Tuesday, November 25, 2014

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Strategic Planning Forum Participants Weigh Student Life at U.Va.

The student experience at the University of Virginia is one of the institution’s strengths, but there are steps the University can take to improve it, according to participants at an open forum Thursday on student life.

The meeting was the last in a series of open forums held as part of the strategic planning process launched earlier this year by President Teresa A. Sullivan. The Student Life Working Group, which hosted the meeting in the auditorium of the Harrison Institute and Small Special Collections Library, is one of seven working groups developing recommendations for the new strategic plan.

“Our task is to really think about student life,” Tom Faulders, president and CEO of the U.Va. Alumni Association and chair of the working group, said at the meeting. “To do that, we lean heavily on what President Sullivan told us she was thinking about with regard to student life.”

Those issues include questions about preparing students for life after graduation, the value and cost of higher education, and what makes the U.Va. experience unique. On Thursday, the open forum participants broke into groups to discuss what attributes a U.Va. graduate should have, the desirability of online courses and any impact on the residential student experience, and potential improvements to the University’s curricular offerings.

At the group tasked with analyzing University curricula, working group member Larry Goedde, a professor in the McIntire Department of Art, moderated a discussion that touched on issues such as potential improvements to the advising process, ways for the University to better advertise research opportunities to students and questions of whether difficulty in registering for classes outside a student’s major or school limits interdisciplinary inquiry.

Second-year student Eda Herzog-Vitteo said the University could do more to inform students – especially those new on Grounds – about different majors and programs, such as interdisciplinary degree programs and “three-plus-one” and “four-plus-one” programs in which students can complete both their undergraduate and master’s degrees in an accelerated time frame.

She also recommended improvements to the advising process, especially for students who have not declared a major but have areas of general interest. These students may end up with faculty advisers who are experts in the opportunities and requirements within their own departments, but lack knowledge of or interest in courses and programs elsewhere, she said.

Perla Vitela, a fourth-year student in the College of Arts & Sciences, said U.Va. could make it easier to determine which classes count toward requirements for multiple majors. This would allow students who are double-majoring to make the most of their course selections.

Vitela also said the University could do more to advertise potential undergraduate research opportunities to students, regardless of discipline, by organizing outreach efforts by students already involved in those projects or organizing a sort of research project fair. “I think it really helps to hear from other students who are already involved in research projects,” she said. 

Cypress Walker, a 2012 graduate in psychology and English who now works as a staff member in the School of Architecture, said individual schools or departments might be very good at identifying opportunities for interdisciplinary collaboration within themselves, but are less adept at reaching out across Grounds.

“I think the University is trying to address those boundaries, and I think organizations like Open Grounds are helping, but these efforts are combating years of habit,” she said.

The seven working groups will pass on a number of ideas for possible inclusion in the strategic plan, which will guide the University’s operation for years to come. The Board of Visitors is scheduled to receive a draft of the complete plan by this fall.

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