What is the purpose of the Echols Scholars Program?
Sometimes the most simple questions have complex realities. I have been asked this particular question many times over the last two years. It can be sparked by curiosity, tangled with envy, driven by hope, and spring-loaded with tension. The answer to this question has almost certainly evolved over the many decades since the program was founded, as both UVA and the College of Arts & Sciences themselves have evolved. My own belief is that the primary mission of everyone at UVA must be to help every single student that comes through our doors to get the best education they can. This mission doesn’t exist in a vacuum; we want our students to flourish in the world, and through their flourishing make the world a better place. This broader mission is at the core of why I, and my colleagues, do the work that we do.
Reason #1: Echols Scholars raise the bar and enhance the education for the student body at large.
The question then becomes: how does the Echols Scholars Program support this broader mission? The answer to this question is both enriched and complicated by the high caliber of students at UVA in general; with the middle 50% of SAT scores for the class of 2023 from 1340-1540, and middle 50% of ACT scores from 32-35, one might rightfully argue that UVA itself is pretty much already an honors college. However, even among this talented cohort, there are students who stand out, and they stand out for reasons that extend beyond their test scores and GPAs; their applications shine with creativity, passion, and a love of learning. Their teachers write that they are “sparks in the classroom,” and they “raise the bar for the students around them.” Over my almost 15 years at UVA, I have found these statements to be true. Numerous conversations with faculty across grounds support the conclusion that Echols Scholars enhance the learning environment for everyone. In terms of hard data, we also know that the average GPA of Echols Scholars at UVA is higher than that of the general student body.
Reason #2: The Echols Scholars Program helps to bring top students from around the world to UVA.
Surveys of current Echols Scholars, as well as Echols Scholars alumni, reinforce individual conversations I’ve had with students – the Echols Scholars Program was essential in tipping their decision in favor of UVA. The reality is that most students admitted as Echols Scholars are considering a number of offers from other high-level institutions, many with significant financial incentive to go elsewhere. In the relative absence of merit-based scholarships at UVA, the Echols Scholars Program has an important role in helping UVA attract extraordinary students.
To be sure, there are absolutely students who were not identified as Echols Scholars who could also be described in similar ways, and it is a joy to have them in classes; the process of identifying Echols Scholars is not perfect, just as the process for college admissions itself is not perfect. A two-dimensional snapshot of a student available in an application will never fully represent the richness of their experiences, aspirations, achievements, and abilities. For students who flourished during their first year at UVA, we try to identify them through an application process at the end of their first year, though this process is also not perfect. But I think it is essential that we do our best to reach these extraordinary students, who would benefit the program, and benefit from the program. Each of the last two years, we have set a new record for the number of applications from rising second-year students.
Echols Scholars Admitted Rising 2nd Year Class Summer 2018
This application process after students’ first year is race-blind, yet last year’s cohort was the most racially diverse in Echols history (and in fact more diverse than the College of A&S student population at large). Having peers to interact with who have a range of different perspectives and experiences is an essential part of the students’ informal education. Although there is clearly more work to do, I am thrilled that we are moving the needle in the right direction.
Reason #3: Programming provided to the Echols Scholars enriches and supports their intellectual growth.
To my mind, recruiting top students to UVA and/or identifying them after they are here are only the first steps, and these ring hollow to me on their own. I am convinced that having these students at UVA benefits everyone, but what is the benefit to the Echols Scholars themselves? This is where I believe the Echols Scholars Program truly shines: through intentional programming we can provide Scholars with extra intellectual nourishment and opportunities for growth outside the classroom. The students themselves are the most valuable asset of the program – I suspect that they learn more from each other informally than they do in formal classroom settings.
To this end, creating opportunities for cross-pollination among Scholars has become a significant part of the program. Scholars identified in the college admissions process have the opportunity to live together during their first year, but I believe that continuing and building their connections throughout their time at UVA is essential (and necessary to involve students who joined after their first year). The programming we now offer ranges from informal lunches, to mindfulness retreats, to field trips (e.g. the National Museum of African American History and Culture in DC). Starting with the Fall 2017 semester, our annual Common Reading program has brought together incoming first-year Echols Scholars in discussion groups led by older Scholars. This year we also piloted an Echols Capstone Symposium for students to present their research and “passion projects,” and it was deeply satisfying to witness Scholars from across the disciplines make connections and find inspiration from each other.
To my mind, the Echols Scholars Program is a vital part of UVA. The College of Arts & Sciences would be a very different place without the extraordinary students in the program. Yet the program could still do more, and both myself and the Echols team have bigger aspirations. After all, the core of our mission is nothing less than helping our students get the education, in and out of the classroom, that they need to go out and make the world a better place.
Director, Echols Scholars Program
Professor, Department of Astronomy