Born Leader Takes on New Role: Student Member of UVA’s Board of Visitors

University of Virginia student and Board of Visitors member Lily Roberts sits at the end of a conference table.

Earlier this month, UVA’s Board of Visitors announced third-year student Lily Roberts as the new student member of the body. (Photo by Sanjay Suchak, University Communications)

If you read Lily Roberts’ résumé, you may be left wondering when she finds time to eat and sleep.

The third-year undergraduate student in the University of Virginia School of Architecture is busy pursuing her major in urban and environmental planning, as well as a minor in dance and design.

Roberts represents students on the School of Architecture’s Dean’s Committee on Inclusion and Equity, is a 2023 Meriwether Lewis Institute for Citizen Engagement fellow and a peer adviser in the Office of African American Affairs. She’s also the recipient of two distinguished scholarships: the University Achievement Scholarship and the James H. Skinner Scholarship.

When she’s not hitting the books or engaging in extracurricular activities, she is overseeing a staff of 12 and more than 250 dorm dwellers as the senior resident of Johnson, Malone and Weedon houses.

Now, she is adding another line to her résumé. She will be the student member of UVA’s Board of Visitors for the 2022-23 term, as announced at this month’s meeting of the board. She is the first student member of the board from the School of Architecture.

Roberts talked with UVA Today about her new role, her aspirations and how students can best engage with the board, which is the corporate body for the University and responsible for the University’s long-term planning and policymaking.

Q. How is the student member of the board selected?

A. The Office of the Vice President of Student Affairs coordinates the selection process at the beginning of every spring semester. Not everyone is eligible – only students who are within a year of finishing their undergrad- or graduate-degree requirements and meet a minimum GPA requirement.

There’s a written application. Next is a series of interviews, by invitation, in which the candidate answers questions not only from BOV members, but also, importantly, student leaders. Finally, the board makes the selection and announces it at their March meeting.

Q. What drew you to the position?

A. Honestly, I have been interested in being the student representative since I learned about the position as a first-year student. In making decisions, the Board of Visitors is much like a group of planners in how it must consider the institution’s memory, current condition and the future needs of students, faculty, staff and the broader community.

The 2030 Strategic Plan, which the BOV adopted during my first year, is being implemented now. The University’s Strategic Plan is just like a community’s comprehensive plan. The student member position is a great opportunity for me to apply my theoretical knowledge as a planning student in the School of Architecture, along with principles from design thinking and dance, to the reality of representing our fellow students in the boardroom of the Rotunda.

Q. Can you briefly describe the role of the student member of the Board of Visitors?

A. The student member is the voice of the entire student body – on Grounds, at the College at Wise, and any locations where UVA classes are taught. The biggest impact of almost every policy voted on by the board falls on students. The matters that come before the board are highly consequential – for example, new academic programs, the construction of new buildings or the designation of public spaces. In recent years, how the University would adapt to the COVID-19 pandemic has been probably one of the most consequential agenda items in the University’s history.

Voicing the perspective of the student body is the primary role of the student member. It is very important because the student member doesn’t have a vote. However, according to board rules, the student member’s voice is to be considered equal to that of all of the voting members who express views on policy matters.

Although our institution is over two centuries old, the board first formally designated a seat for a student only in 1983. Since then, each student member has entered the role with different goals and with creative license in tackling the role.

Q. What are your goals for your term?

A. I have three: first, maximizing the times between board meetings; secondly, collaborating with the student representative on the board of the College at Wise; and thirdly, encouraging greater engagement with the following groups: transfer students, students in small programs and the professional schools, and underrepresented minority students.

My first and third goals are related. The first stems partly from advice that the former student member Derrick Wang shared with me. He emphasized the point that he had a lot of flexibility in how he engaged the student body. I want to make good use of my time during the intervals between the four yearly Board of Visitors’ meetings, when I can put my spin on the role.

Q. Do you have any other passion projects?

A. I mentioned earlier some of my ideas for engagement. Without getting into too much detail, I also am working on expanding a project that I started with the Meriwether Lewis Institute for Citizen Leadership. It involves incorporating approaches to community engagement and principles from my areas of study – design thinking, dance and planning theory. I truly believe this approach will allow me to encourage more students to have their voices heard by the board through me. I’m anxious to see if my community engagement structure works to encourage a greater voice in the policymaking process from certain segments of the larger student body.

Through other work that I am doing on Grounds, I have found that there is a need to make a focused effort on transfer students, professional school students and underrepresented minorities. The reason I want a closer connection with the student member on the Wise Board is simple: It will help me better reflect the interest of the Wise student body with my fellow board members.

Q. What is the best way for the student body to engage with the board?

A. The most effective and efficient way to engage with the board is to communicate through the student member. One of my top priorities is to devise creative ways for students to foster greater engagement with me. I will be effective and persuasive with fellow board members, as I am richly informed by the student body’s questions, comments, concerns and thoughts. Already, I am developing a series of community engagement opportunities.

From interning on Capitol Hill while in high school, I know it's important to see policymaking in action. Watch parties are something I’ll be encouraging. You can watch the open sessions of the board’s meetings, which are free and streamed on the board website.

Face-to-face interaction will be a major part of my engagement efforts. I will attend as many contracted independent organization interest meetings as possible in the fall and spring. Expect my active participation in the Fall Activities Fair hosted by Student Council. Also, I encourage students and all UVA community members to look at the Board of Visitors’ public minutes, which are on their website. The Cavalier Daily also provides recaps of each meeting.

Q. What will you be doing to prepare for your term?

A. One of my cousins taught me that, “If you stay ready, you don’t have to get ready.” Before the application process even began, I spoke with the current student member, Sarita Mehta, about her time in the role and its responsibilities. She shared a good understanding of what it meant to work on behalf of the student body. I also started reading the public minutes of the last few meetings and the Board of Visitors’ manual. Those sources helped a lot in understanding the role of the student member and the function of the board in general. When I was working on my application and prepping for the interviews, Derrick Wang, who was the student member for the 2019-20 term, emphasized the importance of having close connections with student leaders in our community. With that in mind, during Spring Break, I began drafting messages to current and incoming student leaders and administrators to reaffirm current relationships and begin connecting with leaders whom I have not met.

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