Guest Column | Back to School is More Than Back to Partying

batten builds 2023
Batten students get their marching orders for a day of service at local nonprofit Camp Holiday Trails during the annual Batten Builds event in Fall 2023.


This column was first published in the Daily Progress on September 22, 2023.

Long lines inside Bodo’s Bagels, congestion on Emmet Street and a seemingly endless stream of runners and scooters zooming past your car in early September can mean only one thing: University of Virginia students have returned to Charlottesville. The annual population boom occurs right before Labor Day, and Charlottesville and Albemarle County residents prepare for it as best they can. Because the return of 21,000 students coincides with back-to-school activities for K-12 parents, teachers and coaches, alike, the adjustment ritual is in full swing.

It is safe to say that many Charlottesville residents during this time of year, or residents in a college town elsewhere, believe “back to school” is really code for back to partying, socializing and loud music. Well, there is truth in that statement. While a healthy dose of each is part of the college experience, another healthy dose of student life that has become an annual ritual during this time of the year is something all of us should be proud of: the UVA spirit of service.

On Aug. 27, I had a chance to see this firsthand when I attended the kickoff celebration for the Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy’s 14th annual Batten Build event. More than 200 students gathered inside the Newcomb Hall ballroom to listen to nonprofit organization leaders tell compelling stories about the important contributions student volunteers make to their work in Charlottesville and throughout communities in Central Virginia. Jill Rockwell, the senior assistant dean for student and career services at Batten, said about Batten Build, “This is not only an important project to the community members we help, but it is an important reminder to our new students that behind every policy decision they make there are real people who are impacted by their actions. We are so proud of the undergraduate students who spend hundreds of hours over the summer ensuring that our BA and MPP students will have this annual service opportunity.”

After the students listened to Dean Ian Solomon’s “Let’s get to work” closing address, they departed from Grounds to volunteer at 16 community projects. Activities supported by Batten Build ranged from packing donation bags for the Blue Ridge Area Food Bank to help families dealing with food insecurity to working at the Piedmont Virginia Community College Community Garden.

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Students help out during Batten Builds 2023 at Westminster Childcare Center (left) and at the community garden at Piedmont Virginia Community College. 

The spirit of service did not descend solely on UVa undergraduates.

In August, for example, more than 80 new UVa School of Law students began the 2023-24 academic year with an annual day of service sponsored by the Public Interest Law Association. Students volunteered their time to a diverse array of programs. One example is the Ronald McDonald House, which provides temporary “home away from home” to families with children who are receiving medical treatment in the Charlottesville area. Another is the Rivanna Conservation Alliance, which helps to keep clean a river that is important to the human and animal ecosystems in our area. Why did law students participate in a day of service? “PILA’s Fall Day of Service is a great way for new students to connect with greater Charlottesville and learn more about their new community,” said Delaney Tubbs, class of 2025, one of the event organizers. 

Darden School of Business students are gearing up right now to teach entrepreneurship, financial capability and business foundation courses to adult learners inside Virginia prisons. Through Darden’s partnership with Resilience Education, a Charlottesville-based nonprofit organization co-founded in 2013 by Drs. Greg and Tierney Fairchild, both Darden graduates, MBA students learn how to use the Socratic, case-study teaching model to engage students in principles of business. To share lessons learned with incarcerated learners outside of Virginia, Wharton and Columbia business schools joined the Resilience Education network. To date, more than 550 MBA student instructors have helped over 1,000 incarcerated learners graduate from the program.

These are three examples of the UVa spirit of service in action during the back-to-school season. Other students will volunteer their time in September and beyond through programs supported by the Madison House.

So, the next time you are stuck in traffic or a grocery store line, just remember and consider that the young people around you may be the ones preparing to go support a community program. With this in mind, let’s remember that back to school means back to service.


Garrett Hall at Sunset

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