Joan Lee

Fourth-year Joan Lee was selected to live on the Lawn as a senior resident for her final year at the University of Virginia.

During her year helming the University of Virginia’s Lawn, Joan Lee said she tried to make the heart of UVa more close-knit and inclusive.

Lee moved into senior resident quarters on the Lawn last August. She stocked her bookshelves, made up her loft bed and began the yearlong process of papering her door with Post-it notes, posters and signs. Most pressing, though, was organizing an overnight retreat for fellow Lawnies.

“People were skeptical, but it worked out,” she said. “It gave me confidence in everyone’s ability to come together.”

Every year, 47 of UVa’s original dormitory rooms are offered to rising fourth-years through a complex application process. The remaining seven Lawn rooms typically go to students who head particular student life committees or organizations.

This weekend, Lee, who is graduating with a degree in global studies and a concentration in security and justice, and her fellow Lawn residents will join thousands of students earning 7,090 undergraduate, graduate and professional degrees from UVa.

Lee spent her first year on Grounds living at Brown Residential College and then served two years there as a resident adviser. For her final year at UVa, however, she put in an application to live on the Lawn and was surprised to not only be selected but to be named senior resident. The position is responsible for developing programming for students who live on the Lawn and the faculty and administrators who reside in the Lawn’s pavilions; supervising staff members; and ensuring maintenance.

“I think one benefit of this position is that we were all selected to live on the Lawn for a reason, and I expect everyone to show their best self and expect their better selves from others,” Lee said. “Whatever job you get will force you to negotiate with people with different interests, but you should always assume the best intentions and believe the best of people.”

UVa students have criticized the Lawn application process for not awarding rooms to a fair representation of different majors and races and ethnicities; rates have fluctuated over recent years, according to reporting by The Cavalier Daily. Students also have asked for more Lawn rooms to be renovated to be compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Lee acknowledged critiques but said the Lawn is becoming more diverse and less elitist. She also pointed to a change this year that provides more furniture to Lawn residents, rather than asking them to buy a dresser or bookshelf and effectively shutting out students who could not afford to do so. On Friday, the university’s Seven Society also announced a donation of $47,777.77 to help students cannot afford the Lawn’s housing costs but would otherwise be good candidates for Lawn rooms.

Lee has spent the past four years combining student activism with work in housing and residence life, which she says has shown her the tensions between student demands and administrative needs.

“I think coming from the student advocacy side, I was a skeptic about a lot of things, and this position has really softened me up,” she said. “If you are not willing to work with them or speak with people, who will?”

Leading student life on the Lawn can be a stressful balancing act of managing staff interests, student concerns, public events and safety, said Danial Hussain, a fellow Lawn resident. Lee always balanced her professional obligations and a personal interest in giving students the space to express themselves, he said.

“The Lawn, like any group of 55-plus people you gather at UVa, has a really wide variety of backgrounds,” Hussain said. “And with that, between political issues and local issues, there can be times when there are opportunities for debate, and I don’t think Joan ever tried to take the easy way out. She always encouraged a more meaningful discussion.”

She also juggled those obligations with other campus work, including as a teaching assistant for Jeffrey Woo’s statistics classes. Woo typically hires graduate students, but said he was impressed with Lee’s grasp of concepts and ability to guide students in the right direction.

Those skills came from work with the Multicultural Student Center, where Lee interned, the Minority Rights Committee, where she was a vice chairwoman, and of the constituent Asian Student Union, where she was chairwoman of the advocacy committee.

As part of the committee, Lee started a cultural sensitivity program, Unpacking Privilege, which Lee said helped her to think through how to guide students through a series of steps to evaluate their backgrounds and break down barriers.

The program inspired her to start a Things I Wish I Knew speakers series at the center last fall, featuring faculty and staff discussing their personal experience trying to navigate identity and their careers.

“It was inspired by my supervisor who made me do a whole identity flip,” she said. “He basically told me that you can pursue your passion, or you can pursue something a little more practical; you just have to be aware of what the options are.”

She hopes the series has inspired others who, like herself, entered college with a specific career plan to consider other options. Initially, she was dead-set on foreign service, but she now hopes to explore paths that can expose her to other cultures and work overseas. Governmental work eventually could follow a graduate degree, she said, but she currently plans to complete an internship at the Department of Defense’s innovation unit in Washington and then take a job with a restaurant company in Miami.

Lee and other graduates of the College and Graduate School of Arts & Sciences will process during the first round of Final Exercises at 10 a.m. Saturday on the Lawn.

UVa’s 11 professional schools and programs will hold their academic procession and Final Exercises at 10 a.m. Sunday on the Lawn.

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Ruth Serven Smith is a reporter for The Daily Progress. Contact her at (434) 978-7254, or @RuthServen on Twitter.

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