Jefferson’s Living-Learning Legacy Thrives in U.Va.’s Diverse Residential Colleges

Thomas Jefferson envisioned the University of Virginia as an environment where living and learning took place in the same space – where academics are infused into the social fabric.

Those original ideals, embodied in Jefferson’s plans for students and faculty to live together in an “Academical Village,” remain active in the U.Va. community today as three residential colleges, each with its own identity, allow undergraduate students to interact with faculty in a living-learning environment.

Iconoclasts in the Central Grounds

Brown College, the oldest of the residential colleges, was established in 1986, fostering a unique subculture within the larger U.Va. community.

Students apply in November to live in Brown the following academic year. The application’s required essays challenge applicants to think outside the box; in years past, questions have ranged from “You are not and never will be King Arthur. How do you successfully remove the sword from the stone?” to “You have taken yourself hostage. Write a list of demands.”

“A lot of people say that if you enjoy the crazy application, you’ll also enjoy living in Brown,” said Elizabeth Hilbert, a third-year student in the College of Arts & Sciences.

She took advantage of the application’s “free space.”

“In the application, Brown gives you a free sheet of paper to do whatever you’d like with. People have written poems about historical figures, submitted ASCII art and bad portraits of Nick Cage,” Hilbert said. “I built a 3-D model of the buildings of Brown College out of Post-It notes.”

The application provides a glimpse into the living experience that Brown offers. Residents live in “portals,” small residential buildings with their own unique identities, connected by leaky tunnels that provide residents with a sheltered route of travel even in inches of snow.

While the structure of the residential environment remains constant year-to-year, the residential life itself doesn’t. Governed by the students, Brown College is a product of its residents, says its website. The Brown College Governance Board, elected by the students each year, lists positions such as “Grand Poobah” and “Shama Llama Ding Dong” alongside the more conventional “Secretary” and “Treasurer.”

“Unlike Hereford [College] or the [International Residential College], Brown doesn't actually have a stated ‘mission’ – it just becomes whatever the residents want to make of it,” Hilbert said. “I know we have a reputation as the ‘artsy’ college, but there are plenty of engineers and scientists in Brown who don’t fit into that paradigm at all.”

Former Brown College resident Lauren Jones concurs. “Students really do run the community, and as a result, you’ll have a surprise slip ’n’ slide in your backyard one day, a highly organized Nerf gun battle the next, or a fry-anything cookout over anime movies,” she said. “Students create the events, run them and have tons of fun with them.”

While the living environment is interesting, there’s a learning factor. In addition to being home to more than 300 undergraduates, Brown is also home to Principal Melissa Thomas-Hunt, an associate professor in the Darden School of Business; two directors of studies; plus 40 non-residential faculty.

The faculty members serve in both official and unofficial capacities. Officially, they lead Brown’s exclusive classes on topics such as sustainability within the Brown community and activism in environmental policy. Unofficially, they are mentors to students, adding a community element to a tight-knit residential environment.

Blending the Foreign and Domestic

Across Emmet Street, the International Residential College is home to 300 undergraduate students – roughly 60 percent domestic and 40 percent foreign – but all living under the same mission of a vibrant, enriching, residential and academic community for students.

The youngest of the residential colleges, the IRC opened its doors in 2001, with five houses. It touts programs that celebrate cultural diversity, study-abroad opportunities, student governance, community outreach and academic excellence, as well as intellectual discourse between students and with faculty.

This celebration and discourse can be found at Mug Mornings, hosted throughout the week with bagels and coffee for residents at the Munford Gathering Place; at “Petit Dejeuner,” a weekly continental breakfast that follows the French tradition of Mary Munford, the namesake of one of the college’s houses; or at the weekly Darjeeling Teas.

The IRC hosts a monthly “Conversazione Grande” series at neighboring Alumni Hall, bringing in guest speakers to engage students in academic discussions directly related to their living environment.

Aside from structured gatherings, the environment itself promotes community engagement in the residential college.

“In residential colleges, there are many more opportunities for engagement within the community,” said Michelle Heuchert, a fourth-year student in the Curry School of Education who is in her second year of living in the IRC. “Even with the domestic students, we all come from different backgrounds. There are very different types of people (international and domestic). Many people have studied abroad.”

While each residential college has characteristics that make it unique, “Within the three residential colleges, there’s overlap,” Heuchert said. “There are very artsy and environmentally conscious students who live in the IRC. The international perspective is what ties everything, but we all have individual characteristics” within the community.

In addition to interaction with fellow students, residents have the opportunity to engage with affiliated faculty in IRC academic classes. The faculty are divided into three categories: “Emmet Fellows,” internationally recognized administrators and leaders; “Professional Fellows,” professors who mentor a small set of students; and “Community Fellows,” members of the local community who design and create events for residents.

Principal Eric Loth, Rolls Royce Professor in the School of Engineering and Applied Science, plus a director of studies, resident scholar and food event coordinator, all add to the living-learning environment of the IRC.

“Relationships with faculty are what you make them,” Heuchert said. “You get out as much as you put in.”

The IRC has started a new student-to-student mentee program. Heuchert is mentoring a first-year student. “I’ve seen the first-year life cycle. It’s interesting to see how much you grow through your time at U.Va.,” she said.

The IRC also encourages students to study abroad through “Travel and Learn” awards, which offer residents a $1,000 stipend. 

Cultivating Community on Observatory Hill

After 22 years, Hereford Residential College still stands by its original mission: “to enrich the educational experience of students through faculty-student interactions beyond the classroom, offer intellectual and social programming and promote a sense of community,” as the website states.

With 250 undergraduate residents, including both first-year and upper-class students, the residential environment has its own unique image.

Unlike the other residential colleges, first-year residents may be placed in Hereford without applying. Joe Marchese-Schmitt, however, was among the first-years who chose Hereford over traditional first-year housing.

“I was attracted to Hereford because of the proximity it offered to the outdoors and to Runk [Dining Hall], effectively providing me with two of my favorite things: nature and food,” said Marchese-Schmitt, now a co-chair of the Hereford Student Senate. “I fell in love with Hereford that first year, and this year is [now] my third living in ‘the residential college on a hill,’ as I like to think of it sometimes.

“In a residential college, or in Hereford at least, your academic year doesn’t serve so much as a barrier as it does a descriptive of how long you have spent making strides in your academic career,” he said.

Sitting atop Observatory Hill, Hereford is divided into two residential buildings, Norris and Whyburn, but both groups of residents value the same qualities. “While there may be some friendly rivalry between the two, and lots of camaraderie, there is no substantive difference between the two in a social or communal sense,” Marchese-Schmitt said.

“In my experience, ‘Herefordians’ are some of the most genuine people on Grounds,” Hereford Student Senate Co-Chair Brett Wheeler said.

“Cultivate” is a verb that Hereford residents embrace – cultivating the future, sustainability, community, diversity and knowledge, according to the college’s stated goals, as well as cultivating something more tangible: a garden.

Residents care for the Hereford Heritage garden, providing themselves with a sustainable source of food. The garden also includes Jefferson-documented “useful” plants, which can be used for textiles, medicine and dyes.

“All Herefordians have access to the garden, but it is preferred that they have helped with the maintenance in some way if they wish to pick any produce,” Wheeler said.

In the vein of cultivating knowledge, Hereford offers its residents one-credit short courses each semester, led by the college’s 25 faculty fellows. This semester’s courses include discussions from “Supporting Student-Athletes” to “Art and Crime.”

Governing it all is the Hereford Student Senate. “The Senate does as the Senate feels is best for the Hereford community, and fulfills the needs and desires that the Hereford community voices,” Marchese-Schmitt said.

Media Contact

Dan Heuchert

Assistant Director of University News and Chief Copy Editor, UVA Today Office of University Communications