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At the Centerof it all


Written By Jane Kelly / Art By Tobias Wilbur / Video By Vinny Varsalona / Photos By Sanjay Suchak

If you gaze up, you can see eternity. The center draws your eye.

Almost involuntarily, your view expands outward in every direction at once, eyes following the spokes that stretch to places still unimagined.

It is the oculus. The glass eye at the top of the dome. The pinnacle of the Rotunda, a barrel-centered building that is the heart of the University of Virginia.

The ceiling of the Rotunda’s Dome Room, a scaffold of anticlines pulling up and – through the oculus – spiriting outward, seemingly draws students upward, from one floor to the next, as they ascend from first-year students to doctoral scholars. Day in and day out, people are learning in the architectural marvel – a UNESCO World Heritage site – and contributing to the world’s book of knowledge.

Over the decades, the layout and role of the Rotunda have evolved but its centrality to the University has never changed.

Today, UVA students at every level of education – much like the levels of the Rotunda – are living, learning and contributing to society in meaningful ways.

The Rotunda Lower Level Icon

Lower Level

It has been seven years since the most recent renovation of the Rotunda, originally designed more than two centuries ago by University founder Thomas Jefferson.

“Jefferson intended the Rotunda to be the central focus of the Academical Village – not only physically by its size, location and architectural presence, but also programmatically by its function as the library and central classroom building that would be used daily by faculty and students,” said David J. Neuman, the architect for the University at the outset of the two-year renovation project, which closed the building from 2014 to 2016.

“It is our intention,” he said, “to return the Rotunda to that central role.”

Alice Raucher is the architect for the university today and as such is the chief steward of the UNESCO World Heritage site. She says the renovation has more than delivered on that goal. “The most important change to the Rotunda was the planning for its new program to increase community engagement and student activity,” she wrote in the introduction of the second edition of the Historic Structure Report for the Rotunda.”

Lower Level Image
For four decades, Henry Martin rang the bell that set the pace of the University's daily rhythm," reads a plaque that is mounted in the lower level of the Rotunda with the bell. Formerly enslaved, Martin worked at UVA as a free man for more than 50 years. The room to the right is home to a rotation of classes throughout the academic year.

Re-centering the Rotunda as a living and breathing student space created a special, symbiotic relationship, one in which students not only study and learn but are central to the Rotunda’s daily function as a historic landmark, home to the University’s long-term planning and the place where new scholarship is ensconced.

Professors hold classes regularly in the Rotunda. In the fall, most of the sessions are College Advising Seminars, known colloquially as “COLAs,” special one-credit courses for first-year students that include college advising and teaching on topics like “Introduction to Academic Research” and “Fiction Writing.”

“It’s a wonderful way to introduce first-year students to the building,” said Sheri Winston, the associate director for Rotunda and University events.

This spring semester, on Wednesday mornings in the Lower West Oval Room, students dissected one of the world’s vexing political challenges: the peace process in Northern Ireland. The course came at a heady time – the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement, signed on April 10, 1998, to end 30 years of sectarian violence.

About 20 students from the Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy met with associate professor of public policy Paul Martin for their capstone class, “Policies for Conflict & Peace in Northern Ireland.”

It was mid-February, and two groups of students were giving presentations on the implementation of the peace process and how finding agreement in Northern Ireland has become harder and more complicated since the passage of Brexit, when the United Kingdom withdrew from the European Union in 2020.

Martin’s Class Picture from the entry door
Inside picture of Martin’s class gathered in the Rotunda
Martin’s class, “Policies for Conflict & Peace in Northern Ireland,” gathered in the Rotunda’s Lower West Oval Room during the spring semester.

Martin said teaching this particular class in the Rotunda has provoked some interesting conversations. He noted that the students in the class are very diverse. “The vast majority of the students in this class would not have been welcome in this space in the roles that they’re in today – 50, 100, 200 years ago – as students, as potential political leaders.”

So even coming to class in the Rotunda, Martin said, can be “a political statement. Occupying a space can transform it over time.”

I study in it now. Now I’m taking a class in it. It’s no longer in the way you might view Monticello as a historic site. The Rotunda is like that, but now that we are actually using it, it’s less of a ‘UVA thing.’ It’s more of a usable space.
- Jimmy Flood, fourth-year student.

“Thinking about Northern Ireland, it’s the same way,” Martin said. “Sharing political space and negotiating around contested historic sites is one of the greatest challenges. It’s really difficult for historically excluded or harmed groups to see contested spaces venerated and also feel that they belong in those spaces.”

Jimmy Flood, a fourth-year student taking Martin’s course, said attending a class in the Rotunda is “kind of demystifying, because it is such a big UVA symbol.”

After being at UVA for four years and seeing it every day, “I study in it now,” he said. “Now I’m taking a class in it. It’s no longer in the way you might view Monticello as a historic site. The Rotunda is like that, but now that we are actually using it, it’s less of a ‘UVA thing.’ It’s more of a usable space.”

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The Lower West Oval Room of the Rotunda comes alive as students and professors gather for classes throughout the week.
the Rotunda Upper Level

Upper Level

When guests enter the Rotunda, the first person to greet them is a student.

Winston, the Rotunda associate director, employs a fleet of mostly undergraduates to serve as “Rotunda Ambassadors,” and their jobs are as varied as their studies. “As I say to all of the students, anyone who is interested in working here for me is qualified to do this job,” she said. “I don’t care if they’ve never worked a job before, because this is a safe place to learn.”

“They learn how to interact with guests who come in,” Winston went on. “They learn how to provide customer service to our clients who are using spaces in the building.”

Rotunda Ambassadors do everything from helping set up for countless events in the building to knowing its history and giving basic tours. “They have materials that they are to read,” Winston said. “They are to go in the visitor center [in the Lower East Oval Room] and be familiar with all of the displays and be knowledgeable of the building’s history, including the fact that it was the last building in the Academical Village to be completed.”

Sheri Winston, left with U.S. Rep. Liz Cheney, right
Sheri Winston, left, introduces former Wyoming U.S. Rep. Liz Cheney, now a professor of practice at UVA, to the Rotunda.

This year, Winston has about 20 students working for her. Bryan Contreras, a third-year student in the McIntire School of Commerce, is in his second year of work as an ambassador.

“There are so many different things that we will encounter while we’re here, like ambassadors visiting from different countries,” he said. Contreras says during a typical shift, he will put on his ambassador shirt and badge and then go to the desk to see what events are going to be occurring during my shift.”

Portrait of Bryan Contreras
Bryan Contreras, left, is one of the Rotunda Ambassadors. Part of his job is tracking the number of daily visitors, and he keeps count with the clicker in his left hand.

“I walk around and make sure the building itself is presentable. That it looks clean for guests,” he added. “Just the other day, we had a TechnoSonics [Festival] event in the Dome Room. It was a 24-hour event with a series of sounds that they played upstairs, kind of like a concert.”

Portrait of Bryan Contreras
Portrait of Alinor Smith
Bryan Contreras, left, and Alinor Smith have each been Rotunda Ambassadors for two years.

Alinor Smith started working at the Rotunda the second day of her first year and said she has loved every minute. “It’s a really coveted position because I think a lot of people think that it’s mainly a place where you just get to do homework,” the second-year student said. “But it definitely has a lot of responsibilities. You need to be knowledgeable about the history of UVA and the Charlottesville community in general.”

The upper level of the Rotunda, the building’s second floor, is also where the business of UVA’s policymaking and long-term planning is conducted. Here too, students play a critical role as a lifeline between the Board of Visitors and the student body. Each year, the board appoints a full-time, non-voting student to a one-year term.

The outgoing student member, Lily Roberts, says her main role has been to “bring the student voice into the conversations in the boardroom.”

Student Board of Visitors member Lily Roberts
Student Board of Visitors member Lily Roberts, center, talks with her successor, Lillian Rojas, right, and Gabriell Bray, Honor Committee chair, in a library in the Rotunda.

The work does not stop between the quarterly meetings that take place in the Upper East Oval Room of the Rotunda. “The board approves major decisions at the University, from the budget and tuition to approval of design or major development across the institution,” Roberts said. “So, the student leader not only serves as that voice between the students and the Board of Visitors during those quarterly meetings, but in between.”

Because Roberts, a fourth-year student in the School of Architecture, is also a senior residential adviser in Housing & Residence Life at UVA, she has been in a unique position to help consider the future of the residential experience. “I’ve had the opportunity to work a lot with Student Affairs this year to think about the growth of the residential experience as we move toward the 2030 [strategic] plan’s objective of housing all second-year students.”

Roberts said she’s been interested in being the student member of the board since her first year at UVA.

“People are like, ‘Oh my gosh, that looks great on your résumé.’ And it’s not really about that for me,” she said. “For me, more than anything, my desire to serve in this role has really centered on my desire to be able to be a conduit and a voice to ensure that people feel as though they’re able to experience the space that is UVA, but assure in a way that they feel is beneficial for themselves.”

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In a year, about 100,000 people visit the Rotunda. Spring is the busiest season.
the Rotunda Dome Room

Dome Room

In addition to hosting performances, lectures and events like the annual Thomas Jefferson Medal awards ceremony the two-story Dome Room is home to a wholly unique UVA experience, the Rotunda Planetarium.

Contreras, the Rotunda Ambassador, said he loves the installation, a celestial light show played on the Dome ceiling that was first installed by doctoral students in 2019. “The planetarium upstairs is beautiful, and I’ve seen it at night,” he said, adding that the unique installation is not to be missed.

the Rotunda Planetarium in the dome room
Visitors gaze up at the planetarium installation in the Rotunda’s Dome Room. (Photo by Erin Edgerton, University Communications)

Then there are the doctoral dissertations.

For the uninitiated, that means students earning their Doctor of Philosophy, also known as a Ph.D., must defend their research in the form of dissertations, before a committee of professors who evaluate their work.

In Rachel Bour’s case, March 13 was the big day, after nearly six years of study and research in biomedical engineering at UVA. The topic of her dissertation was “Advanced Biomanufacturing Methods for Creation of Tissue Engineered Constructs to Treat Volumetric Muscle Loss Injuries.”

One of Bour’s co-mentors is George Christ, a professor in biomedical engineering and orthopaedic surgery who developed tissue-engineered muscle repair technology for people like wounded soldiers.

“My research,” Bour said, “specifically is taking this existing therapy that his lab has worked on for over a decade now and trying to automate the process overall to increase reproducibility and eventually reduce cost and make it more manufacturable.”

The morning of her dissertation defense, Bour’s other co-mentor, Shayn Peirce-Cottler, professor and chair of biomedical engineering, gave her mentee a glowing introduction.

It feels like a big deal to defend in the Dome Room.
- Rachel Bour, doctoral student, School of Engineering and Applied Science.

“I have to say, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a student tackle such a challenging problem and need to acquire so many different skills and integrate them and bring them together with biology, engineering, biomedical engineering and design,” Peirce-Cottler said. “The work you’re going to see here is really jaw-dropping. It’s been an honor to work with Rachel.”

Bour said a lot of her classmates had previously presented in the Dome Room, inspiring her to as well. “It feels like a big deal to defend in the Dome Room,” she said.

Doctoral student Rachel Bour
Audience listening to Rachel Bour Presentations
Doctoral student Rachel Bour, right, shares her research on advancing ground-breaking muscle repair technology in the Dome Room. Bour’s birthday is on St. Patrick’s Day, and her friends supported her with themed hats.

Lots of friends and family came to listen to her defense, including her parents, Eve and Kirk Bour. They drove from Aberdeen, Maryland.

“It’s been a long journey,” Eve said. “She’s worked so hard. We’re just overwhelmed with pride.”

Kirk’s father and great-grandfather were both engineers. “There’s a long line of engineers in the family,” Eve added.

Rachel’s parents were thrilled to make the trip to Charlottesville to see their daughter present in such a historic and intimate setting. “It’s different from sitting in a big stadium and seeing all the caps and gowns go by,” Eve said.

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The Dome Room is a malleable space. It acts as a student study spot, a lecture hall, a grand dining room and is home to many dissertation defenses.


At the end of each day, as 5 p.m. nears, the Rotunda Ambassadors on duty will tally the number of visitors and enter the figure in a ledger.

Then they carry a heavy key ring, walking from one level to the next, locking interior doors. The Lower West Oval Room, the Lower East Oval Room, and so on.

Contreras, the third-year McIntire student, said some evenings before he locks the heavy white doors on the upper level, the ones that face the Lawn, he will go onto the marble terrace.

“Sometimes I just sit there on the steps of the Rotunda and just watch out on the Lawn before I close up,” he said. “And then afterward, after we close the doors, it’s just so quiet and it’s just a big space and you just feel kind of the history within it.”

And the next day begins anew.

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The University's iconic Rotunda is the crown jewel of the University of Virginia.

Media Contact

Jane Kelly

Senior University News Associate Office of University Communications