Q&A: Student Affairs Chief Robyn Hadley and UVA’s Unique Student Experience

Robyn Hadley leans against a column and looks at the camera

With new student orientation sessions beginning this week, the bustle of University life is fast approaching. One of the key players in helping new and current students feel welcome is Robyn S. Hadley. Hadley joined the University of Virginia as vice president and chief student affairs officer in June 2021. One year later, her responsibilities expanded to include the role of dean of students.

In her multi-faceted role, Hadley leads some 300 student-affairs professionals supporting students across the University, from enrollment through graduation. She oversees a wealth of programs and services to assist students in their paths to graduation, including Orientation, Student Safety and Support, Multicultural Student Services, Fraternity and Sorority Life, Housing & Residence Life, Student Health and Wellness, the UVA Career Center, the Office of African-American Affairs, and more.

Hadley has extensive experience with helping K-12 and college students navigate their educational experiences, and has created programs throughout her career to help guide students. As a first-generation college graduate brought up in a mostly low-income, rural school system, she continues to seek opportunities to increase awareness of college and career options for prospective first-generation, low-income students. Her efforts were recognized by the White House and U.S. Department of Education as a “Champion of Change” in 2012.

As she begins the academic year with her new responsibilities, UVA Today caught up with Hadley to learn more about her experience and possible changes on the horizon.

Q. Looking back on your first year on Grounds, what has left an impression on you?

A. I am deeply impressed by the energy, intelligence and curiosity of our students and their deep engagement in the work of the University in areas like residence staff, student council, honor, and the many clubs and organizations that make up the life of the University. Self-governance is something I heard about before coming here but seeing how students and staff bring it to life together has been really interesting. Our students’ commitment to using their education to make the world a better, more equitable place is also really inspiring and makes me hopeful for the future after what has been a difficult few years for all of us.

I’m also deeply grateful for the welcome the division of student affairs has provided to me and the support from President Jim Ryan, former Provost Liz Magill, and now Provost Ian Baucom. Coming to a new place in the middle of a pandemic was a bit daunting, but everyone made the transition that much easier with their patience, warmth and care.

Q. After a year of getting to know people and the place, you are making some changes. What do you hope they will accomplish?

A. At the end of the academic year, the president and provost asked me to assume the additional title of dean of students and, with this change, I am working with the leadership team to realign an already great team in Student Affairs toward a proactive emphasis on student success, thriving, flourishing and belonging.

This change, in particular, provides more support and visibility for the work of offices previously under the umbrella of the Office of the Dean of Students – Student Engagement, Orientation and New Student Programs, Student Safety and Support, Multicultural Student Services, and Fraternity and Sorority Life. These areas provide essential services that promote student belonging. I hope to be able to highlight and better support their work as we grow and develop a more integrated and holistic approach across these areas.

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Q. What is your vision for how the student experience might evolve in the coming years?

A. At its core, our student experience will always be rooted in honor, the community of trust, and a commitment to student self-governance, but we know this generation of students has been through a lot. They need more support for their mental health and well-being, and more extensive coaching and mentoring to take on the demanding leadership roles that self-governance requires.

We also want to make sure those co-curricular experiences that are so central to the student experience at UVA are accessible to all of our students, no matter their background or socioeconomic status.

Through our strategic planning process, an ongoing external review and the realignment of our work, we will move toward ensuring that we have the structure and resources necessary to meet the needs of this generation of students and the goals of the 2030 Great and Good Plan.

Q. Have students given you an indication or suggestions about what they would like to see during their college experience?

A. Students want to feel they belong, that there is a place for them to call home here at the University, and student affairs plays a central role in creating that home for our students – from the work we do in orientation to provide a “relentless welcome” to our students and families, to the communities we help students create in the residence halls to the ways we help them plan for their future beyond UVA. Students want to feel seen, heard and valued. That is at the center of our work in student affairs.

Q. Another new class of students is beginning their orientation now. What’s your message to them about UVA?

A. I want them to know that they do belong here – whether they are first-year students, new graduate and professional students, new transfers, or new students in Continuing and Professional Studies. It may take time to find their place and to identify the mentors and friends who will support them through their time at UVA. But we are here and ready to help all students through what we hope will be one of the most foundational and rewarding experiences of their young lives. Ultimately, one of our key goals is to see these new students as happy and healthy graduates by the time they reach Final Exercises.

Q. What would you like for parents to know about their kids being at UVA?

A. I want parents to know how much we care about their students and their growth and development. I also want them to know that they too are part of the UVA family, and we hope they will visit and engage with us often as part of our extended community.

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Bethanie Glover

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