Editor’s note: In the run-up to Final Exercises on May 16 and 17, UVA Today will introduce readers to some of the outstanding members of the Class of 2015. All of the stories, plus other information about Finals Weekend, will be compiled here.
On each Wednesday afternoon since January 2013, students, staff and faculty members at the University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education have gathered in the atrium of Bavaro Hall with their own mugs in hand to grab a cup of coffee and make a connection.
The Curry community has Karen Connors to thank for their full cups and inspiring conversations each week. “Cups & Conversations,” as it is known, has provided an opportunity for faculty members, staff and students to engage with others outside of their areas of expertise.
“The Curry School houses more than 20 different programs of study, from speech pathology to kinesiology to teacher preparation,” Connors said. “While it seems unlikely for scholarship in these areas to overlap or connect, there can be a significant benefit in making connections.”
Connors, who graduates Sunday with an Ed.D. in higher education, has been the energy behind Cups & Conversations since its inception.
“When Ruffner Hall closed for renovations, the Curry community was dispersed across and off Grounds,” she said. “The original idea was to create a consistent time and place for members of the Curry community to reunite, grab a snack and chat in a relaxed environment.”
Curry administrators had discussions about the potential impacts taking Ruffner Hall off-line might have on the community.
Connors, who earned a master’s degree in higher education administration from University of Miami, has focused on student life, particularly resident advisers’ impact on dormitory life. Her academic knowledge provided an additional motivation for launching the project.
“Because of my background in residence life and deep understanding of higher education through my coursework,” Connors said, “I know that social connection and a sense of community bring about student well-being, and faculty and staff retention. So I created a regularly standing event to get students, faculty and staff to come together.
“Even [U.Va.] President [Teresa A.] Sullivan came to a session, sat on the couch with her cup and just hung out with the students,” she said.
As the weekly gatherings evolved – attracting an average of 155 people – Connors noticed an opportunity to connect with other groups, individuals and events. Groups such as the Curry School’s Diversity Action Committee, Honor Committee, Student Council, Curry Research Conference and Education Council took advantage of Cups & Conversations to showcase their work and recruit members. Lectures and town-hall meetings were scheduled just prior to the weekly event so that discussions on a variety of topics could continue over coffee.
It also gave faculty the chance to share ideas and gadgets, including a vortex cannon that Robert Tai, associate professor of science education, set up for participants to try out. Tai made it using a large trashcan with a drum-like rubber covering at the top and a hole in the bottom. When hit, a vortex of air bursts from the hole with enough force to topple a stack of cups set up several feet away.
At another recent meeting, Curry School members organized a #DiverseUVA campaign asking attendees to reflect on a variety of questions related to diversity.
As a rising higher education professional and scholar, Connors aims to help shape the culture of college life. For her, this weekly event highlighted her assessment of a cultural need and how to address it successfully.
Connors created Cups & Conversations as part of her role as intern in the Curry School Foundation. During her internship – a requirement of the doctoral program in higher education – Conners carried out a variety of responsibilities, including working with the Curry School Office of the Dean, organizing the foundation’s board meetings and events, collaborating with development officers and planning a variety of events on behalf of the school and foundation.
Still, her creation and the success of Cups & Conversations has been her proudest achievement. The program will be on hiatus for the summer, and the search is on for someone else to keep it going.
“Professor Pam Tucker told me that I changed the culture of Curry in a positive way,” she said, “and I am grateful for the opportunity and support to make this happen.”