Editor’s Note: This story was completed before the University transitioned to online instruction to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus. We are publishing it so our readers can still learn about the unique perspectives and talents of these outstanding fourth-year engineering students.
The University of Virginia’s first engineer had grand plans for reinventing higher education in a relatively new nation with the design of an “academical village, instead of a large & common den of noise, of filth, & of fetid air. it would afford that quiet retirement so friendly to study, and lessen the dangers of fire, infection & tumult,” as Thomas Jefferson wrote to the Trustees of the Lottery for East Tennessee College in May of 1810.
By 1823, roughly four years after UVA’s founding, Jefferson’s vision was nearly complete. Two rows of student housing, separated at intervals by pavilions reserved as homes for instructors and their families, mirrored each other from either side of an open green space known at the Lawn. At the head of the Lawn, Jefferson’s contractors were busy building the Rotunda to house the library as the center of knowledge for the University. Two years later, the first classes were held on the Lawn with eight faculty instructing 68 students.
Jefferson believed his unique design would foster dialogue and contemplation of ideas while instructor “chaperones” might tamp down student rowdiness. The concept was largely successful, save for the occasional rumpus, fire and sound of gunshots.
Growing enrollment eventually led to other student housing around Grounds. For a period, many students opted not to live in the somewhat more primitive rooms on the Lawn. In the late 1960s, retired UVA Director of Housing Chester Titus converted the rooms from doubles to singles, renovated the fireplaces and, when demand increased, instituted a selection committee to find the brightest and most civic-minded students to spend a year in the prestigious rooms.
Today, the 54 Lawn rooms are reserved for undergraduates in their final year of study. Every year, applicants who want to call the space home apply with essays and lists of achievements and activities. For the past several years, applications have totaled approximately 300. Forty-seven are selected by a 60-member peer committee of fourth-year students; the seven remaining endowed or reserved rooms are assigned through other selection methods. The process includes mechanisms to ensure diverse representation from all of UVA’s undergraduate schools.
The list of students who have earned Lawn rooms for 2020-2021 was announced Feb. 12, and reportedly includes seven students from the School of Engineering. For the 2019-2020 academic year, about 15% of Lawnies – or eight students - hail from UVA Engineering.
Here is a glimpse at their thoughts and experiences on the Lawn.
Room 33 West Lawn
Room 33 West looks like it could be featured in an issue of Veranda magazine.
Antique wooden chairs softened with pastel pink cushions and whimsical posters of idyllic European life, hung with an engineer’s precision, make the room warm and homey. That is just how Anna Cerf, a Minnesota native, likes her Lawn room, which she happily pointed out is furnished with mostly local thrift store jackpots in a feat that might make legendary Charlottesville interior designer Bunny Williams jealous.
“I wake up every morning to this beautiful view,” said Cerf, who was recently accepted into the Water Resource Engineering and Management (WAREM) Master's Program at the University of Stuttgart in Germany. “UVA has a lot of wonderful green spaces and I’m in the heart of it. That has been a really special experience.”
When she is not gazing out onto the Lawn or enjoying the comfort of her room, Cerf, a Jefferson Scholar, is studying wastewater treatment and sustainability in her civil engineering classes. She has conducted research in UVA Engineering Dean Craig H. Benson’s Geoenvironmental Research Group as an intern for the Environmental Research & Education Foundation, and she is an intern for UVA Sustainability.
“There’s this stereotype that engineering students never leave the Engineering School and venture to this side of Grounds. And so, to break that stereotype, I wanted to create a space for engineers and have them be visible on the Lawn,” she said.
Cerf is president of the Society of Women Engineers and often hosts meetings and gatherings in her room, a concept Jefferson most likely wouldn’t have fathomed when he presented the Lawn master plan to the Board of Visitors in 1821.
“Living on a UNESCO world heritage site is an incredible experience, but there is also this knowledge of what those rooms represented for so long. Women were not allowed in the university until 1970, and for a long time, this Lawn was a space of white male privilege. It's an interesting thing to grapple with.”
Biomedical Engineering Major, Computer Science Minor
Room 1 West Lawn
Sally Greenberg vaulted up her loft ladder to straighten her bed before nestling into a green, overstuffed sofa that occupies one wall, as comfortable and welcoming as Greenberg makes her visitors feel.
That energy and welcoming spirit are among the reasons was selected for Lawn Room 1 West, a prestigious space that carries with it a responsibility to keep a story alive, joyfully welcome all to Grounds, and “stand on display” as the quintessential University of Virginia scholar, one who is equal parts wise, virtuous and gregarious.
The Roanoke, Virginia, student bunks down this year in the John Kenneth Crispell Memorial Room, endowed for the young boy who once lived next door in Pavilion 1 with his parents Marjorie and Dr. Kenneth Crispell, past dean of the medical school and a UVA vice president. The 12-year-old was a popular fixture on the Lawn and could often be found horsing around or telling stories with his college-aged neighbors before he died, a loss that cast a shadow across Grounds.
While the majority of rooms are bid on by students who’ve been selected to live on the Lawn, Crispell room residents are selected by a panel that combs through the applications to find the student who best exemplifies the spirit of Johnny Crispell and who may be pursuing a career in medicine.
“I guess I was just lucky enough that they saw my application and thought I embodied what John did, which I find amazing. I'm so honored that they thought that and they saw my medical background and what I plan on doing, and they thought I was a good fit. And every single day I'm so thankful for it,” said Greenberg who will head to Israel after graduation to continue her research before pursuing a medical degree.
“Living in this room, I want to make sure that people know John and what he thought of this University. In addition to that, I'm trying to do what John did and bring people from all walks of life together, making sure that new people meet new people, and old people feel connected. It's important to me. Being a friendly face that the community sees is really important to me, too. So, I usually always try to keep my door open, letting people see my room, no matter how messy it is. I'm really trying to put a good face on it all.”
Room 43 West Lawn
The last straw broke the afternoon Neha Kulkarni walked into her room on the West Lawn and found the family of squirrels, which had been peeking at her from behind the fireplace screen off and on for a couple weeks, finally at home in her space. One sat on the windowsill looking rather annoyed at being interrupted, another was resting comfortably in her loft bed, and a rather fat one was gnawing its way through her stash of bread.
“It’s funny now for sure. But at the time I was like ‘Oh my gosh! What am I going to do?!’”
Fortunately, a UVA Facilities crew was quick to respond, showing the critters the door after a few chaotic moments of darting gray fur and high-pitched squeals, and then cleaning up her ransacked room.
“It was a testament of how kind people are here,” said Kulkarni, who will work for Microsoft’s Azure team following graduation.
During her time on the Lawn, Kulkarni has become comfortable having visitors in her room, just not the four-legged kind. She’s often opened her room to meditation sessions and introduced others to Indian classical music through jam sessions. Posters of traditionally dressed Indian women deejaying hang alongside a poster of World War II cultural icon Rosie the Riveter.
She’s also worked to bring first- and second-year engineering students out to the Lawn and encouraged them to think about living there.
“Living on the Lawn doesn't mean necessarily just that you did very well in school. It also means that you're passionate about your community, you're passionate about something you've done, outside of your curriculum or something that's added to your curriculum. And I think that that level of thinking is very beneficial for the Engineering School.”
Room 47 West Range
On March 1, 1868, in room 47 on the West Range, Frederick Southgate proposed starting a fraternity with his cousin Littleton Tazewell and a couple other friends. That day, they founded the Alpha Chapter of Pi Kappa Alpha, focused on promoting “brotherly love and kind feeling.”
Since then, the fraternity has grown to become one of the largest fraternities in the country, and room 47 West Range, technically on the part of the Lawn complex reserved for graduate students, has become a mecca for members to visit from everywhere, many etching their chapters’ letters into the soft brick outside the room.
The annual keeper of the room is chosen by the members of the Alpha Chapter around Christmas time each year. They choose the fourth-year who best exemplifies the spirit of the organization - someone who has integrity and is intellectually fit and of high moral character. For 2019-2020, they picked Brian McGuire, a systems engineering major from Winchester, Virginia. He’s had to get up to speed on the history of the room and the many secret handshakes.
“Just last night there was a bunch of kids from Christopher Newport University here,” he said in December. “They came just to see the room and take pictures. Initially, I didn’t realize how important this is to other people, because I live here every day. But to everyone else, it’s like going to the White House. It’s a huge historical spot.”
McGuire doesn’t bother to lock the door to his room, which is adorned with wall hangings you might expect in a fraternity, namely composites (Greek language for photo montages of the current year’s members) and a posters of newspaper sports pages and top-shelf liquors, because he knows that at any given time there are likely six or seven brothers hanging out studying or eating there.
“It’s pretty cool just to always have your best friends hanging out in your room. I feel like I have embodied more of UVA just living right in the heart of it.” McGuire plans to work at Fannie Mae in Washington, D.C., following graduation, as a financial engineer with mortgage-backed securities.
Biomedical Engineering and Physics
Room 6 East Lawn
From a young age, Bobby Pazhwak’s father told him harrowing stories about life growing up during the many conflicts in Afghanistan. Hearing tales of tragedy and loss weighed heavy on young Pazhwak and ignited in him a longing to help those hurt in conflict.
“I started becoming really interested in prosthetics and devices that can help people who are injured in combat situations, and that led me to biomedical engineering.” After taking some time to travel abroad, Pazhwak said he plans to work as an engineer for a few years before returning to school for a graduate degree.
Though he grew up in Fairfax County, Virginia, far from the battlefields, a sense of conflict is still something Pazhwak grapples with quite often from his room on the East Lawn.
“I wouldn’t say that I’ve always wanted to live here. The idea of living on the Lawn in the physical sense didn’t daunt me too much. I’ve always had to walk to use the bathroom and share my space. But I think [the Lawn] definitely has a turbulent history and can sometimes represent some of the not as great parts of UVA, like over-competitiveness and elitism. I try to be open when I talk to other people about the pros and cons of living here and the fact that this is like a troubled space a little bit.”
Even as he’s settled into his room on the Lawn, Pazhwak has continued to find his place there. Around his room, Pazhwak has grouped pictures by his years on Grounds.
“Every once in a while, I’ll look and see the growth that I’ve had in college. It’s been fun. And now that I’m living here, I don’t regret doing it. It’s definitely an honor living on the Lawn, but I just think that here at UVA there are so many smart and qualified people that I’m not that different than any other UVA students at all.”
Room 42 East Lawn
For the most part, students who’ve been selected to live on the Lawn request which room they want to inhabit for their final year at UVA based on a lottery. As his turn to pick was coming up, Nicholas Smith, who will consult for Deloitte in Washington, D.C., after graduating in May, noticed that Room 42 East Lawn was still available. He hoped no one would snag it before he could, as it reminded him of one of his heroes, Jackie Robinson, who wore that number for the Brooklyn Dodgers after breaking the color barrier to become the first African American to play Major League Baseball in the modern era.
“It made sense to me, and after I selected the room, I immediately bought a Jackie Robinson jersey. When I see the number on my door, I think of Jackie Robinson’s struggle and all the civil rights pioneers that have fought for my freedoms today. Being the only African-American male in a residential community like the Lawn, which has a history of being a predominantly white space, I reflect on the efforts made by the people who came before me. I also admire the efforts made by Robert Bland, the first African-American student to graduate from the E-school at UVA.”
As Robinson is known as a great unifier in the world of sports, Smith likewise is using his skills in systems engineering to bring people together through the way he has designed his room layout. “My room actually has three modes to it, three different capabilities.”
The first he calls lounge mode and includes chairs and a coffee table situated in a relaxing atmosphere around the historic fireplace for his friends to chill in or to occasionally host one-on-one counseling sessions. The next is rehearsal mode. He pushes the coffee table against the wall and pulls in chairs around the room. He often uses this arrangement when hosting the Virginia No-tones, billed as the oldest and only UVA a cappella group for the “musically inept,” a group in which he actively participates. Finally, there is the social mode, where he pulls up the rug, throws chairs and anything laying around on the floor on top of his bunk and opens the space up for maximum socializing.
“Having those different options is always nice depending on what type of scenario I’m dealing with.”
Room 17 West Lawn
In the fall of 1924, a group of politically minded students met in Room 17 West Lawn, disenchanted with the student government association in the School of Engineering at the time. This first meeting of the Delta Society sought to introduce more points of view into the school’s political structure.
The following September, the organization evolved into the Trigon Society fraternity, with the headquarters in that room under the founder, Ewing G. Simpson, who also resided there. In the 1980s, Trigon abandoned its political leanings in favor of building a more inclusive and service-oriented organization.
Room 17 West Lawn is one of only eight Lawn rooms that are endowed or reserved. In 1966, citing the historical significance of Room 17, the University designated Room 17 West Lawn as the Trigon Room; every February since, the group has selected a rising fourth-year student from those who’ve applied to live on the Lawn in order to maintain this social center for the organization.
Noah Stern is the most recent Trigon member selected to carry the torch as the room’s resident. “I’ve really enjoyed my experience with Trigon and wanted to be the person that brings people together in the space.”
Stern, a biomedical engineering major, realized that once the nights were cool enough to enjoy the room’s fireplace, there wasn’t enough airflow coming into the room to properly activate the flue. So, he devised a simple machine to keep the mail drop of his room’s front door open, allowing fresh air to circulate. Stern has been accepted into several biomedical and biomedical engineering Ph.D. programs and is still deciding where to enroll.
While the organization has grown too large to hold its full member meetings in the room, the space is still a hub for brothers to meet, study or hang out. It’s not uncommon for Stern to get a message from a Trigon member who might want to crash the space for a bit. “It's my room, but I also view it as kind of like Trigon's space. So, kind of my space and our space.”
Room 21 West Lawn
We all march to the beat of a different drum, and as he turns his music up in his Dolby-tuned room on the Lawn, chemical engineering student Jonathan Zheng says that he thinks that’s just fine. That is what drew him to the University of Virginia in the first place.
The Manassas native is bent on breaking stereotypes and using his home on the Lawn as a catalyst for cultural exchange. “Everyone has other sides to them that aren’t immediately obvious. There’s more to people. One reason I wanted to live here was to get to meet other leaders and people who are active in the community and the University, and, to bring a slice of my life and my background to the University.”
Zheng, who plans to enroll in a Ph.D. program after graduation, is also focused on showing that, even though he’s absorbed in his engineering education, he and other students are multidimensional.
“I’m a big music fan, I love creative writing, I’m working on a video project. I’m adding my own perspective to what it means to be an engineer and sharing that message with others.”
The central location of the Lawn rooms on Grounds is a great benefit to showcasing these different perspectives. He has opened his door to host meetings for the American Institute of Chemical Engineers at UVA, the society of Asian Scientists and the national engineering honor society, to name a few.
Sure, the space has a couple of drawbacks, like having to walk out in the rain in your bathrobe to take a shower, or trying to cook something more than microwaveable popcorn; but the benefits of the location and meeting new people with different perspectives on the world living right next door far outweighs the challenges, Zheng said. He also engineered a surround-sound system and movie theater in his room, so that has helped make the space more agreeable.
“Everyone on the Lawn is really amazing and inspiring in their own way. It’s diversified my own perspectives in that way, too.”