Snakes and ‘Straws’: Recent Grad Deploys Fun, Whimsy To Build Community

April 10, 2024 By Renee Grutzik, Renee Grutzik,

Don’t fear the rock snake. Just become a part of it.

Pedestrians walking along the intersection of Jefferson Park Avenue and Emmett Street may spot a string of rocks painted by passersby, slithering like a snake beside the sidewalk.

While it’s not a real snake, the project’s emphasis on community collaboration is far from artificial.

Olivia Hathaway, a 2023 graduate of the University of Virginia’s College of Arts & Sciences, started the snake of stones, deploying it in February with the goal of bringing “straws” back into students’ lives.

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A “straw,” according to Hathaway, represents a student’s ability to cope with stress and life's daily challenges.

“Some days, you might wake up late, which takes a straw,” Hathaway said. “Other days, you might have an exam you’re stressing about, and that takes a straw. … Maybe you have something at home that takes away a straw.”

The goal, she said, is not to get to your last straw.

The snake is a fun diversion from daily drudgery, a whimsical expression of solidarity among strangers. For those interested in contributing to the growth of the rock snake, Hathaway recommends decorating their rocks with latex, acrylic, or spray paint with water-based polyurethane as a top coat. The design is up to the contributor.

Rock snake
The rock snake runs parallel to the sidewalk, beginning at the intersection of Jefferson Park Avenue and Emmett Street. (Photo by Emily Faith Morgan, University Communications)

Just paint it, place it, watch the snake grow – and feel a straw come back into your life. 

Double majoring in biochemistry and biology, Hathaway remembers losing straws during her undergraduate experience. As a first-year student, Hathaway started her collegiate journey nearly 3,800 miles away from Grounds in the University’s study abroad program in London.

Her first time stepping on Grounds in the spring of 2019 was rocky. A combination of stressors hit her at once, from difficulty enrolling in the classes she wanted to navigating pressures in her personal life.

“It snowed the first three days I was (at UVA),” she said. “I had to leave early enough to get to my 8 a.m. class. I had slipped three times down a hill on my way to class, and by the time I got there, (the University) canceled all classes for the day,” she recalled. “That’s when I dropped out. That was my last straw.”

Olivia holding some of the rocks

Hathaway hopes the rock snake will inspire joy to the community for as long as it is welcomed. (Photo by Emily Faith Morgan, University Communications)

Hathaway stayed the remainder of her spring semester at home in Augusta County, also spending some time in Florida with her grandmother, who died the following year. 

“I don’t regret it,” she said of taking time off. “It was fortuitous. It was what it was supposed to be.”

Hathaway returned to Charlottesville the following semester and experienced one “normal” term before the onset of the pandemic shifted classes online.

“I think, in the age of modern technology, it’s easy to stay connected with the people you grew up with, but people might not know their neighbors if you’ve never talked to them,” she said. “Socialization has gotten broader, but also more narrow at the same time.”

Hathaway found alternative ways to connect with people outside of face-to-face communication. Through GroupMe – a free messaging app used by many UVA students – Hathaway found her place in various digital student communities, including chats like “UVA Plant People,” a discussion group for plant-related topics, and “Things for the Low,” where students buy and sell goods at affordable prices.

She also joined several student organizations, including Alpha Chi Sigma, a professional chemistry fraternity, and Indieheads, a group that connects students who enjoy indie music. 

“It was a rough start,” she said, “but I ended up finding my place here.”

JPA Rock Snake sign and example rock
Participants have the freedom to design their rocks as they please. Many opted to depict messages of hope, a nod to Hathaway’s overall goal for the project. (Photo by Emily Faith Morgan, University Communications)

She is still in her place. After graduation, she took a job in UVA’s Office of Engagement as the assistant director of next-generation philanthropy. In her off hours, through GroupMe, Hathaway hosts periodic scavenger hunts with prizes hidden across Grounds.

“I first did it because I thought it was funny,” she said. “I think people underestimate the value of planning kid-type stuff for grown adults.”

That, she said, is a shame.

“The thing is, we don’t stop liking the things we liked as kids,” she said. “People stop offering them to us. Like, you don’t stop liking scavenger hunts; people stopped throwing scavenger hunts.”

Hathaway has carried that perspective into her current job. Her role is dedicated to fundraising and encouraging alums who graduated within the past 10 years to give back to the University.

Her goal in the role is to change the culture of philanthropy among recent graduates.

“If you think of what really impacted your personal experience at UVA, giving a couple of dollars to that organization really makes a difference,” she said.

Besides the rock snake, Hathaway’s current project is organizing another scavenger hunt. Check out this clip to learn more about the hunt:

Though they may seem unimportant, scavenger hunts and painted stone serpents are important reminders that people are good, Hathaway said.

“I think people underestimate the value of community collaboration projects,” she said. “Because it’s a symbol that the people around you are nice, fun people, too, who would come together to do something as whimsical as make a rock snake, and it makes you feel safer and happier in your community.”

Considering Hathaway’s broad UVA experience, she advises students to save their straws by prioritizing their well-being while navigating their academic journeys.

“Don’t get pressured into the (four-year) timeline. Since the finances worked out for me, I took time off and came back, and I was fine with it,” Hathaway said. “Graduate on the timeline that suits you.”

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