Class of 2022: As a Tour Guide, I Learned How to Make a Big School Feel Small

With the Rotunda in the background, fourth-year student Caroline Challe speaks about personal experiences during her past four years.

In the spring of 2017, my dad and I stood in the back of a tour group, sweating in the unfamiliar Virginia heat. Students crowded the Lawn: reading on blankets, eating lunch on the Rotunda steps, chatting with friends under shady trees. A Frisbee flew over us, and a guy yelled, “Heads!” Our tour guide paused, swinging her red ponytail around, as we watched him chase the disc, and I imagined what it would be like to be one of these students.

As our tour guide navigated us through Grounds, passersby kept calling out her name. Occasionally, she described how she knew them: “There’s a friend from my engineering classes. … That’s someone who lived on my hall first year. … There’s someone I know from a club.”

My dad whispered to me, “It seems like she knows everyone at this school.”

Over a year later, I called my mom from my UVA dorm room. In my first week of school, I felt homesick and lonely. The activities fair, an event where student organizations set up booths and recruit new members, was later that day. I told my mom that I wasn’t going to attend.

“Go and see what happens,” she said. “You know you’re going to call me sad because you have to leave this place one day.”

“Doubtful,” I thought, but I resolved to go to the activities fair anyway.

Walking around, I saw a group of students passing out fliers to become a tour guide. I remembered my tour guide and how comfortable she seemed here.

Challe welcomes a tour group on the sidewalk in front of Peabody Hall.

Four years later, I’m leaving my house to give one of my last tours as an undergraduate student. Three of my roommates I met a few weeks after the activities fair in our first tour guide training session.

The air is sticky, something I’ve now grown accustomed to. As I look out on the tour group, I introduce myself as a fourth-year student studying English and global commerce in culture and society. Standing in front of the Rotunda, I tell a joke to break the ice:

“Why is it called the Rotunda?

“Because it's rotund, duh,” I say.

I only get a few laughs back and follow up the quip with, “That one rarely lands,” which generates far more chuckles.

Guests begin their tour of Grounds, which lasts a little over an hour.

We walk down the Lawn and stand outside Old Cabell Hall to talk about academics. “Does anyone have any questions before we get started?” A mother nudges her child, and he hesitantly raises his hand.

“Does UVA ever feel too big?”

You can always make a big school feel small, but you can’t make a small school feel big.”I give my prepared answer to the question. “You can always make a big school feel small, but you can’t make a small school feel big.”

I follow this up with an anecdote from my first semester here. I took a politics class with professor James Todd. On the first day, in a class of about 40 students, he went around and asked everyone their names. The following week, I went to his office hours, and as I walked in, he looked up from his desk and said, “Caroline, great to see you.” Still in shock that he’d remembered my name after just one class, I sat and asked him questions about the upcoming paper.

At the end of our conversation, he asked about the Green Bay Packers shirt I was wearing. I told him my grandparents live in Green Bay, and from that day on, every time I saw him walking on Grounds he’d say, “Go Packers!”

Tour guides at UVA write their own tours, giving them the space to talk about personal experience.

I tell this story because running into Professor Todd became a highlight of my weeks, but I had to take the initiative and go to office hours to form that connection.

Next, the tour group and I walk to the McIntire Amphitheater just as class ends. Floods of students come from all different directions. The once quiet space fills with chatter. The lines at the food trucks start multiplying. I say to the group, “Looks like classes just got let out,” and give them a second to look around.

At this stop, we talk about activities at UVA. I tell the group that during my second year, I tried out for a club called the “No Tones,” a singing group for the musically inept. I joined because I saw one of their concerts and thought, “They are really terrible at singing, but they look like they’re having a ton of fun.”

This was one of the first times I joined something that served no other purpose than to have a good time. The members have no agenda other than making themselves and those watching laugh. Last week, we had our final concert of my undergraduate career, and I can attest it was worth every second of fun.

UVA has more than 800 student-run organizations. Being a part of different communities can allow students to expand their interests and engage with a larger network of people, making the school feel smaller.

Our next stop is a dorm. On the walk there, I see a person in my English class handing out fliers for an upcoming poetry reading. I take one, and the tourist beside me asks if I’m going to attend it. I nod my head yes, looking down at the flier. 

When we get to the dorm, I am asked, “What is your favorite memory from your first year?”

I set the scene as a mid-March day, warm but not too hot. That night, UVA men’s basketball was going to play in the NCAA national championship game. Coming into college, when people would want to watch basketball games, I was not particularly invested.

Eventually, I started going with friends to watch games, not wanting to be left behind. Watching them high-five at every point and hug as the buzzer sounded off, I felt a part of something. None of us were playing, and the outcome of the game wouldn’t really shift our lives, but there was a sense of belonging and community.

The night of the championship, we crowded the Lawn. As the final point was scored, someone played music from a Lawn room. Dressed in orange and blue, we danced, elated.

Challe fields questions in the McIntire Amphitheater. The tour continues, rain or shine.

As we make our way to Peabody Hall to wrap up the tour, I tell our guests that in a few short weeks, I’ll graduate. Earlier this semester, I joined an intramural soccer team with my roommates and some of our friends. I had never played soccer before, and I didn’t know any of the rules, but I came every week. The highlight of the past week, in fact, was one of those games. Even in your last few months of college, it is never too late to try something new.

That is how you make a big school feel small. You buy in. You go to the professor’s office hours; you join a club because it seems like fun; you watch the basketball game, even if you weren’t initially interested. Most importantly, you say “yes” more than you say “no.”

This week, as I prepare for my few final classes, I call my mom. I’m upset because it’s almost over, just like she had said I would be.

Editor’s note: Caroline Challe has filed news and feature articles as a UVA Today intern for the past two years. Read more of her work.