I established the Echols Advisory Committee in the fall of 2017, and charged its volunteer members with critically examining the program. After its inception, more than 50 years ago, the Echols Scholars Program established its position as “a jewel within the College” (Echols Advisory Committee Report 2018). The committee clearly recognized the many strengths of the program, chief among which are the caliber and passions of the students and alumni, who enrich the program beyond the ability of any specific programmatic component or material asset. The goals of the process over the last year have been to clarify the purpose of the Echols Scholars Program, determine ways to enhance the program’s strengths, and identify areas of concerns and potential revisions to facilitate the long-term health and thriving of the program.
Through committee discussions, the following topics emerged as areas of focus for the last year:
- Housing & Community,
- Programming & Requirements,
- Alumni Engagement,
- Admissions & Program Size.
The committee considered input from topical experts, data and opinions from a broad survey of Echols Scholars alumni (conducted in the summer of 2017), and a survey of current Echols Scholars (conducted in the spring of 2018) regarding housing and residential life. The resulting 80-page report from the committee’s work over the last year is both deep and broad, and reflects an enormous dedication to the Echols Scholars Program. I am extremely grateful to the committee members who volunteered so much of their time to share their thoughtfulness, insight, and care. I hope that you will read the op-eds written by committee members, which are included in this newsletter.
The high-level committee recommendations are provided below for each of the five topical areas, which I have abridged to focus on the recommendations that have the greatest implications for the future of the Echols Scholars Program, and that we will need to think about the most carefully as we move forward. Many of these recommendations require resources to implement, and I have begun to work on identifying resources (both personnel time and money). I invite you to share your reactions, thoughts, and concerns about these recommendations via the link provided here, which will stay open until December 1, 2018. I personally read all of the input and feedback we receive about the Echols Scholars Program, and I am grateful to the large number of you who have already taken the time to share your thoughts, experiences, and insights with me. Each of you has been essential in helping me better understand more clearly the differing perspectives and voices. Please continue to do so. Even if I do not have time to respond directly, know that I am listening carefully.
Housing & Community
The committee found that shared housing for Echols Scholars is critical to the development of the community, which itself is fundamental to the program. However, we recognize that some UVA community members both inside and outside the Echols Scholars Program have expressed concerns that Scholars-only housing may lead to negative effects, such as a possible increase in student stress-levels, competitiveness, and a sense of exclusivity. The committee felt that it was important to investigate the grounds for these concerns, as well as to try to substantiate whether and how Echols-specific housing has positive benefits for the academic, social, and personal development of Echols Scholars. In survey data collected by the committee, the overwhelming majority of students and alumni point to what they see as the benefits of shared first-year housing, including the sense of community, the opportunity for Echols Scholars to learn from each other, and the emotional and social support offered by fellow students who share a devotion to academic pursuits.
Despite some identified drawbacks to shared housing, on balance the committee recommends that shared housing should be continued as an option in some form. A number of possibilities were considered and debated, including the idea of having a full 4-year living-learning community, in which upper-year scholars could continue to opt in. However, logistical and physical constraints limit the viable options at this time. At the present time, the majority of first-year students in the Scholars Community are housed in Balz-Dobie, but in recent years there has been one “overflow” hall of Scholars in the neighboring dorm, Tuttle-Dunnington, due to space constraints in Balz-Dobie. Some Tuttle-Dunnington residents have expressed that they felt isolated from the Echols residential community, which had a negative impact on their first-year experience. The committee recommends that “overflow” of students in a second dorm needs to be avoided.
Building a community among the Echols Scholars is essential to the strength and benefits of the program, and needs to be one of our central tenets. In order to address the “overflow” problem, possible strategies we can consider include moving to a different/larger dorm, reducing the size of the incoming Echols Scholar class, or making Scholars housing more selective (requiring Echols Scholars to apply for Scholars Housing). We are in discussions with Housing and Residence Life to map out possible options and create a long-term plan. In the short term, we are investigating the impact of moving the Echols Scholars from their current residence hall (Balz-Dobie) to a hall that could house the entire first year population. In order to foster a strong-living learning community, we currently plan to continue sponsoring an Echols Graduate Assistant who lives in the first-year residence, works closely with the undergraduate RA’s, and creates academic and social programming for first-year Echols Scholars.
Programming & Requirements
Through examination and analysis of the mission of the Echols Scholars Program, the committee concluded that the program has evolved to be primarily a recruiting tool for particularly talented students. The committee found that focusing primarily on recruitment, without significant attention to the development of scholars during the time at UVA, is a lost opportunity. In particular, the committee believes that enhanced programing, aimed at fostering a sense of both intellectual and social community, is essential to the growth and flourishing of students. While the waiver of general education requirements is important for allowing students flexibility, it is not clear to the committee that, on balance, the full range of curricular freedom afforded to Echols Scholars is beneficial to their intellectual growth. In particular, the committee recommends that Scholars have a required capstone project to synthesis their learning and showcase their achievements. These capstone projects could include thesis work for existing Distinguished Majors Programs (DMPs) or the Echols Interdisciplinary Major Program (IMP). The committee also concluded that Scholars’ participation in the Engagement Courses in the New College Curriculum should be encouraged. Whether Echols Scholars should have a writing requirement is an outstanding issue that will be considered in detail over this academic year.
For the 2018-19 academic year, we were able to offer Echols Scholars the ability to opt-in to the new “Engagements” curriculum during their first year, without opting into the full set of general education requirements. We will seek in-depth feedback from the students who took advantage of this opportunity throughout the year to assess the impact and importance of this new curriculum on their experience, and will continue to do so during the pilot stage of the New Curriculum. We do not anticipate that we will consider requiring Echols Scholars to participate in the Engagements courses during their first year unless the New Curriculum is adopted for Arts & Sciences after its initial pilot program.
With the sole exception of Echols Scholars, all Arts & Sciences students are now required to take a writing course, and we recognize that strong writing skills are an essential skill for all of our students. However, at the present time, Echols Scholars are actually prohibited from taking standard writing courses (e.g. ENWR 1510, 1520) due to staffing limitations. In recent years, we have attempted to enable Echols Scholars to advance their writing through dedicated Echols writing courses, which are supported out of the program’s budget but are not sufficient to service more than roughly 30 percent of the scholars. Given this landscape, we look forward to the advisory committee’s discussion of the pros and cons of implementing a writing requirement for Echols Scholars, and creative ways we might address a demonstrated need and desire among scholars to enhance their writing abilities.
Over the next year, we will begin to investigate requiring a capstone project for Echols Scholars in their final year (for which an appropriate DMP, IMP, etc. or another suitable thesis project could potentially substitute). If we are able to identify the necessary resources, we would like to celebrate these capstone projects in an annual end-of-year symposium, featuring TED-like talks from graduating scholars, and potentially plenary talks from alumni. This spring we will host a pilot version, with a set of volunteers in the graduating class. If we adopt a required capstone as part of the Echols program (potentially for the incoming class of 2023), we will endeavor to grow the symposium to a full-scale event for all graduating scholars over the coming three years.
The diversity statistics for the Echols Program are lower for the Echols Scholars Program than the College of Arts & Sciences as a whole. Low diversity numbers tell us that we are losing out on having some of the most promising students in the world as part of the Echols Program. The resulting demographic makeup of the program also limits the exposure of the existing cohort of Scholars to experiences and ways of thinking other than those similar to their own. The Echols Program should work to improve diversity and inclusion through more visible programming featuring diverse experiences and perspectives. At this time, the committee does not recommend a prescription or quota for the precise demographic fractions that Echols Program should aim to achieve over a specified time period.
Increasing inclusivity and diversity within the Echols Program is one of our highest priorities. Beyond the social responsibility to do so, diversity in all respects is essential to the fundamental goals of the program. In order to cultivate well-rounded students and foster robust intellectual atmosphere that challenges students to engage with perspectives different than their own, the program simply must include a wealth of contrasting experiences and perspectives. To this end, we are intentionally working to create programming that will foster students’ deep consideration of perspectives that may be foreign to them. This year we have also brought in a new member to the Echols team whose primary focus is diversity and programming, and we aim to work more closely with Admissions on selection and recruitment of Scholars moving forward.
The committee believes that the Echols alumni are an essential component of the Echols ecosystem. In particular, the experience and education of current Echols Scholars can be strongly enhanced by folding alumni engagement more deeply into the program. The aspiration is for the Echols community to extend far beyond a student’s time at UVA, with vertical connections made across class decades, fostering a community of scholars who celebrate learning throughout their lives, and share their passions and experiences with new generations of Echols Scholars. However, the relationship with alumni has been significantly undernourished, and this represents a tremendous lost opportunity to the program.
The Echols alumni are one of the deepest and largely untapped strengths of the program, to which we are planning to devote significant effort. The first objective, upon which the others depend, is (re)establishing communication with alumni, including semi-annual newsletters, which will feature student profiles, news about the program, updates from the Advisory Committee, and opportunities for alumni to engage with the program. Invigorating and strengthening the Echols Alumni Mentoring Program is also a high priority; I envision establishing a broad and deep mentoring pool, that includes matching not only career aspirations and alignment, but also non-academic factors. We will also seek to connections with alumni in each of the main alumni populations. We would be delighted to hold informal gatherings in each region in order to meet alumni, build relationships, and communicate aspirations and potential of the Echols Scholars Program.
Admissions & Program Size
Currently roughly five percent of students in each class year are designated as Echols Scholars. However, the absolute number of Echols Scholars has grown over time, largely reflecting the growth in the general undergraduate population at UVA. It is notable that although the historic origin of the Echols Scholars program is shared housing (first in the Echols House and then in Watson House in the early years of the program), the current program size no longer fits in the designated dorm (currently Balz-Dobie). The committee also believes that the program size should be capped at the number of students who can live together in the first-year dorm. However, reducing the number of Echols Scholars in a recruitment class would have a negative impact on the overall strength of the undergraduate program, and should only be considered if other solutions are not feasible. The admissions and recruitment process should continue to identify students who exhibit extraordinary intellectual curiosity, a love of learning, and the potential to engage in academic self-direction. However, the admissions process should seek to find additional ways to more actively cultivate a diverse community of scholars. Additionally, updating and enhancing material available online and in social media will aid in the recruitment of students who have been offered Echols Scholars status with admission, but who have little (if any) understanding about the program and its benefits.
The number of students admitted to the Echols Program is at the core of our discussions going forward, as nearly every aspect of the program depends on this. We have begun conversations with Housing & Residence Life to consider what dormitory options might be available to us in the future. In the short-term, we hope to eliminate the need for overflow housing, which may require moving the Echols Scholars to a new dormitory in coming years. We are also working with the Office of Admission to identify ways that we can improve the diversity of Scholars. We believe that creating material available online to introduce prospective students to the program would be an excellent tool for both diversity and recruitment. To this end, we are looking for creative ways to generate this material that are possible using available resources.