Hit the Grounds running: Behind the scenes at the launch of a new academic year

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UVA Executive Vice President and COO Pat Hogan oversees every aspect of move-in weekend, when 3,800 first-years arrive. Photo by Amy Jackson. UVA Executive Vice President and COO Pat Hogan oversees every aspect of move-in weekend, when 3,800 first-years arrive. Photo by Amy Jackson.

On the heels of the tragic events in Charlottesville August 11 and 12, the University of Virginia had to ready itself for another chaotic, but undeniably happier, weekend that began August 18: the arrival of several thousand excited and nervous students for move-in days (see page 29 for their reactions to the anticipated start of classes). And getting the university in shipshape for a new batch of Hoos takes a village.

“Running the operations of the university is sort of like running a small city,” says UVA Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer Pat Hogan, who manages all things non-academic on Grounds. Encompassing its own housing and dining facilities, building and landscape maintenance, transportation, police and fire service, utilities, capital projects and a hospital, the entire complex is a microcosm of a functioning town. And when its 22,000 citizens return each August, not in a trickle but in a deluge, UVA has to be prepared.

The Friday and Saturday before classes begin are circled in red on Hogan’s calendar: move-in weekend. “I remember my wife and I dropping my daughter off here in the fall of 2000, and how hard it was for us to leave,” says Hogan. “But the Grounds are beautiful, the community is welcoming, and the students have so much energy—they’re really ready to change the world.”

So what does it take to hit peak readiness for their arrival? Here’s the lowdown on the ramp-up.

Lay of the land

“We are the first impression,” says Richard Hopkins, landscape superintendent. “Our students arrive at the university and the first thing they see is some piece of landscape, and we need to grab them.” His staff of 79 year-round workers takes care of the grass, shrubs and trees, arranges new plantings and clears away litter, and they carefully manage the cool season fescue growth to be optimal in August.

Hopkins and the staff look forward to the students’ return because that means the end of construction season. “All summer the backhoes and trucks park everywhere on Grounds,” he says, “and we come behind and work to restore and recover the landscaping.” Predicting the habits of students can be challenging as well. “They create shortcuts to their class buildings through the grass. Each year we repair them, and the following year the path will be someplace different.”

For the groundskeepers, the worst-case scenario is a big thunderstorm on the eve of move-in weekend, leading to trampled sod and a muddy mess. “If you’re really focused on keeping it perfect, it’ll drive you crazy,” he says. “You have to step back and say, ‘It’s okay, they’re using the space.’”

Upgrading on a curve

“Summer is as busy as we get,” says Rollie Zumbrunn, associate director of facilities management for housing. During the summer months, the custodial and maintenance workers have three kinds of work to do in the residence halls. Annual turnover includes deep cleaning such as waxing floors and resetting the rooms so they are ready for new occupants. Minor upgrades might involve changing a room from a lounge to a bedroom or swapping out carpet. And capital projects such as replacing elevators or installing air conditioning are the biggest and take the most time. This summer they’re upgrading dorm access from metal keys to ID cards, which are easier to turn off if lost.

“It’s exciting,” Zumbrunn says. “All of Charlottesville is more alive during the school year. The students bring so much energy.”

Culinary arts

“In late August, it’s like we are opening 25 brand-new restaurants, all at the same time, with brand-new guests and a portion of new staff,” says Matt Smythe, director of operations for UVA Dining. More than 600 employees strive to bring interesting, healthful meals to the student population, and the execution requires massive coordination of inventory, preparation and service. “We order paper products and supplies throughout July and August,” says Smythe, “but produce and perishables we bring in as close to when we need them as possible.”

Smythe notes that dining is a unique service because a student might visit a dining hall 20 times in a week. “We see the students more than anybody on Grounds except their roommate, and we want them to enjoy the experience.”

The food service crew keeps abreast of current food trends, and is always experimenting. “Last year, we tried a chicken-and-waffle night at O-Hill as a one-off, and it was a tremendous success,” says Smythe, so much so that it became a permanent menu item, complete with weekly variations dreamed up by the culinary staff.

Despite the gale-force ramp-up, Smythe says move-in weekend is his favorite time of the year. “The excitement on Grounds, the anticipation and the nervousness, the pride of the parents—it’s just a great weekend to be part of the university community,” he says.

Supply and demand

“We call it ‘book rush,’” says Cristy Huffman, executive director of the UVA bookstores. The robust online book ordering system that allows students to pre-order textbooks can yield upward of 500 orders per day in the weeks leading up to the start of classes, but the University Bookstore gets them filled in time. The addition of 25 to 30 temporary employees to the regular staff means the bookstore can process orders within 24 hours and have them ready for students to collect on the day they arrive.

“We focus on making the process as easy and stress-free as possible for both students and their parents,” says Huffman. This means setting up tents outside the store stocked with dorm items that students may have forgotten, from fans to surge protectors, and serving as a Q&A hub for families seeking directions or instructions. “The first 10 or 12 days are a huge push, but we get everybody through and make sure they’re happy,” says Huffman. “We get to know the students and watch them grow up while they’re here—it’s very fun for us.”

Home team

Over the course of the two-day move-in weekend, 3,800 first-year students and their families descend upon Grounds, and Residence Life has the process down to a science. “We want to make them feel at home where they live,” says Executive Director of Housing and Residence Life Gay Perez.

Some 250 resident assistants, along with hundreds of returning student volunteers, are dispatched to each of the residence halls to greet, check in and unload the arriving students, ideally in under 15 minutes per carload. Parking and transportation staff direct traffic, technology specialists are on hand to help with computer and network issues, and dining services sets up water stations throughout the residential areas. “It’s really a university showcase event,” says Perez, who notes that new (or newly renovated) residence halls are so carefully pre-checked that opening week glitches are almost nonexistent.

Assistant Dean of Students Andy Petters reiterates the message that parents and students receive at orientation: “We tell them the first thing they should pack in their car, and unload when they arrive, is patience. If they have that, then the rest is just fun.” Parents may have a tough time leaving their son or daughter on Grounds, but Saturday night’s JPJ concert is meant for students to have fun getting to know each other.

“By Sunday afternoon when students go to the Lawn for Convocation, there should be no more parents lurking around behind the shrubs,” says Petters with a smile.

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