Every year, a select group of fourth-years receives one of the highest honors bestowed to a UVA student: the chance to live in a 13-by-14-foot single room on the Lawn.
The Lawn, as any UVA student knows, is the original heart of the University – the literal and figurative center of Grounds where the first UVA students and faculty lived out Thomas Jefferson’s vision of a living-learning community two hundred years ago. Today, earning a spot in one of those 54 single rooms is a highly coveted privilege.
Hundreds of applications are submitted each year and reviewed by a committee of fourth-year students, the committee itself selected from a wide range of backgrounds and organizations to ensure diversity. According to the application, the honor of being a “Lawnie” is reserved for students with a record of “unselfish service to the University and Charlottesville/Albemarle County communities, and achievement in their respective fields of activity and academics."
Ultimately, it’s about more than prestige. Lawn residents are expected to serve as role models, uphold the University’s ideals, and strive to build an inclusive and vibrant community. This year, three Curry School students – Diane D’Costa, Brett Curtis, and Paola Sanchez Valdez – were chosen by their peers to take on those responsibilities and represent the Class of 2018 as Lawnies. As they prepare to graduate in May, our 2018 Curry School Lawnies share what the experience has meant to them.
Originally from Howard County, Maryland, Diane is studying both Youth and Social Innovation and Leadership and Public Policy as the first student to double major across the Curry School and the Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy. She is also the Vice President for the Class of 2018.
As a first-year, the history of the Lawn immediately intrigued Diane – she loved the idea of living exactly where the first UVA students once lived. “I’ve always been fascinated by the Lawn itself and the history of it,” she said. “The initial vision of it being where professors and students live side-by-side in this community of learning was super cool to me.”
Her interest in the history and values of the University only grew as she settled into life as a UVA student. She dove in to the opportunities in front of her: student government, campus guide service, Hoo Crew, pottery club. But, Diane said, when she really thought about why she wanted to apply to be a Lawn resident, what came to mind wasn’t her extracurricular involvements – it was her academic path.
“I always had this interest in policy and changing the world through policy and public service,” she explained. “But then, the more I studied policy, the more I saw that education was the root for all of these things – prison reform, environmental issues – everything came back to education. Policy has so many different routes that you can go with it, but education is this underlying point that can really impact and create change in all different areas.”
This passion to expand opportunity for youth led Diane to becoming the first inter-school double major, studying both Public Policy at Batten and Youth and Social Innovation at Curry. “I’m really passionate about issues of equity and using education as a vehicle to provide people with the opportunities they need to achieve the best versions of themselves,” she said. In the long term, Diane plans to work in the policy space, specifically around school financing – with the ultimate goal of helping to provide students with as many opportunities as possible.
When her Lawn application was accepted, she saw it as an opportunity to champion those values that motivate her – diversity, equity and opportunity. Then, when white supremacists marched past her door on August 11th, the importance of spreading those values took on extra significance in a way she had never imagined. “With all of the crazy and really terrible things that happened when I first moved in, I find it to be really important to be a Jewish student and a woman of color living in one of these rooms,” she said. “Because now, it’s even more important to show the diversity of UVA students and what we value.”
Diane said her fellow Lawnies have taught her just how many different ways there are to make an impact on your community. “It’s not like this one cookie-cutter person,” she said. “It’s really cool to see all of the different impacts of what students are interested in and how they’ve given back to the University through those passions and interests.” Personally, she hopes that her presence brings something new into the space, broadening the narrative of what a UVA leader looks like – and ultimately, creating a more diverse and equitable environment for the UVA students that will follow her.
Looking back, the experience isn’t quite what she imagined as a first-year. “I thought it was a lot more glamorous than it is,” she laughed. Although, it has had its glamorous moments, too – like the bicentennial kick-off celebration last fall, where she listened to Leslie Odom Jr. perform in her backyard and even snapped a selfie with him. “He’s doing his sound check, and I’m just like, this is Leslie Odom Jr. giving me a private concert!” she said. “I most definitely would not have had that experience were I not a Lawn resident.”
In the end, being a Lawn resident was an opportunity for Diane to be close to the University’s history like she had imagined – but more importantly, it was an opportunity for her to help shape its future. “All of these ideas of student self-governance and the culture here is what makes me love this place,” she said. “It’s such an honor and privilege to be a part of that.”
Born and raised in Miami, FL, Brett is a double major in Youth and Social Innovation and Government, with a minor in History. As a fourth-year, Brett served as a student council representative, president of the University Democrats, and captain of UVA’s Quidditch team.
As a first-year who had never stepped foot on Grounds until he showed up for orientation, Brett Curtis knows what it feels like to be a nervous new ’Hoo.
That’s exactly why he wanted to live on the Lawn. Moving from Miami to Charlottesville at 18, he remembers that feeling strongly. He also remembers the sense of belonging he felt when upperclassmen opened the doors to their Lawn rooms, invited him in, and helped him begin his UVA story. “I remember hanging out my first year in the room I now live in,” he said. “To have the opportunity now to invite first years into my room, which is how I found my community at this school, is incredible.”
The chance to live on a UNESCO World Heritage Site as the University kicked off its bicentennial celebrations? That’s just a bonus – but one that is not lost on Brett. “From the second you come in as a first year at convocation, you are standing and sitting right outside on the Lawn,” he said. “Tradition is a huge part of the University of Virginia, and I absolutely think it’s so cool to live at the center place of that, especially this year.”
Of course, part of living with that history means living without a bathroom, kitchen, or central air conditioning. But it also means potlucks and get-togethers with fellow Lawnies, dinners in pavilions with faculty, and doling out candy to adorable trick-or-treaters on Halloween. From the visitors and former residents who knock on his door, to the secret hiding places, to listening to streakers run past at 2:00 a.m., Brett said the experience has been everything he hoped it would be, good and bad.
When asked what advice he’d like to give to incoming students on how to make the most of their time at UVA, his answer is simple: “Try everything.”
Brett’s own academic path is a testament to that ideal. While he was always interested in education, his interest in politics led him to enroll in the Batten School of Public Policy’s 5-year accelerated Master of Public Policy program, which he is on track to finish in 2019. The Curry School wasn’t on his radar – at first. Then, the more he learned about education policy, the more Brett realized how Curry’s emphasis on classroom experience could help him truly understand the field of education and ultimately reach his career goals. “You have to have a hands-on background,” he said, “and that doesn’t exist through policy alone. There’s so much crossover that’s necessary. [Youth and Social Innovation] was the opportunity to combine everything I was passionate about.”
Outside of his coursework, Brett has kept himself busy, too. He has served on UVA’s Student Council as Chair of the Representative Body, led two Alternative Spring Break trips doing community service projects across the country, and worked as a peer advisor – plus, he’s the captain of the UVA Quidditch team. He's also the president of the University Democrats and a passionate advocate for the millennial voice in politics. “My big priority is civic engagement,” he said. “I will tell everybody over and over again: I don’t care who you vote for, as long as you vote.”
But when talking about his various involvements, he’s careful to add that the college experience should be about discovery, not achievement. “I never did anything because I wanted to live on the Lawn,” he said. “I did things because I enjoyed them.”
From the day he moved in, Brett knew that the prestige of being a Lawn resident wasn’t nearly as important as the responsibility that comes with it. Throughout the year, he’s focused on creating a welcoming space, trying to make sure he’s sharing the same traditions and community that he experienced. “I don’t think UVA would be UVA without the right fourth years living in lawn rooms, who know that part of their duty in living in these places is being a steward of the community,” he said. “And that means opening it up to passersby at 8:00 am on Saturday mornings when they’re coming to tailgate for football games, and that also means opening a room to bring in new ’Hoos who are also still looking to find their place.”
Of course, that kind of openness comes with a few drawbacks. “I wish people didn’t look into my room through my mail slot as much as they do,” he laughed. “It does happen more than you would think. That was a little surprising.” But all in all, Brett said it’s been a meaningful experience to welcome in future generations of ‘Hoos.
“The best part has been seeing visitors or first-years look in and say, ‘You know, I’ve heard about these, but I haven’t gotten to step inside and see them,’” he said. “And to me, that means I’m doing what I hoped to do.”
Paola Sanchez Valdez
Paola is a fourth-year Youth and Social Innovation major and Global Studies minor from Lynchburg, VA. She started a chapter of the Young Women Leaders Program in Ecuador and founded DREAMers on Grounds, a student-run organization that aims to support undocumented students through education and advocacy.
Paola always dreamed of attending UVA. Growing up in Lynchburg, she knew she had a top-tier public university right in her backyard – and, since she has always been close to her parents, she loved the idea of attending school in her home state.
“I came to the U.S. from Ecuador when I was two years old with my family on a tourist visa, and after that we became undocumented,” she said, “and I was undocumented for more than 15 years. Education is the main reason my parents came to this country – for better educational opportunities for my brother and me. UVA was always my dream school because of that. I knew how important education was to my parents, and I knew they wanted me to work really hard in school and go to a really good institution.”
But even after she achieved that dream and started her journey as a UVA student, Paola never saw herself as a Lawnie. “When I came to Grounds on my first college tour, I saw the Lawn, I was like, ‘Oh that’s cool,’ but I didn’t envision myself there.” It simply didn’t cross her mind as something that was possible.
Still, the Lawn was the backdrop to many significant moments throughout her UVA career. “I remember a defining moment for me when I felt like I belonged at UVA was at Lighting on the Lawn,” she said, “standing there in the crowd with my closest friends and singing along to the songs, freezing our butts off and dancing and having fun.”
Academically, Paola wasn’t sure what she wanted to study at first – but with her outgoing personality and passion for advocacy, she knew she wanted to pursue a career where she could make a difference in the lives of young Latinx students like herself. “I always knew I wanted to do something that pertained to youth advocacy,” she said, “because I wanted to support other students and other kids that went through all that I had gone through.”
That passion led her to a major in Youth and Social Innovation, and drove her to become a leader on Grounds. She started two student organizations: DREAMers on Grounds and PLUMAS (Political Latinx United for Movement and Action in Society). She also founded a sister site of the Young Women Leaders Program in Ecuador.
When it came time to apply to live on the Lawn, with encouragement from her friends, Paola decided to go for it at the last second – filing her application just under the deadline. She vividly remembers the moment she opened the acceptance email. “I remember tearing up and calling my mom, and I remember my parents didn’t really understand what the Lawn was, so I told them to Google it,” she said. “And then my mom called me crying five minutes later like, ‘Oh my gosh, Paola, we’re so proud of you!’ Everything they’ve gone through, all the hard work, all the long hours invested in my education, it was like, here you go, Mom and Dad. This is for you, too.”
For Paola, the opportunity to live on the Lawn is an honor not only for herself, but also for her family, and her community of Dreamers and Latinx ’Hoos, past and present. Throughout the year, her goal has been twofold: to make her room as a welcoming space to undocumented students, and to be an example – so that future students like her will be able to envision themselves as Lawn residents.
That’s exactly what she’s done. While the busy life of a Lawnie means it’s difficult sometimes to find a few uninterrupted hours to take a nap, she is committed to her goals. “If someone is going through something, I want my room to be somewhere they can go to feel comfortable and feel like, ‘I belong here at the University of Virginia,’” she said.
Each Lawn room contains a list of its former residents. In Paola’s room, hers is the only Latina name on the list. When she looks at that list, she sees the significance – the ways she’s continuing a long tradition, and the ways she’s creating a new chapter of that tradition. “So many people have been here in this room before me, but for decades I wouldn’t have been afforded the rights to be in that room,” she said. “So thinking of it historically and in context … it’s surreal to me. It’s incredible.”