As of this fall, there are nearly 10,000 Echols alumni, spread across the world from Singapore to Ecuador. It is a great privilege for me to join this community of scholars as the director of the program. I am coming to the Echols Scholars Program from the academic realm of astrophysics, which has exposed me to the grand scope of the cosmos on a daily basis. As far as we know (at this point), we are the only sentient life forms capable of contemplating the universe that we are a part of. To my mind, our (apparently) singular existence imbues us with a profound responsibility to learn and to teach. The Echols Scholars Program embodies principles that we all hold dear -- intellectual rigor, deep curiosity, broad-minded thinking, boundless creativity, and a passion for sharing knowledge.
I have now been with the program for nearly a year, and I have spent much of that time taking stock of where we are, and gathering input to help guide where we are headed. On my new desk, in my new office, I have a copy of a thesis written in 2003 by Jessamy L. Hoffman titled “The History of the Echols Program.” The first class of Echols Scholars totaled 35 students (27 from Virginia), a decade before women were admitted to the College of Arts and Sciences at UVA. In the years that followed, nearly every policy and feature of the Echols Scholars Program has changed, with the lone exception of housing – the majority of scholars still share a common residence hall during their first year, harkening back to the origin of the program with the original 35 students living in the Echols Dormitory. Yet, the defining purpose of the program – to provide avid learners with extra intellectual nourishment--remains constant.
Getting to know the current Echols Scholars over these nine months has been delightful. Among other activities, we have started a series of Friday lunches with small groups of scholars. At every lunch, I ask each student to share something interesting they have learned in the past week, which is in part selfishly motivated; there is a wealth of courses at UVA that I dearly wish I had time to sit in on. With this seemingly simple question, I am exposed to the rich array of interesting topics they are studying. I think it is also important for the students to take a step back and appreciate the knowledge they have access to every day during their short time at UVA. Their responses range from deeply amusing to profoundly moving, and the level of discussion that ensues is inspiring. I have left every one of these lunches feeling a closer connection with the students as they help me learn something new, every time.
Over this year, I have been working closely with members of the inaugural Echols Advisory Committee with the shared goal of making the program the best it can be. This means different things to different people, and my challenge will be to integrate these perspectives into a robust strategy. I have intentionally filled the committee with individuals who hold a diverse set of perspectives. In their discussions, committee members may not always agree on the best path forward, but at the outset, I asked each of them to enter this project with an “assumption of benevolence” – every person on the committee is vested in our shared goal, with the best of intentions. Any potential disagreements that may arise should not cloud that perspective. We held our first face-to-face meeting at UVA in mid-November, during which we introduced the issues we hope to address this year. We discussed and debated the mission of the Echols Scholars Program, and not surprisingly, the depth of thought and collegiality among the committee was extraordinary. We must also understand that the Echols Scholars Program is operating within the broader landscape of the College of Arts & Sciences and the University as a whole, which come with their own priorities, both programmatic and financial. I believe, as does Arts & Sciences Dean Ian Baucom, that having a premier scholars program, which both attracts and cultivates top students from around the world, is essential for the continued vibrancy of UVA.
Based on the responses from hundreds of Echols alumni who expressed an interest in participating in the Advisory Committee, I know how deeply you care about the future of the program. There will be many important opportunities for members of the Echols community to serve our shared goal, and I sincerely hope that you will continue to communicate your insights and experiences as we go forward. Every decision I make will be better if I have the opportunity to consider different perspectives.
Your input and feedback has brought forward a number of themes; foremost among these is a sense of regret expressed by many of you that your connection to the Echols community waned significantly after your first year on Grounds, coupled with a desire to reconnect with the extraordinary community of Echols alumni. I am very interested in holding Echols gatherings around the country, with the goal of enabling alumni to reune, revitalize their love of learning, and share their aspirations for the program. If you are interested in hosting an Echols event near you, I invite you to reach out. The dedication of Echols alumni is one of the strongest aspects of the program, and I hope we can work together to build connections for sustainable and meaningful relationships. Although the Echols Scholars Program has existed for nearly 60 years, I believe the best is still to come.