Monday, June 28, 2010

Picking a School

So in talking to a good many students who attend various schools ranging all along the east coast, I've discovered that there are many ways to pick a college. Some of them scare me.

First, choosing where and how much to apply
  • Apply to as many as possible
  • Only apply to the favorite school
  • Apply to eight schools (two safety, four mid-range, two reach) and visit the top two most interesting
  • Visit as many schools as possible in the summer and apply to the four most liked
  • Choose a college that has a community college, go to CC for two years, and then transfer to the larger college
  • US and World News Rankings decide which school to visit
  • Hearing about a school from a friend or a teacher who went there for undergraduate
  • Talking to graduate students and seeing where they went for undergrad
Choosing/ Final Decision
  • Choose the highest rated/ most famous overall school
  • Parent's choice
  • Picked out of a hat
  • Visited, stayed the night, talked to professors
  • Choose because it had the best rated/ most famous program they wanted
  • Picked based on number of better than average majors (for flexibility should they want to change majors)
  • Picked based on price tag and Financial Aid offers
Yes, I do know a girl who picked her school out of a hat; she just couldn't decide which to choose. In hindsight, though she loves her school, she did discourage anyone picking a school like that.

My approach was a little disorganized. I didn't visit a school until the end of the summer leading into my senior year. It just hadn't been on my mind or part of my priorities. (Furthermore, the squirrel pictures were some I took while on tour, which made showing my mom what Grounds looked like very difficult; however, I could vouch for it having a very healthy and robust squirrel population). I love UVa, but it's the only school I toured, the only school I visited, and I can't honestly say that that was the wisest move. It's something that worked out great for me, but I'd be hesitant to recommend it to others. In fact, I don't. I applied to schools I was fairly certain I could get into, and I shopped a lot based on cost and travel distance. I wish I hadn't been so limited. Financial Aid should not be the reason not to visit or apply to a school. There are so many scholarships and grants and programs out there like AccessUVa that can help students. Moreover, students really shouldn't fear loans so much. I have several out right now, and it's not the end of the world. I'm getting a great education at a quality school with the kind of culture I love. That's what's important to me, and whenever possible, follow your heart rather than your purse strings.

If I can finish off with one piece of advice I heard last summer from a brilliant man: it doesn't matter where you go to school. What matters is how you did where you went. Did you take chances, use available resources, make the most of it? That's what matters. Make the most of looking for colleges. Don't discount a school because your friends haven't heard of it or because you think it wouldn't look cool as a bumper sticker. Give colleges--old and new, famous or not--a fair chance. You never know what you'll find.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Things UVa Has Addressed

An important aspect of a school is progress. Is it changing? Can it adapt? School updates, changes, and renovations are a fairly good way to measure the responsiveness of the school to student needs. Here are a few examples of changes in the last two years:

Textbook Help

I won't lie: textbooks are expensive. They are, and if you're in a science field, you probably have to buy a new edition because the older ones don't have the cutting edge information. UVa understands this situation, and so they offer both used and rental textbooks for those who don't want to buy brand new ones. Also, they have guaranteed buy backs for textbooks. These services really help out in keeping cost down. Now, a lot of people talk about using Amazon or textbook exchange websites, but I'm a little wary of them. I know people who've ordered books that didn't come in for three weeks. Some accidentally received the wrong book or ordered the wrong book, and that costs time. For me, I want to keep it simple. The Bookstore might be a bit more pricy than ebay, but at least I know exactly what I'm getting at the Bookstore and I'm getting it immediately.

New classes
I've commented to several people how large science classes can be, and so I wanted to follow up those comments with news: several departments have responded with new courses that not only sound awesome but are also much smaller. BIOL 4120 When Good Cells Go Bad is a new three credit course offered through the Biology Department that focuses on major neurological diseases and will have around thirty students. There are also a handful of new biochemistry, psychology, and chemistry courses. Another biology course is Microbial Genomics, which will highlight microbiology fundamentals as well as principles of bacteria life. The change is tangible proof that the administration is flexible and willing to work to address student concerns. Actually, to be fair, I'm not entirely sure who to thank for new classes, but it probably is a mix of administration and department. Oh, and for students interested in other classes offered, the full catalog can be found by going to the UVa homepage, clicking on SIS, and then selecting Course Catalog. Moreover, I do want to emphasize that there have been several new classes outside of biology as well. As a scientist, I tend to focus around my field, but there is a new Bengali language course that I've heard very good things about, as well as a handful of anthropology and religious studies classes.

Wilsdorf Cafe

In addition to people like Dean Groves (who is incredibly available and aware of student concerns) working to help students, Student Council seeks ways to improve student life in a variety of areas. This year, they asked for and achieved later hours for Wilsdorf Cafe. As a regular in Wilsdorf, I can assure you that it was much more convenient and very much appreciated that the hours were extended. StudCo is also the group that provides free water on hot football game days so that students stay hydrated.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Some Things I Wish Were Different

Okay, it had to happen if I'm to be fair. There are some things I wish UVa would change or get more. No place can be perfect, and it's important to evaluate what a school does and does not have so that you can have all the cards in front of you before diving into a decision.


Everyone in Charlottesville says it. We need more parking. Driving is not worth it most of the time. In all fairness, as I said yesterday the buses and trolleys are free. Moreover, most things are in walking distance. I know one of my fears was that my mom wouldn't have a place to park if she visited me, but a lot of permit-only parking becomes free space for the weekend (thank you!). The catch is that you might have to park at Scott Stadium or University Hall. Neither are terribly far away, but they're not next door, either. Also, things farther away from the heart of Grounds (i.e., where you'll need a car the most) tend to have more parking space anyway, so when you need to drive, you're able.

Later Housing Registration

I've always found it a touch annoying that student organizations and even Housing espouse "Don't sign it" campaigns. The goal is to stop the housing cycle. That is, students sign up for off-Grounds housing in October because they fear there won't be houses left. It's a huge pressure and stress, and I get that. My problem is that Housing requires a yes/ no and where and who are you living with next year by early December. It's very annoying that they do that and want people not to make a decision about off-Grounds housing in the Fall. Students feel like they have to or they risk misunderstanding what their friends are doing. No one wants to end up the only member of the group in on-Grounds housing or the only one off-Grounds. It's a sticky situation. Fortunately, even though the deadline sounds soon--and to some extent, it is quite early--the system usually works without much problem. I've tried going in with a preselected roommate, and I've taken potluck, and it works out well regardless. What I'm trying to get across is that even though the deadline is in December, it's not a big deal. I wish it could be later, but I know that Housing has a lot of work to do, and they want to get it done sooner than right before it's absolutely necessary.

More Computer Labs

This paragraph is definitely a nod to Engineers and Architects. Lately, in an effort to keep tuition lower, UVa has trimmed down on some of its computer labs, and I really, really wish it wouldn't. Yes, there are still computer labs, but my concern is that when there were more labs, you could still be waiting to get a desktop. Students in the College of Arts and Sciences probably won't use the school computers much because they're rarely in a class that requires special equipment (let's face it--you don't need a super computer to operate a word document); however, as I said before, the Engineers and Architects may find themselves slightly more inconvenienced by this new change. A lot of these programs need some power behind them, and little laptops can't handle it, forcing them into a lab.

On the bright side, everything listed above is just for added convenience; there isn't something seriously, seriously wrong. Sure, it would make life much easier if the University just gave everyone a computer, then no one would have to go to a lab, but that's just not realistic, rational thinking. Look at what a school does or doesn't have and decide whether it really is a con for you. Maybe you love to drive and so the idea of limited parking is catastrophic for you. Maybe you get carsick and would rather walk anyway, so you don't care if there's any parking at all. It's completely up to you. You choose what's important to you.
And remember: relax. Shopping around for schools can be really fun if you let it.
*Also a special note of thanks to Steve Norum for his picture of dorms. Thank you, thank you!

Monday, June 21, 2010

Realizing The Value of What UVa Has

If there's one thing that most helps people give better advice, it's having perspective. As a student who has gone to one school for undergraduate, I really wasn't certain what was standard and what was UVa-specific. Sure, I know the things that I love and appreciate on Grounds, but I still wouldn't say that I know what is mostly common; however, as I'm doing research at another institution this summer, I'm getting a very good view of some key differences from talking with students at the other college. These discussions in mind, I want to discuss a few things that I had simply taken for granted.

Free student entry to sporting events

I did not come to college as an avid sports fan, but two years in and I regularly attend football, basketball, and lacrosse. The atmosphere is quite exhilarating. The band chants and cheers, the crowd gasps and cheers in synch. It's just a fun pastime that I hadn't expected to be as fun as it is. Moreover, because the matches are free, the only limiting factor is time; no one has to go get a part time job just to get to see the games.

Free Bus and trolley usage for students and non-students alike

I was shocked when I was at my current summer school and the bus driver asked for money. Wait, people pay for buses and trolleys? Whoa. I should've guessed that, I suppose; that's how it works in non college towns, but I just didn't expect it. UVa has spoiled me. I've never shown a bus pass or id before because no one pays for rides.

A Twenty-Four Hour Library (complete with printers)

Technology has this unfortunate quality that the chances that it will break are directly proportional to how badly you need it (i.e., it breaks at the worst times possible). To Incoming First Years, a note: we have fantastic libraries; use them.

And a few other things I love having:
  • Free Gym Membership for enrolled undergrads
  • Guaranteed Housing for All Four Years (so long as the student stays on Grounds the entire time)
  • Having Multiple Dining Halls to Choose From on Any Given Night
  • Pedestrian Friendly Areas Complete with Lit Crosswalks, Bright Lamps, and Sidewalks

Thursday, June 17, 2010

A Disclaimer of Sorts

So here's my plan for this week: each day there will be a new post in a mini series about things I've learned while studying at another school. While I do not plan to name the school I'm at currently, I do want to assure people that it is a fantastic institution and one I'm highly considering for graduate school. My comparison of the two schools is in no way intended to vilify or promote one or the other; I simply want to record differences and occasional commentary.

The nature of my visit is quite simple: I joined an extraordinary research lab group and have been using a host of molecular techniques to study viruses. Frankly, I've fallen in love with the lab. The people are not only extremely bright, thought provoking, and helpful, but they're also very welcoming and easy to get along with. For anyone considering graduate school, certainly I would recommend REUs (Research Experience for Undergraduates). You get an open view of what life would be like at your host school. You also get a fairly good idea of whether or not you'd like the field you're working in eight or nine hours a day.

Even though the program isn't over, I can safely say that this experience will be one of my favorites for all of college.
Even the lovely snow can't compare to the fun I'm having where I am.

Friday, June 4, 2010

What to do after graduation? Reminisce, of course!

 It's that time after graduation when you have nothing to do but apply to jobs and reminisce about a time when everything was planned out for you in advance. I always knew I would be going to college, taking a year off was not even an option (I did not even know people did that until senior year in high school). And so, my four years at U.Va. are finished. No more classes, no more homework, no more tests, no more easy decisions. Now I have to find a way to support myself, figure out the future, find my own niche in the world, discover something new, and everything else that goes with "growing up." As a way to remember my years at this wonderful University, here are a couple of questions I answered just to make it easier to understand. Enjoy!

Why did you even look at U.Va. and what drew you to the school?
    I found a picture of the Lawn and the Rotunda in 10th grade and fell in love.

What was the first-year experience like?
    During my first semester I took 13 credits, studied and didn’t really do much else. I didn’t even meet that many new people. My second semester I signed up for 15 credits, joined Theta Nu Xi Multicultural Sorority, Incorporated, and transferred from a Commerce direction to the School of Architecture to major in Urban and Environmental Planning. It took a while to get to know the Grounds and feel comfortable with the place but after a rocky first year I had no troubles at all.

What one activity has been the most meaningful and why?
    Two activities: my sorority and Residence Life. In my sorority, I met a great group of women and learned more about myself than I could have in any other club or organization. As the only multicultural sorority on Grounds the women who join are dedicated to diversity and are leaders in everything that they do. As a Resident Advisor, I met people with interested quite different from my own, learned to interact with them, and create an amazing living environment. These two activities influenced my University years so much that I sometimes wonder what my life here would have been like if I hadn’t joined one (or either).

What is your favorite memory from your time at Virginia?
    On the day of Foxfield, my third year, a couple of my friends and I decided to do nothing (i.e. lie on the lawn the entire day and do absolutely nothing) and it was everything we thought it could be. Yes, that’s an “Office Space” reference.

What’s next?
    I am looking for a job that might help me figure out what I want to do in life. Looking for a job is not easy but all you need is determination and patience. And as my dad always says: things will work out somehow and there's no need for worry as long as you put in the effort.

Sum up your U.Va. experience in one word.

Best. Photograph. Ever.

 If I had to give advice to future students, it would be this: take advantage of the opportunities you have at the University. Seriously, you will never again have the same options. Meet new people, try new hobbies/activities, go out and explore the area. And don't let the future hold you back because you are only young once. Good luck! Go forth and discover!