Tsega Fisseha has thought a lot about what happened at the University of Virginia last summer.
“It makes me feel kind of emotional. It makes me wonder, why did this have to happen to my school,” the incoming UVa first-year student from Springfield said. “I wondered why they let the people onto the Grounds.”
Fisseha joined many classmates in moving into dorms Saturday. Students will continue to move in on Sunday and classes begin Tuesday.
Earlier this year, the university enacted a new free speech policy for alumni and outside protesters. The recommendation was made last year after a newly formed Dean’s Working Group found that UVa had insufficient policy protections and didn’t enforce existing rules when white supremacists marched through Grounds on Aug. 11, 2017.
“When I’m here on Grounds, I want to be able to make a difference and stand as a symbol for diversity and that we’re not scared of anyone,” Fisseha said. “That’s why I’m here, because I’m not going to let them change my decision.”
Dropping off her daughter Katherine, Ann Keesee said she was excited, but also overwhelmed and a bit sad.
“This is our baby, that’s why it’s sad,” she said. “But we are very proud of her, so we will make the most of it.”
Ann Keesee’s father went to UVa in the 1950s, and the school was Katherine’s first choice.
“She’s carrying on that UVa tradition in the family,” Keesee said.
She said the family never really talked about the events of the past year.
Katherine said she is excited for the school year to start.
“I think it’s a beautiful campus,” she said. “I don’t really know what I want to do; I chose it because it’s a prestigious university and it was an honor to get into.”
Earlier this year, UVa offered regular action admission to 9,850 students, or about 26.5 percent of the 37,222 who applied. Last fall, the university offered enrollment to 6,000 early-action applicants. The enrollment target for the first-year class is 3,725 students.
Gigi Espiritu said she was ready to cry Saturday morning.
“He’s my second. You would think it’s easier the second time around but it’s really not,” she said, while helping her son Noah move into his residence hall.
UVa is relatively close to Fairfax, where the family lives, and Noah received a scholarship. Both were factors in his choosing the school over another university where he also was accepted.
“I have friends who feel like they wouldn’t send their kids here out of principle because of the history of the school,” Espiritu said.
She said she thinks that’s changing and that there are more conversations about the history of the university, and she doesn’t hold it against UVa.
“It’s a great, great, great school,” she said. “We wouldn’t miss out on that because of the past.”
In a welcome address to parents and students at Old Cabell Hall, new UVa President Jim Ryan spoke about some of his hopes for his son, whom he took to Yale on Friday, saying he has the same hopes for UVa students.
Among other things, Ryan said he hopes his son is safe, is engaged and builds bridges, but also that he’s uncomfortable at times.
“I also believe that college is a perfect opportunity to confront ideas that are different, perhaps radically so, from your own,” he said.
Ryan said this year’s class comes from 106 Virginia localities, 43 states and 82 countries.
“All of us here view it as our duty and our privilege to create the conditions that will allow your hopes and the hopes of your children to be realized,” he said. “To be specific, we will do our best to keep your children safe and to help them make smart decisions.”
He encouraged parents to help their children make good decisions, including avoiding the Wertland Street Block Party. The university had a series of alternative events planned for the same time as the block party Saturday night, including a concert with T-Pain and several late-night activities at the Aquatic & Fitness Center.
Free speech and student safety were among the issues discussed during a question and answer session with Gloria Graham, UVa’s first associate vice president for safety and security; Archie Holmes, vice provost for academic affairs; and Allen Groves, dean of students.
When asked how UVa will protect free speech, Graham said the school supports First Amendment rights.
“We sometimes have to plan for the unexpected or we get information that requires us to develop safety and security protocol for protected speech, but for the vast majority of those instances, we don’t even get engaged,” she said.
Groves said he spoke about the First Amendment during summer orientation sessions.
“I think that’s often one of the hardest things, is to have things that you at 18,19, 20 believe strongly and to hear an opposing view, and to be challenged in that way, that is the only way in which we can develop the kind of intellect, the kind of keen thinking that we need in our young people,” he said.
Groves said that, by and large, UVa students have allowed people with whom they disagree to speak at UVa, and then asked hard questions of those people.
“That’s what an institution like ours should be about,” he said.