Late last semester, I was thrilled to learn that Eileen Ying (Col ’20), a fourth-year student from Clarksville, Maryland, was named a Rhodes scholar. This coming fall, Eileen, who majors in English and politics, will continue her studies at Oxford University.
Hearing this good news reminded me of a conversation I had after I was named UVA president but before I left the deanship of the Harvard Graduate School of Education. A former colleague of mine, a higher education expert, came into my office and listed several figures, wanting to know if I knew their significance.
One of the figures was “53,” which he told me represented the number of Rhodes scholars UVA had at the time. Eileen is now the 54th. This was—and remains—the highest number produced by any U.S. public institution except for the United States Military Academy. My colleague went on to say that I should pay attention to this number because it indicated something important about UVA.
I was puzzled at first by this comment. But after more than a year and a half at UVA, I appreciate what he meant, and I agree.
When the University was founded, its primary mission was to prepare students to become citizen-leaders who would serve and sustain America’s fledgling democracy. Two centuries later, the core idea that UVA exists to serve the public remains a compelling mission. We want to prepare all our students to be the kind of people who can change the world, which is why it shouldn’t come as a complete surprise that our focus on a powerful undergraduate experience and leadership development has led to a high number of Rhodes scholars.
Of course, a Rhodes scholarship isn’t an end in itself. It’s a prestigious and impressive accomplishment, for sure, but what its recipients make of this unique opportunity is more important.
Eileen, for example, says her eventual goal is to pursue a Ph.D. in English and be the kind of writer and teacher she wishes she’d had when she was younger. She also says she wants to continue to stay active outside her scholarly work, supporting political and social causes she is passionate about.
Eileen received support from UVA’s Office of Citizen Scholar Development, which does an outstanding job helping students and alumni pursue the Rhodes scholarship and hundreds of other fellowships. But the mission of this office is much broader. It has to be, considering how competitive many fellowships are and the fact that most of the students who work with the office don’t receive one.
Instead, the Office of Citizen Scholar Development uses the process of pursuing fellowships to help students find out more about themselves and what they want to do with their lives. That way, whether or not they are selected for an award, these students are prepared to take that next step toward achieving their goals.
That same passion for furthering the personal, social, intellectual and professional development of our students can be found in every corner of the University. You can see it in the adoption of new general education requirements for undergraduates in the College of Arts & Sciences. Among other things, this new approach will afford our students deeper opportunities to discover their passion and their sense of purpose.
Our mission to support the personal and professional growth of our students can also be found in Virginia Athletics’ plans for a Center for Citizen Leaders and Sports Ethics. This program will help connect student-athletes in all 27 varsity sports with resources focused on career development, academic support, leadership development, personal development and community engagement.
Our new strategic plan will also pave the way for many more opportunities like these across the Grounds by building on existing programs and experiences inside and outside the classroom.
I hope we will have many more Rhodes scholars from UVA in the future. But, more importantly, I hope we can help all our students live lives of service, passion and purpose. That’s no small task, but if all of us—students, faculty, staff and alumni—work together, I have no doubt that we can prepare even more of our students to change the world for the better, in ways both small and profound.