UVa’s Lighting of the Lawn

If you are a student at UVA and missed the lighting of the lawn last night to study, you missed a token of why the University has been able to distinguish itself among other colleges.  During my first lighting of the lawn last year, I looked objectively at the number of lights that were strung around a few columns on the lawn, and was unimpressed.  Having hung Christmas lights for the past 10 years with my father, who has practically earned a Ph.D in exterior illumination, I thought the display was lacking.

What I failed to understand last year was that there is much more substance to the lighting of the lawn ceremonies than just the lights themselves.  Last night after thousands of students emerged to flock together on the lawn, small lights kindled excitement from fatigue, ignited scholarship and camaraderie, and dazzled uncertainty with truth.  Undeniably light symbolizes virtue and goodness, but what I glean from last night is a success that differentiates the University from any other place.

The skeptics argue that our traditions can be mistaken as overbearing, exclusive, or even pompous.   I assert that rituals like yesterday’s lighting of the lawn bring our community together and foster unbridled school spirit.  Traditions such as student self-governance shift many responsibilities, including last night’s ceremonies, to the very people who benefit from them.

Students, who are being monitored by their peers, are incentivized to lead successful community events because they know their reputation is at stake.  At what other school do the outcomes of so many events depend solely upon the students that run the organizations backing them?  Where else in the world do you see the kind of synergy among different organizations that Thursday night glorified, without some monetary lubricant?

Ice sculpture in front of the rotunda
Ice sculpture in front of the Rotunda

From the organization of the reading of poetry to the a Capella concerts, our student body is special in that we have the unique ability to take initiative. Over the past few weeks, students have volunteered to fundraise for sponsoring more columns to be lit on the lawn for charity.  Students have pressed for more energy-efficient LED-based lights.  And students have made sure the tradition stays alive by encouraging their friends to come out.

Some may claim that the realizations I have from Thursday night constantly engulf our daily lives (with which I agree), but as a result create divisions among the community.  The argument is that the same people who get elected to one post often are in a better position to take another leadership position within our student self-governed universe.

These divisions, which are most likely unqualified, are also not guaranteed to be nonexistent in other schools and in life after the University.  The benefits of the gains in school spirit resulting from our student-run events also outweigh any divisions because everybody is invited to partake in our traditions.  Certainly some may have been deemed by their peers to be not talented enough to be a part of an a capella group, but they are not excluded from getting involved with something they are more fit for.
I had a conversation with Dean Groves, who said, “There’s a natural tendency for students who are on Honor or UJC, for example, to spend large amounts of time with other student leaders, but in the end, the system will work.”  To that extent, Groves also emphasized the risk of the inefficiencies created by the mostly student-run system, saying, “[The administrators] could make a lot of these decisions much quicker, but on the other hand, [the students] would learn nothing in the process.”

If you are a first year and missed the ceremonies, I do hope you make time to attend throughout your next three years.  It may not be the event where you realize how magnificent the symphony is we students conduct, but you will remember the night more than your introductory chemistry assignment.  To an outsider strolling down the lawn, the twinkling addition to the lawn will certainly be charming, but after all, without being a student having witnessed or taken part of our organic, student-run orchestra, the lights probably won’t shine so brightly.