The class that assembled on the University of Virginia’s Lawn on Sunday to participate in the Honor Convocation that traditionally precedes the opening of the academic year included a licensed pilot, an international Rubik’s Cube competitor, a voice reader for audio books, a certified John Deere tractor technician, a self-taught blacksmith, a circus aerialist and a certified elephant trainer.
“The variety and creativity of your endeavors is remarkable,” President Teresa A. Sullivan told the Class of 2018.
Despite the heavy gray clouds that hovered overhead, thousands of incoming students gathered facing the Rotunda to begin their college journeys and to hear a welcome from Sullivan and other U.Va. leaders, including students, faculty and administrators. By tradition, students will face the other direction, toward Old Cabell Hall, as they end their U.Va. journeys at Final Exercises.
After listing the unusual endeavors of the entering students, Sullivan highlighted some of the distinguishing qualities of the University: collegiality among faculty and students, which she encouraged the first-years to experience; and students’ involvement in extracurricular experiences, including public service through Madison House and participation in about 700 clubs and organizations.
She also emphasized the importance of personal safety and security, mentioning the University’s newly launched awareness campaign, “Not On Our Grounds: A University of Virginia Initiative to End Sexual Violence.”
The assembly’s main purpose centered on the Honor System and the foundation of student self-governance, and concluded with the students signing the honor pledge.
“The honor pledge is a literal contract, but signing it is a symbolic act as well,” Sullivan said. “By signing, you bind yourself to this social and academic community.”
Another tradition required the first-year student who happened to be sitting in the seventh seat in the seventh row to look under his seat for a letter from the Seven Society. The anonymous student had the distinction of Sullivan calling him forward to read it aloud. Along with its greeting to the new class, the secretive organization gave $1,777.77 to the First-Year Council to promote activities to unite the Class of 2018 and to make positive change on Grounds.
Dean of Students Allen W. Groves said the ceremony is an important rite of passage for new students, who signaled they were joining the community of trust.
“No other college or university gives its students the authority U.Va. gives you,” he said. “And you learn more. It adds to an unparalleled student experience.”
But, he warned, “It only works if you step up and own it.”
Nicholas Hine, who chairs the Honor Committee, recalled that when he sat in the audience three years ago, he found himself asking questions like, “Do I belong here? Who will my friends be? Do I really have to run down the Lawn naked?” Turning serious, he said he made the decision to be part of something bigger and trust in the Honor System and in the peers around him.
Like Groves, Hine talked about honor “with a big H” – the Honor System – and “with a little h” – living a life of honor.
“Very soon you might find yourself in uncomfortable situations, and they won’t be about lying, cheating or stealing,” Hine said. The situation might be seeing someone who needs help because he or she has had too much to drink or looks uncomfortable with another person’s advances.
“Recognize that it’s your responsibility. Pledge to look after one another, even when that is not easy,” he said.
Darden School professor Michael Lenox, Samuel L. Slover Research Professor of Business and an Engineering School alumnus, said he remembered taking his place in the audience 25 years ago. Wondering at the time what relevance the Honor System might have for him, he said he has come to appreciate it more and more over time.
He guaranteed that everyone’s integrity would be tested. “The Honor System provides the core – the foundation, the baseline, the guidepost – to come together to form a community,” Lenox said. “The Honor System is a collective endeavor, but the heart of the Honor System is a promise you make to uphold certain standards of behavior. Regardless of where you’re from or what your SAT scores were, it’s a promise you make to yourself.”
After they took their turns signing the honor pledge, Sullivan invited the students to a reception at Carr’s Hill to participate “in your very first Jeffersonian tradition at U.Va.,” something Jefferson encountered in France – eating ice cream.