Established in 1960, the Echols Scholars program attracts some of the brightest and most ambitious undergraduate students to UVA with enhanced academic opportunities and creative community programming within the College of Arts & Sciences. It can be hard to maintain a community during stay-at-home pandemic times, however, so the program got creative to maintain virtual ties to students and its alumni.
This spring, the program launched The Echols Quarantimes newsletter to keep students in the academic honors program “sane and connected” with twice-weekly, lighthearted online quizzes, short stories, and updates on how individual students were spending their time away from Grounds. It also moved its “Fireside Chats” online for distinguished Echols Scholars alumni to field questions about their careers. Throughout the summer, returning students within the program also volunteered to mentor incoming first-year Echols Scholars online and give them a preview of life within the prestigious honors program.
These initiatives are representative of the Echols Scholars program’s efforts to ramp up a sense of community through mentoring opportunities, mindfulness retreats at Morven Farm, trips to the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C. and Charlottesville theater productions of “Fun Home,” “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” and other plays. Common reading discussions of books such as What the Eyes Don’t See, pediatrician and researcher Mona Hanna-Attisha’s memoir about the lead contamination of drinking water in Flint, Michigan, and the Fourth-Year Capstone Symposium also serve to encourage intellectual exploration with community building among students. It’s all part of an effort to strengthen Echols Scholars’ connections to each other through their four years on Grounds and after.
“I think the single most important aspect of the Echols Scholars Program is the community. From the time students step onto Grounds, they know they have a cohort to both support and challenge them,” said Kelsey Johnson, the program’s director and an award-winning professor of astronomy within the College. “I believe that students who are encouraged to immerse themselves with peers who crave intellectual engagement and share their broad curiosity enjoy a more rewarding experience during their short time in college.”
The video clips in this montage were recorded by individual Echols Scholars before the COVID-19 pandemic. The program looks forward to resuming events and gatherings in the future, when it’s safe.
Helping creative and ambitious students flourish
The Echols Scholars program typically invites 180 to 200 incoming first years — about 5 % of each year’s incoming class — to join its honors community. Selected for their standout success and demonstrated passion for learning in high school, the program looks beyond test scores and GPAs to identify the potential for significant intellectual engagement at UVA and beyond. Each class typically grows to about 250 with the admission of students who apply for second-year entry. Echols Scholars are granted uncommon flexibility — they are not required to complete the College’s general education requirements — and are encouraged to explore a variety of disciplines and courses as they discover their scholarly interests. Many Echols Scholars end up completing two majors and pursue independent research projects on Grounds. Its flexibility plays a key role in the program’s ability to compete with other elite universities for top students.
Fourth year Allie Hartwig had already enrolled at Dartmouth College when she changed her mind on the last possible day to come to UVA as an Echols Scholar.
“When I first came to UVA, I thought that this was largely an academic program,” said Hartwig, now serving as president of the Echols Council, an elected body of students who work with Johnson to build and support the Echols Scholars community. “I didn’t realize that it also would provide a social and moral support community. The Echols Scholars community has become an important source of support in every aspect of my life. It has exceeded my expectations in terms of how it’s helped me grow at UVA.”
“When I was looking going to a small liberal arts school versus coming to UVA, what I realized was that I can experience the best of both with the Echols Scholars program because you're getting this intimate community of really intellectually driven students within the context of a very well balanced, well rounded larger institution. And that, for me, was the selling point."
Allie Hartwig, fourth year Echols Scholar and Echols Council president majoring in religious studies and finance.
'Part of what makes that jewel sparkle'
The Echols Scholars program has used modest funding to strategically add programming for its students, most of whom live together on Grounds as first years. Last year, the Jefferson Trust awarded the program a $10,000 “Flash Funds” grant to support the Fourth-Year Capstone Symposium, which offers Echols Scholars in their fourth year the opportunity to deliver presentations of research projects from their various fields of study. With additional philanthropic support, opportunities to enhance the program would be wide-ranging. The Echols Advisory Committee, which drew nearly 300 submissions from alumni interested in joining, was started by Johnson to help chart the program’s future.
“The Echols alumni have blown me away from the moment I started as director three years ago,” Johnson said. “The dedication and perspective that they provide are critical as we balance the value of traditions with innovations designed to enhance the experience of students following in their footsteps.”
Ann Brown and other committee members are brainstorming ways to help with future programmatic expenses. A 1974 graduate and member of the first class of women admitted to UVA. Brown went on to graduate from the UVA School of Law and is a partner in a Washington, D.C. firm specializing in commercial and real estate finance.
“I like to say that the College is the jewel in the crown of the University of Virginia, and the Echols Scholars program is part of what makes that jewel sparkle because of the focus on intellectual curiosity the Scholars represent,” Brown said.
“I came to UVA from the Deep South, from a very small high school. The opportunity to come to a much larger institution and to get to know my fellow Echols Scholars from across the country, many of whom remain very close friends today, just opened new vistas.”
Ann Brown, 1974 UVA graduate and member of the first class of women admitted to UVA. Brown went on to graduate from the UVA School of Law and is a partner in a Washington, D.C. firm specializing in commercial and real estate finance.
Third year Echols Scholar Jonathan Laredo was accepted into the program as a second year at UVA. The biochemistry major now serves as co-chair of the Echols Council’s mentorship community along with fellow third year Grace Kurcina. After a year in the program, Laredo is eager to share the communal experience of virtual “Fireside Chats” and other opportunities to mentor incoming students.
“Being in the Echols Scholar program drives you and motivates you, because it’s full of really talented people,” he said. “Our goal this year is to try to provide to first year Echols students the same experience — or at least a close version of the same experience we would have had if this were a normal year.”
“It’s so interesting how in my fourth year I look back and think, ‘Wow, the Echols Scholars community really has changed my experience here. … My personal favorite thing has been the ‘Fireside Chats.’ Getting to hear a faculty member talk for an hour of their own volition, and it’s not something off the syllabus, it’s something they’re really passionate about. This is just something they’re really thinking about deeply, and that’s really wonderful."
Salem Zelalem, fourth year Echols Scholar, Ridley Scholar and Miller Arts Scholar, majoring in economics and English