumni.

By Richard Gard

We are all the product of our time. Alumni of the University of Virginia, more particularly, are the product of our time on Grounds.

Consider the undergraduates who took their degrees over the past 12 years, the University’s young alumni. College for them entailed weathering the mercurial times of the recent past and the present day. Depending on class year, members of this generation joined the celebrations as the University inaugurated two new presidents, and they felt the angst as the country endeavored to do the same. They experienced the thrill of men’s basketball winning the national title in overtime and the horror of a neo-Nazi torch rally wending up the Lawn. A restored Rotunda opened its doors to them, and a raging pandemic barred them from the classroom.

Through it all, the ups, the downs and when the world seemed to go sideways, young alumni loved their time at UVA. Sometimes it’s expressed as a tough love, a mix of positivity and prescription for a better way. They’re less enamored of UVA’s past and traditions, but ask them whether the University seems headed on the right track, and their enthusiasm comes through like a freight train.

That’s some of what we learned spending the past several months collecting impressions and insights from members of the undergraduate class years 2011 through 2022, the largely under-35 set of alumni. We undertook the explorations through Vox Alumni, the Alumni Association’s ongoing initiative to gain a deeper understanding of alumni perspectives and to share insights in ways that can make a difference for the University. We began with a survey asking participants to appraise UVA past, present and future—how they remember college, how they regard the University today and where they’d like to see it headed. We conducted the study in close consultation with the Center for Survey Research within the University’s Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service (see Methodology, below).

Then we went deeper still. As we analyzed the results, we saw the opportunity, and the need, to follow up with two groups of young alumni whose answer sets differed markedly from the rest: the Class of 2021 and Black alumni. We could see that numbers and charts alone wouldn’t suffice to convey the nature of their UVA experiences. So on our behalf the Center for Survey Research arranged and oversaw a series of online focus groups, two with each group, to help us better understand their perspectives and, we hope, better tell their stories.

Those are the puzzle pieces that came together to form the report that follows, a special focus on those alumni with the most recent UVA experiences and the freshest insights, an increasingly influential cohort that represents 29 percent of all living UVA undergraduate degree-holders. They are the rising generation of Virginia alumni, and they have more than a few thoughts to share.

Who they are

The last time Vox Alumni undertook this kind of survey (Virginia Magazine, Winter 2021), we swept broadly, across a half-century of undergraduate class years, and we selected participants at random and in five-year increments. This time we concentrated our focus, and we didn’t sample; we saturated. We contacted all the members of the undergraduate classes of 2011 through 2022 for whom we had email addresses, 94.6 percent of the total. The campaign rendered a stout 5.2 percent response rate, a svelte 2 percent (plus or minus) margin of error, and a tailored demographic fit to the total population under study.

Our survey sample was 63 percent white (vs. 60 percent white for the full cohort), 15 percent Asian (vs. 13 percent), 8 percent Black (vs. 7 percent) and 6 percent Hispanic (vs. 6 percent).

Women completed our survey in outsized numbers, constituting 65 percent of all respondents compared with their 56 percent share of the population under study.

The demographic mix of our survey results closely tracked that of the full population under study.

Women participated in the survey in outsized numbers, making up 65 percent of participants for a cohort that’s 56 percent female.

We achieved a close representation of the schools of the University, 64 percent of the sample having graduated from the College (vs. 65 percent of all degree recipients those years), 13 percent from the School of Engineering (vs. 16 percent), and 7 percent from the School of Commerce (vs. 9 percent). In proportionately small numbers, undergraduate alumni from the schools of education, nursing, architecture, public policy and continuing studies also participated.

Ideologically, the entire cohort generally considers itself left of center. More than three-quarters of respondents volunteered their political leanings along a 7-point spectrum we offered, from “very conservative” (+3) to “very liberal” (-3), with gradations in between and “moderate or middle of the road” (0) serving as the centerline. (The assigned values were for internal use only and did not appear on the survey form.)

The group average came to -1.13, where -1 equaled “slightly liberal” and -2 “liberal.” The female mean was -1.30, the male mean -0.81. If we apply those gender means to a model that’s more realistically 56 percent female, the group average moderates to -1.08, a twentieth of a point’s shift that still registers as left of “slightly liberal.”

Respondents’ political lean

When it comes to political lean, this chart shows that respondents averaged -1.13, where -1 equaled “slightly liberal” and -2 equaled “liberal.”

Young alumni fell slightly left of slightly liberal after we scored and averaged responses to our question asking for ideological identifications.

Changing the recipe

Some scores came in a bit lower, more muted from our previous survey of the broader base. Both questionnaires asked alumni to score how they remember their overall student experience on a 5-point scale, with 5 being highly favorably, 4 favorably, 3 mixed or neutral, 2 unfavorably, and 1 highly unfavorably. Scores this time averaged 4.33, solidly favorable but less exuberant than the 4.50 we clocked last time across class years 1970 through 2020. That exercise showed a similar trailing off in the most recent years, including some under study this time.

In this year’s survey, class years 2012 and 2018 tied at 4.46 for the highest overall favorability. The Class of 2021 turned in the lowest score of 4.17, one of several survey lows that prompted our conducting focus groups. Close behind it was the Class of 2022 at 4.27, the most recent class in the survey.

We presented this year’s participants with a list of 15 elements of UVA life and asked them to rate how favorably they remember them. Then, as a follow-up, we asked them to assess how much each element has stuck with them as a meaningful part of who they are today. The two questions together were our attempt to tease out the recipe for the UVA secret sauce.

The Grounds and the academic rigor stood out as the most favorable aspects the UVA experience and those most meaningful to young alumni today.

For younger alumni, the mojo starts with the same primary ingredients older alumni cited last time. “The Grounds and UVA’s geographic setting” again ranked first, at 4.71, followed by “Academics and the intellectual challenge,” at 4.36.

From there the mix and proportions changed compared with the results of the previous survey—a little more of this, not so much of that. And that over there? A lot less. Moving up in the student-life favorability rankings compared with last time’s multigenerational survey were UVA’s sports teams (No. 4 in this cohort vs. No. 7 for the broader base). Moving down was “Living within a community of trust” (No. 7 vs. No. 4). In last place was “UVA’s Jeffersonian origins”; an equivalent question last time made it to No. 11 on a list of 14.

As to what has stuck with alumni since college (a question we didn’t ask last time), the Grounds took the top spot, scoring 4.29 on a 5-point scale, where 4 equaled “meaningful to me today” and 5 “very meaningful.” Academics came in a close second at 4.23, social life third at 4.11.

The elements that held least meaning for young alumni after college were those associated with the more traditional aspects of UVA. Jefferson ranked last at 2.86 (on our scale, 3 equaled “moderately meaningful to me today” and 2 “less meaningful”), student self-governance mustered 2.94, and “UVA’s sense of history going back to the early days of the country” 3.11. The Honor System managed 3.39; the larger ideal of living in a community of trust fared somewhat better at 3.68.

We added a new item to our catalog of student life, “a sense of Wahoo spirit,” and it resonated with participants. It scored third place (4.29) in favorability and fourth place (3.91) in the companion question about what still resonates with alumni today.

Come again?

What if we could wave a magic wand and give you a do-over for some aspect of college you didn’t get quite right? We dangled that hypothetical before young alumni along with 19 suggested make-goods, choose as many as you’d like. With benefit of one to 12 years’ hindsight, participants signaled the yearning to have had a more enriching college experience—and more fun.

A clear majority of young alumni wished they had developed closer mentoring relationships with faculty and advisers, one of the survey’s biggest surprises considering answers to other questions on the subject.

The biggest surprise was the biggest vote-getter. Sixty-one percent of those willing to indulge the fantasy chose “Developed closer mentor relationships with professors and advisers.” It surprised us because our query into the teacher-student relationship two years ago—the “extent professors cared about you and your success”—got little traction. This time we reframed the line of questioning to focus on “rapport with faculty” and the notion of mentoring. In the secret sauce section of the survey, young alumni rated that a modest aspect of their college experience at 3.88 and as having only moderate influence today at 3.33. When we offered to wave our magic wand and make it into something grander, a majority took us up on it.

The second-most popular do-over: 50 percent of participants regret not having studied abroad. The wanderlust started to dip below 50 percent with class years 2016 and earlier, perhaps because alumni have accumulated more opportunities for travel as they’ve gotten older. There could also be a COVID-19 factor, the pandemic having curtailed study abroad for those on Grounds during its height, affecting the three youngest class years in our series.

The next most attractive do-over, at 47 percent and undiminished across class years, was the wish to have spent more time exploring UVA’s majestic outdoor surroundings.

In a second part to the question, we offered participants the chance to strike a better balance between studying too much or not enough, focusing more on career or less, getting more or less involved in extracurriculars, and behaving more maturely in college or not so much. Solid majorities passed on the options to recalibrate dedication to studies or career, but extracurriculars seemed to strike a chord—47 percent wished they had taken greater advantage of the opportunities (vs. 8 percent who regretted that they had overcommitted; the remainder declined our offer either way). We framed the maturity question as a choice between wishing you had “acted more like a responsible adult” or had “loosened up and let [yourself] have more fun.” Fun beat adulting 44.5 percent to 11 percent. The rest, also 44.5 percent, abstained, choosing by default not to look back.

On the right track

The positivity young alumni expressed about their overall college experience carried through to how they assessed present-day UVA. The survey pool scored the University 4.26 on our 5-point favorability scale. No class year averaged below 4, the milepost for “favorable.”

Among racial and ethnic groups, only Black alumni rated today’s UVA below that threshold at 3.89, one of the indicators that prompted us to follow up with focus groups. Women (4.25) and men (4.32) shared solidly favorable views of current-day UVA.

One of the strongest affirmations came when we engaged young alumni in thinking about UVA’s future. We incorporated a standard right-track/wrong-track question, the kind used in political polls. Resoundingly, 88 percent of alumni in the survey saw UVA heading in the right direction. No class year dropped below 84 percent, and no racial or ethnic group below 83 percent. Ninety percent of women answered right track, as did 85 percent of men.

Any way you slice it—by class year, by gender or by race or ethnicity—the overwhelming majority of young alumni consider UVA to be on the right track.

Then we got more specific. We had participants rate the importance of 16 potential strategic priorities for the University. We presented a similar matrix to the broader alumni base last time, when maintaining academic rigor topped the list. This time it got nosed out by a more holistic consideration: “Foster academics-lifestyle balance, emotional wellness for students.” It overtook rigorous academics in importance for the most recent classes, 2019 through 2022, and for women. Men on average put academic rigor first and lifestyle balance second.

Maintaining academic rigor and fostering student lifestyle balance vied for first-place among the strategic priorities young alumni recommended for University leaders, with the more recent classes putting greater emphasis on balance.

By race, white alumni ranked rigor first, balance second. Asian and Hispanic alumni reversed that order. African Americans ordered improving lifestyle balance ahead of maintaining academics, but they put both behind other priorities.

When we turned to the topic in one of our focus groups, a 2021 alumna remembered having to sit on a two- to three-month waiting list to get psychological counseling services at UVA. “Balancing academics with trying to have a life is definitely something that can be harder, but you make it work,” she said. “Everyone, I feel like, at UVA was sort of a perfectionist Type A, so you couldn’t demonstrate weakness at all.”

After lifestyle balance and academic rigor (and the classroom experience, of particular importance to the COVID-19 class years), fostering a culture open to diverse viewpoints and civil discourse was a high priority among all classes and groups.

Consistent with the cohort’s liberal-leaning sensibilities, respondents assigned importance of 4 or better to just about all proposed priorities with a social responsibility dimension. “Work toward diversity, equity, and inclusion” scored 4.29. Supporting “living wage, affordable housing, access to health care” for the Charlottesville community came in at 4.19. Addressing climate change and environmental issues averaged 4.13 in importance, eclipsing initiatives “to advance democracy,” which at 3.58 fell between “somewhat important” and “important.”

In anticipation of the then-pending U.S. Supreme Court ruling in June on affirmative action in college admissions, we polled the group on the importance of preferences. Favoring “historically underrepresented groups to increase diversity” scored a muted 3.63. Advantaging the children of alumni came in last on our 16-item list with a score of 2.17, where 2 equaled “less important.”

Speaking freely about speaking freely

The suppression of unorthodox views on college campuses is a hot topic in the culture wars. For our survey participants, the battle is real. Every subset in our survey elevated the institutional priority of fostering “a culture open to diverse viewpoints and civil discourse.” It ranked fourth overall with a 4.44 score, every class year and demographic segment scoring it higher than “important” and toward “very important” for University leaders to address.

The Class of 2021 ranked it third on its priorities list. We could see why when we broached the subject in our focus groups. In both sessions the topic replaced what had been an animated discussion with an awkward silence.

“How free did you feel personally to express different and maybe even unpopular views at UVA?” our moderator asked in one of the sessions.

Long pause.

“I—someone else can go, actually,” said one participant.

“No, you go ahead,” said a second.

A third came off mute to break the impasse, and the conversation got underway.

In the other group, when we asked about social pressure to self-censor, one of the participants seemed to do just that in real time. He identifies as half Black and started to recount getting called out in an African American studies class for taking controversial positions.

“I’m trying to figure out how to say this without—” he said without completing the sentence.

Then, trying a more general tack, he said: “I don’t really know how to say what I’m trying to say, but I’ll just say this, that I felt like there were spaces [at UVA] for each viewpoint to speak their mind, but it was only with people who shared those viewpoints.”

Another speaker said, “I tend to lean more conservative, and it was definitely a liberal-dominated conversation, and so, no, I didn’t really feel comfortable expressing my viewpoints.”

“My views are liberal,” said an alumnus in the other 2021 discussion group. “I felt maybe like it was an echo chamber where people felt the same I did.”

Constructive examples eventually emerged. One woman recommended students take a class in UVA’s philosophy department. “It wasn’t enough to make an argument. You had to be able to structure it. You had to be able to back up your ideas,” she said. “I had a professor openly tell me that she did not agree with the things that I was arguing, but she gave me A’s on my papers anyway because they were structured and they made sense.”

Another participant had similar praise for the Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy. “They did a really good job of just having that classroom management, and encouraging the debate, and creating a space for people regardless of their political backgrounds to speak up,” he said.

The weight of events

The solid favorability scores, the faith in the future and moving past the past, the serious-minded social consciousness, paired with the wish that student life had been a little looser and a little more fun, might say something about what it was like to go to college during the past 12 years. We explored the possibility.

We had participants look back through present-day eyes and gauge how much certain incidents affected their student experience, if at all. We had to be careful to avoid the power of suggestion, especially with a series of individual tragedies that occurred over the period. We didn’t want respondents to feel compelled to express feelings for something that otherwise wouldn’t have come to mind. So we confined our list to events more institutional in nature—the arrival of new University presidents, the Rotunda restoration, the Bicentennial celebration. Then we provided a blank space for participants to mention anything meaningful we may have omitted.

Those on Grounds in the fall of 2016 experienced the reopening of the grandly restored Rotunda.
Dan Addison

On the list we provided, the earliest event of notable impact was the UVA presidential crisis of June 2012, when then-President Teresa A. Sullivan was pressured to resign and then, after 17 days of gale-force blowback, unanimously reinstated. The drama paralyzed the University at the time, and the aftereffects rippled through succeeding academic years. Yet it scored only 2.76 on our 5-point scale, where 5 equaled profound impact, 3 moderate impact, and 1 minimal or no impact. Maybe that reflects the passage of 11 years, that the incident began and ended while students were on summer break, or that corporate intrigues don’t directly affect students in their day-to-day.

(For all our impact calculations, we counted only the ratings from those class years in attendance at the time, even if alumni from other years entered an impact score.)

By contrast, the Rolling Stone scandal from nine years ago hit 4.22 on our Richter scale. The magazine’s November 2014 cover story, “A Rape on Campus,” roiled the community with allegations of sexual assault at UVA, and then roiled it again when the dramatic account referenced in the title turned out to be false. Rolling Stone retracted the story and paid out millions in defamation recoveries.

“The article was obviously factually wrong but then the retraction unfortunately ended important conversations,” a survey participant commented. “More than 8 years later I still think about this all the time.”

The August 2017 Unite the Right hate rallies registered 4.17 in impact for those in school at the time. The level of shock seemed to correlate with how long one had been on Grounds prior to the seemingly unthinkable spectacle of a Nazi torch march snaking up the Lawn, the precursor to the next day’s deadly violence on the Downtown Mall. Fourth-years (Class of 2018), who would include Lawn residents and their friends, averaged 4.43 in their impact scores for the event; third-years (2019) 4.35; second-years (2020) 4.14; and first-years (2021), who had moved into the dorms the week after, 3.76.

“I for one was terrified,” a 2021 graduate told us during a focus group. She remembers shopping for her dorm room that weekend when her phone started blowing up with messages from friends telling her not to go to UVA. “I was like, ‘Well, they already have my money, so I have to go.’”

Typifying the roller coaster of the recent college experience, she also remembered hugging everyone in sight less than two years later and feeling “over the moon.” The University of Virginia men’s basketball team had just won the 2019 NCAA national championship. Most everyone else in our survey was over the moon too. The event averaged 4.40 in impact on one’s student experience. Our Class of 2021 focus group participants, who experienced the joy during the spring of their second year, lighted on the memories of running en masse to the Corner. “I wasn’t really into basketball. … I was in the library actually,” said one. “Everyone was freaking out and … literally running to the Corner, so of course I left and I went.”

Fans welcome home UVA’s NCAA champion men’s basketball team in April 2019.
Sanjay Suchak

As for those individual tragedies we avoided mentioning, participants needed no prompting. The memories came rushing back. Many people mentioned Virginia Tech student Morgan Harrington, abducted in October 2009 while attending a concert at UVA’s John Paul Jones Arena and later found murdered.

It presaged the comments section’s most-cited incident, the September 2014 disappearance of second-year Hannah Graham and the traumatic discovery of her remains several weeks later, another victim of Harrington’s attacker. Wrote one survey respondent, “It was a tragic event so early on in my college experience and impacted my sense of safety on Grounds. I participated in the search party and still think about the awful event.”

In between those two violent incidents, and commented upon along with them, was the May 2010 beating death of women’s lacrosse player Yeardley Love at the hands of her ex-boyfriend, a men’s lacrosse player.

Many remembered the international incident following third-year Otto Warmbier’s January 2016 detour from study abroad into North Korea, where he was summarily imprisoned and incurred the brain injuries from which he died days after his eventual release. The ordeal became part of the steady drumbeat of tragedy for students those years. In the space provided to list any affecting events, one participant wrote: “Otto Warmbier’s capture in North Korea, Hannah Graham’s murder, and pretty much any time a student died.”

Many cited the forcible arrest of Black student leader Martese Johnson outside a bar on the Corner bar in March 2015. Some framed the incident in the context of the Black Lives Matter movement that gained momentum during their college years.

The Trump presidency weighed heavily on students. References to the former president, none favorable, littered the comments section. They cited his election (“a somber day on Grounds,” said one); his August 2017 “very fine people on both sides” remark after the deadly white supremacist rallies here; and the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection.

The November 2022 shooting of three UVA football players on Grounds technically fell outside the scope of the survey, which we cut off at the end of the previous academic year. It nonetheless affected respondents profoundly, many of whom commented on it and gun violence.

COVID Class of 2021

And then there was COVID-19. It topped our list as the most impactful event, scoring 4.61 among the three class years most directly affected—2020 during its final semester, 2021 during its final three, and 2022 during part of second year and all of third. College life for those years included classroom instruction migrating to Zoom, a long list of curtailed activities and opportunities, and social isolation.

We could argue that the Class of 2021 had it the worst, but we don’t have to. They made the case on their own, first on the survey and then later in the follow-up focus groups. As noted, alumni from that year turned in the lowest favorability score for their overall college experience. We began the group discussions asking why that might be. We barely finished the sentence before they returned choruses of “COVID.”

COVID protocols hit the Class of 2021 during what are supposed to be the best years of college, the upper-class years when you hope to come into your own academically, socially and individually, discovering the person you can become. “I really enjoyed my first and second year, and then, you know, part of my third year,” said one participant. The rest she described as “just a blur.”

On our list of possible strategic priorities for University leaders, only the COVID classes of 2020 and 2021 gave their highest ratings (4.54 for both) to “Support, strengthen the quality of the undergraduate classroom experience,” something the pandemic diminished for both groups.

Unlike those from the year before, 2021 fourth-years did get to participate in timely, in-person Final Exercises. After they walked the Lawn, they continued on to Scott Stadium to receive their diplomas.

“I was grateful to be able to have the ceremony, but it wasn’t the same,” said a Batten School graduate.

“I’m not upset about it. I’m not angry about it,” a graduate of the College said. “At some point you just have to live with it. It is what it is.”

Final Exercises were in-person but distanced in 2021, held in Scott Stadium.
Sanjay Suchak

In both sessions, we listened as the participants worked through the stages of early-COVID college grief—commiseration followed by resignation followed by the search for silver linings. One alumna told how she was able to apply for a prestigious out-of-town internship because, thanks to COVID, the company allowed it to be remote. The work experience led to her current position with a major media company. “I certainly learned how to be more creative about making friends or building community or whatever else,” she said, “and I got a job out of it.”

A participant offered that his view of the experience has improved with hindsight. “Me and my friends are like retroactive optimists,” he said. “It was collective loss. If you sit and lament, I mean, it gets boring.”

Black alumni and ‘that space within a space’

Black alumni turned in the survey’s lowest rating for their overall student experience, 3.88 on our scale, where 4 equaled solidly favorable. They similarly rated 10 of 15 specific elements of student life below that threshold, the most downgrades of any group.

Our magic-wand question, which offered multiple hypothetical chances to change some aspect of one’s undergraduate experience, included a kicker at the end: Do you wish you had gone elsewhere to college? Only 4.5 percent of all respondents, or 1 in 22, said yes. But for Black alumni, that figure more than doubled to 11.7 percent, more than 1 in 9 regretting having gone to UVA.

Apart from how she answered that question herself, a focus group participant bottom-lined the Virginia experience this way: “UVA is a really great place to be a student, but I don’t think it’s a great place to be a Black person.”

While Black alumni tended to rank the favorability of various aspects of UVA life in roughly the same order as everyone in the survey, they gave out decidedly lower scores, only five of 15 grades at or above 4.0 baseline favorability.

Both focus groups talked about barriers to feeling welcomed. They included, for most if not all, confronting a stark economic disparity between themselves and other students. Participants also discussed the challenges of developing meaningful white friendships. “I was very cordial with a lot of people in my dorm. Like, our floor tried our best to know each other, but it just didn’t feel right,” a 2013 alumna said. A 2022 graduate said everyone in the nursing school was welcoming, then added: “Of course the Black students were a little more welcoming.”

A 2015 alumnus hung out with two white friends his first semester, and they’ve remained friends, but he said he didn’t feel comfortable at UVA until he joined a historically Black fraternity. Throughout college, he used that as the home base for his social life, sometimes spending time in other circles—Asian and Latino groups more than white ones—but always coming back to his core friends in his fraternity.

Our magic-wand question asked if students wished they had stretched themselves socially and widened their social circle. The proposition attracted the least regret from white students, 34 percent of whom chose that for a do-over, compared with 52 percent of Asian students, 49 percent of Hispanic students, 44 percent of multiracial students and 42 percent of Black students.

“There’s a privilege there, whether it’s financial or skin color–based, to where they’re like, ‘I’m good where I’m at,’” a 2013 alumna said in one of the focus groups. Black students, by contrast, “We’re trying to climb the socioeconomic ladder.”

In both Black alumni focus group sessions, participants told us they felt least welcome on Rugby Road, home to UVA’s predominantly white fraternities. One woman told of going with her first-year dorm hallmates to a fraternity party around 2009. The bouncer let everyone in except her and the only other Black woman in the group. He told them the house had reached capacity. “That was the first and last time I ever went to a party on Rugby Road,” she said. “I was like, yeah, this is not my scene.”

Some in the groups had friends on Rugby and enjoyed partying at their fraternity houses. “I’ve had different experiences on Rugby Road,” said a 2012 alumna, a student-athlete with a wide network of friends. When offensive incidents happen, “You would like to be like, ‘It was a one-off.’ But throughout your years there, it happens often enough to know that … there’s definitely something or somebody here who doesn’t think you should be here, and that’s unfortunate.”

Several alumni recounted hearing the N-word shouted at them from a passing car or pickup truck on streets in and around Grounds. “You’re living in two different worlds,” said the 2012 alumna. “You’re having your space at UVA but also still dealing with all the things you have to deal with as a Black American.”

The fondest reminiscences related to lifelong friendships and the support structure within the Black community, as distinct from the greater UVA community. “UVA is special to me because I found those pockets of Black people that are my family still,” said a 2015 alumna.

She and other engineering students in both groups credited their success in college and since to UVA’s Center for Diversity in Engineering and getting connected with the National Society of Black Engineers. “I probably would have left the University” had it not been for NSBE, the alumna said. “I finally found that space within a space.”

Dawson’s Row, home to the Office of African American Affairs
Andrew Shurtleff

Several participants praised the support they received from the Office of African American Affairs, especially its Peer Adviser Program, which assigns student mentors to incoming Black first-year and transfer students. It made an impression with a 2015 alumnus when his student adviser sent him a postcard the summer before he started college and later joined him and his father for lunch on the Corner. “He was always checking on me,” he said. “He always wanted to know how I was doing.”

Students seemed to like everything about OAAA except the O: its offices. They’re a compound of historic residences on Dawson’s Row, in the hollow behind modern-era Bryan and New Cabell halls. It “very pointedly felt like a slave house, and they never changed it,” said a 2021 alumna of her student visits to OAAA. “It would be right next to all of the very built-up, pretty buildings, and we’re still going through the creaky door on the creaky steps.”

African Americans in the survey gave the most emphatic strategic prescriptions for UVA leaders, rating seven of 16 initiatives 4.5 or higher in importance; no other group had more than three.

Survey results showed a cautious view of current-day UVA. As noted, Black alumni appraised it just 3.89 on our scale, compared with the study’s overall average of 4.26. Of any group in the survey, African Americans gave the most emphatic prescriptions for where University leaders should put their strategic priorities. From our list of 16, they accorded seven items an importance of 4.50 or higher; no other group had more than three. Among the to-dos: work toward diversity, equity and inclusion (4.70); support the Charlottesville community (4.68); make UVA more affordable (4.67); and address UVA’s history of slavery and discrimination (4.62).

The ambitious action list came with a strong vote of confidence: 86 percent of Black alumni consider UVA to be heading on the right track.

“My first year, I was like, ‘Oh no, what choice did I make?’” said a 2012 College alumna in one of the focus groups. “But by my fourth year, graduating, I was like, well, OK, I see the University working and hearing me and making me feel seen.”

And that’s part of Vox Alumni’s mission: to make alumni better heard, better seen and, ultimately, better understood. To understand the University of Virginia’s most recent graduates, you need to appreciate the times that shaped them and, too, how they strove to reshape events in return. It’s telling that when Hannah Graham went missing, students didn’t just despair; they formed up in search parties. When the Nazis marched that night in 2017, students formed a human chain of resistance. When plague descended, students masked and tested and vaccinated and self-isolated in the interest of public health and someday reclaiming some semblance of normal college.

Always, they rose to the occasion. Maybe it’s no coincidence that theirs is the generation that brought the University its first men’s basketball title, a redemption story following the previous year’s historic loss, and then every game was clutch and nothing was ever easy.

So it was, by the nature and nurture of events, that young alumni consistently gave UVA high marks but not a free pass. Most have progressive ideals, and they want the University to fulfill them. As one participant commented in the survey, “UVA is an amazing place and I love to see it continue to improve.”

Richard Gard is the editor of Virginia Magazine.