Class of ’24: This Third-Year Went From Apprehension to Achievement

April 29, 2024 By Renee Grutzik, Renee Grutzik,

As a high school senior, Dao Tran was initially wary of attending the University of Virginia. But three years later, she is thriving, just weeks away from walking the Lawn in her cap and gown. 

The third-year international relations student’s feelings toward the University have undergone a dramatic change. In high school, Tran envisioned college as a fresh start, a chance to reinvent herself. She wanted to be surrounded with new people. Hailing from Centreville, she feared attending UVA would reinstate her high school social circles a few hours down U.S. 29. 

“I felt like I wouldn’t be able to reinvent myself at UVA because I’m very much affected by other people’s opinions,” the third-year student said. “So, when I got to UVA, there were already people around me who knew who I was. And I felt trapped by what they already thought about me.”

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Despite the allure of attending an out-of-state school, financial constraints led her to reconsider the more affordable in-state option. 

“It was a very realistic, pragmatic decision to go to UVA, but it was also not a decision I necessarily wanted,” Tran said.

“As an in-state student, I am getting an incredible deal for UVA. Not only are you paying significantly less tuition for UVA, but the school is very well-regarded nationally. Whatever my (Northern Virginia) mind was telling me about UVA being just a state school, that’s not how other people view it.” 

When Tran arrived on Grounds in the fall of her first year, she didn’t expect much. She planned to keep her head down and get through her undergraduate degree, then continue her education after graduating. 

Her perspective shifted on the second night of sleeping on Grounds in the Cauthen House. Almost immediately, she formed close bonds with her first-year hallmates. 

“The second day I was here, we were already knocking on each other’s doors and going to the dining halls together,” she said, a circumstance she attributes, in part, to the presence of actively involved and caring resident advisers.

“The reason my first-year friends and I got so close, I think, was because of the RAs in the building,” Tran said. “The RAs and the senior resident weren’t just rule enforcers; they genuinely wanted to be our friends.”

“They set a great example for us, which is why I became an RA. I needed a sense of purpose, and being an RA provided that, inspired by the model set by those before me.”

Dao Tran making smores with residents of her community
To promote community, Housing & Residents Life members organize dormwide events such as this s’mores-roasting gathering outside of Bonnycastle House. (Photo by Emily Faith Morgan, University Communications)

During her second year at UVA, Tran served as a resident adviser in the Metcalf House. 

“She made me feel so supported during my first year and made my transition into UVA so much easier,” one of her residents, Beatrice Jung, said. 

Inspired by Tran’s mentorship, Jung, a second-year economics and philosophy student, is now a resident adviser in Hancock House on Tran’s staff. 

As part of UVA’s Housing & Residence Life, resident advisers take on a big responsibility. They are constantly on call to care for the residents in their hall, and they play a significant role in hall dynamics, forging connections among residents, hosting programs for dorm interactions and creating a sense of community during a vulnerable time.

“To me, the greatest indicator of success of any RA is seeing friendships form in your hall,” Tran said. “Watching all those connections is really, really rewarding. The whole reason I got involved with (Housing & Residence Life) was because I felt like the connections that I had during my first year were owed to the RAs in my building.” 

A poster of activity suggestions for students to get more comfortable in Charlottesville and on Grounds

Tran encourages her first-year residents to explore the community, helping making Charlottesville feel a little more like home. (Contributed photo)

“If I’m able to keep passing that down, that’s all that matters to me.” 

Last summer, Tran was selected as a senior resident for the Bonnycastle-Hancock Association, and Jung was selected as one of her resident advisers. 

“Dao inspired me to become a resident adviser,” Jung said. “She encouraged me to apply from the start and has continued to be a mentor for me.” 

Tran’s experience as a leader in Housing & Residence Life at UVA highlights her desire to help people, which she hopes to continue as she explores a career in international relations. 

Her desire to study international relations is also partially rooted in the experiences of her grandfather, who lived in Vietnam during the Vietnam War. 

“My grandfather was a prisoner of war,” Tran said. “So, he had a lot of stories about his experience in the Vietnam War, the aftermath of it and his refugee experience in general. ... So, I knew whatever I do in the future would somehow be related to this sort of familial history.” 

Tran’s career goal is to work in the U.S. Department of Defense to contribute to defense policy, particularly in the treatment of civilians during times of conflict. “That’s something that is really important to me,” she said, “because it affected my family.” 

Tran will graduate in May as a third-year student. She will work toward a master’s degree in international relations at Johns Hopkins University’s Washington, D.C.-based School of Advanced International Studies. But she will bring her UVA experience along.

Students hold sticks with marshmallows as they chat with Dao Tran around a fire
As the senior resident of the Bonnycastle and Hancock houses, Tran honed her leadership skills, which she will carry with her as she pursues graduate study in international relations at Johns Hopkins University. (Photo by Emily Faith Morgan, University Communications)

“I’ve always felt the need to continue to foster an environment where everyone would be thankful to live in. ... For me right now, the scale is the little niche of Bonnycastle and Hancock dorms. 

“If I can build a community in that sense, it’s the same purpose that drives me to pursue my career.” 

Looking back at her decision to attend UVA, Tran has no regrets. “You end up where you’re supposed to be,” she said.

“If you go into college with an open mind, and you’re ready to say ‘yes’ to opportunities, meet new people and do the things you’re afraid to do, then those memories will cement that school for you in your head.” 

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Managing Editor University Communications