Class of 2021: To Be a Rock in the Time of COVID

Class of 2021: To Be a Rock in the Time of COVID

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Anna Winter came to Charlottesville from Houston in mid-August 2017, 18 years old and struggling to sort through the Unite the Right events that had happened just days before she arrived.

“There was so much emotion and anguish that I was not yet able to identify with because I did not understand the impact it had on the University and Charlottesville community,” recalled Winter, who graduates this month with a degree in chemical engineering.

Then Hurricane Harvey devastated her hometown.

“I was sitting in Rice [Hall] eating a bagel outside of Einstein’s when my best friend’s street was displayed on the monitors, completely flooded,” she said. “I was in a place that did not yet feel like home, that had just experienced some extreme trauma, and I was also over a thousand miles away, unable to do anything.”

Later, back in her dorm room, the steady kindness of her resident adviser helped her begin to feel better.

“That night, my RA held my hand as I checked in with my parents for the first time since they had gotten cell reception back,” Winter said. The experience inspired her to want to serve. “I wanted the chance to be someone else’s rock when the first year of college may be just a bit too overwhelming.”

The next year, she was a resident adviser in Courtenay House. By her third year, Winter was a senior resident living in Faulkner Apartments, leading a team of RAs. That January, as COVID-19 was spreading around the globe, she interviewed to be co-chair of the resident staff program, a role she has shared with Ja’Mel Reed since February 2020.

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At first, the gravity of the pandemic wasn’t apparent, but even if she had known, it would not have changed her mind about serving as a co-chair.

“COVID-19 did not dissuade me from remaining steadfast in the position,” Winter said. “I wanted to become co-chair and focus on some of the bigger-picture, programmatic things so senior residents and resident advisers could focus on creating communities within their residence halls. There were so many unknowns, and I wanted to help figure out how those unknowns would impact our residential communities and make things as clear as possible for senior residents and resident advisers.”

Together, co-chairs provide direction for about 220 undergraduate resident advisers. Winter and Reed also lead an executive committee of 30 members, including vice chairs and senior residents. Co-chairs are often selected to be student representatives for on-Grounds housing planning teams and other University committees.

During Winter’s time as co-chair, there was a lot of focus on the response to the pandemic, and much more than the usual amount of contact with departments such as Student Health and Wellness to create the best and safest residential environments possible.

Winter, who lived on the Lawn this year, guided resident staff members as they found ways to connect with residents. Many had significant professional and personal struggles of their own, she said.

“Resident advisers and senior residents were still able to create communities, despite only being able to hold virtual events for the majority of the year,” Winter said. “While these communities looked different than they have in the past, they were still meaningful. So much changed, but the importance of connecting to your residents and creating a safe space for them to live in has certainly not.

“While the RAs’ ability to adjust has been both incredible and went better than expected, there were challenges.”

Their success was in no small part because of the resident staff co-chairs, said Andy Petters, UVA associate dean of students and director of residence life. Winter and Reed helped the professional housing staff understand how every decision would impact students’ experience on Grounds.

“Anna and Ja’Mel identify priorities for the resident staff program, and this year a lot of that was ever-changing,” Petters said. “They were exceptional in adapting to the circumstances, being the steady leaders their peers needed, and they figured out how to promote connections within residential communities. They promoted ways for staff to connect residents with the University community when so much of this year was about students staying physically away from each other.”

Against the odds, the entire Housing and Residence Life team managed a year that was memorable, positive and fun while promoting safe interactions, Petters said.

“From the RAs to the professional staff, everyone involved in Housing and Residence Life this year went above and beyond. We all had difficult moments in getting through this, but Anna was a critical part of our success,” he said. “She is so analytical and solution-oriented. That was something I really appreciated, and her peers did, too.”

Winter especially exceled at day-to-day details, identifying tasks, creating plans and making checklists.

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“For example, we train our staff to open and close the dorms,” Petters said. “Anna was really good at not getting lost in the uncertainties or hung up on past procedures and just saying, ‘This is what we need to do.’ The calmness that she brought to the equation was extremely valuable.”

While balancing the demands of her resident staff roles, Winter also exceled academically, earning three chemical engineering department awards – the Alvin Hurd McNeilly Scholarship, David Lee Preddy Award and Faculty Award – recognizing scholarship, service to the University and participation in sports. She played several intramural sports, including club softball as the starting catcher. Winter has been active as a member or leader in numerous academic and professional societies, too, including the Trigon Engineering Society, Omega Chi Epsilon and the American Institute of Chemical Engineers student chapter.

Keeping up wasn’t always easy. “Being optimistic and focusing on what I can control, and then adapting to what I can’t, has been key,” she said.

Adapting is something Winter does well, William S. Epling, professor and chair of the Department of Chemical Engineering, said. He has known her since she graduated high school and watched her develop at UVA.

“Anna’s a leader,” Epling said. “She is confident, and she’s a listener. In class, I’ve seen her creativity in designing technical solutions, but what has always impressed me is her open-minded approach to problems. Her ability to listen and synthesize ideas are some of her greatest strengths.”

After graduation, Winter will join the graduate training program in the Quality Engineer for the Clean Air Sector at Johnson Matthey. The company focuses on sustainable technologies, such as emission controls and battery materials. In Houston, she grew up with climate change and its impact on people and industry as an omnipresent issue.

“Anna was really good at not getting lost in the uncertainties or hung up on past procedures and just saying, ‘This is what we need to do.’ The calmness that she brought to the equation was extremely valuable. ”

- Andy Petters
UVA associate dean of students and director of residence life

 

“I love the work Johnson Matthey is doing, especially in the clean air and recycling rare elements sectors,” Winter said, adding the graduate program will expose her to three different roles in three different cities over two years. “That’s exciting for someone interested in the sustainable energy technologies field.”

To get the opportunity, Winter burnished her résumé with summer internships in process engineering at Shell Chemicals in Louisiana and in data architecture and operations at ExxonMobil in Texas. She also has worked as a girls’ camp counselor and continues to volunteer as a counselor and session leader at Louisiana Youth Seminar, a weeklong camp for high school students at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge.

Winter said she chose UVA Engineering because she saw she could develop as a whole person and leader, not just a technically competent engineer.

“I want to be more than just a degree or a job title when I graduate,” she said. “I want to be someone who works well with others, creates interesting solutions, and focuses on the impact of my work beyond the technical. I believe UVA Engineering, specifically chemical engineering, has given me the opportunity to do that.

“I know I have the technical knowledge I need to make change. Climate change is real. We need people dedicated to facing this fact and coming up with solutions.”