Class of ’23: How Living on Grounds All 4 Years Changed the Life of Karissa Ng
Karissa Ng’s University of Virginia experience began with a familiar story: arriving to Grounds in an overstuffed vehicle in mid-summer and anxiously settling into a residence hall.
On the ride to Charlottesville from her Virginia Beach home, Ng recalled, a rolled-up rug for the dorm room pressed her head close to the window of her grandmother’s minivan. By the time she and her parents, with the help of UVA’s famed move-in Greeters and others, had hauled everything into Page-Emmet House on McCormick Road, the truth was evident.
“I definitely overpacked that day,” Ng laughed in a recent interview sandwiched between studying for midterm exams and a class the week before Spring Break.
UVA first-year students, of course, are required to live on Grounds, and more than 4,000 of them participate in the move-in ritual each August. After that initial year, the majority clear out their dorm rooms and opt to live in apartments or other housing off-Grounds.
But not Ng, who will graduate in May with a degree in biology and anthropology, with a concentration in medical anthropology, ethics and care.
She has lived on Grounds in UVA housing all four years. The full experience. Even during some summers.
Something about that first semester in Page-Emmet ended up being very appealing. It went back to the first day, with all the activity, the newness, the nervous energy, encountering people she didn’t know, but would become friends with for the years ahead.
“I remember the thrill and excitement of finding my roommate, Shannon, and designing the room together, organizing and unpacking our things,” she said. “It was very chaotic, because you enter the hall and many residents are with their parents and they have their luggage and everything, coming into their room and unpacking, and everyone’s doors are propped open.”
Images from Karissa Ng’s move-in day in 2019. Pictured with her are her mother, Julie Zhu, and father, Jerry Ng. (Contributed photo)
Inspired To Get Involved
One steady presence throughout Ng’s first year in Page-Emmet made a lasting impression. Her name is Ali Verster and she served as the resident adviser of Emmet 3L hall during Ng’s first year at UVA. Ng watched how she kept a level head and supported the new students, resolved conflicts, encouraged others and gently enforced dorm rules.
Ng and her fellow 3L hallmates from Page-Emmet Hall from their first year on Grounds in 2019-20. (Contributed photo)
Slowly, she began to see herself in that role. And eventually, Ng decided to apply to become an RA – a curiosity that grew into a passion through her experience here. It led to Ng serving as a co-chair, along with fellow fourth-year student Holly Sims, of the Resident Staff program, which oversees approximately 280 student members consisting of vice chairs, senior residents and resident advisers.
“I really like that experience and I like that interaction,” Ng said of her time as an RA. “Being able to empathize with your residents and to support them, whether they’re going through tough, challenging times in their lives or just even the best of times, their little victories. I really grew to love that.”
You can forgive Jerry Ng for smiling at this outcome. That wasn’t exactly the Karissa Ng he and his wife, Julie Zhu, dropped off that day in 2019. Jerry Ng, in a Zoom interview from Virginia Beach, said the couple’s only child was somewhat reserved and introspective growing up – even if she was an overachiever academically and in other pursuits. Through her experiences as a college student and in the residence life program, another side emerged.
“She was more of a private person before,” he said. “So, she’s just bloomed.”
‘One of the Best RA’s’
One person who got to know Karissa Ng well during her time at UVA has also enjoyed watching Ng change during the past four years.
Megha Kalyan was a UVA fourth-year student and a senior resident in Housing & Residence Life in 2020 when Ng applied to become a resident adviser. Senior residents live in apartments in the dorms and supervise the various RAs staffing each residence hall. When Ng served as a Page-Emmet RA of Emmet 3L – yes, her old first-year hall – in 2020-21, Kalyan served as her colleague and supervisor.
“She was amazing,” said Kalyan, who graduated in 2021 and now works full-time for Housing & Residence Life as a Residence Life coordinator. “She was literally one of the best RAs I’ve ever seen.”
Kalyan said Ng demonstrated and continued to develop the traits that seem to be prevalent in the most successful RAs. She was meticulous, organized, fair and empathetic. But Kalyan said she believed Ng matured the most as an RA and leader when her confidence grew that her own, low-key approach could be just as effective as more outspoken styles.
“Karissa is not the loudest person in the room. I don’t think she was ever the person who would be the first to assert her opinions or what she was thinking. And I think that’s hard at this University to be that kind of quiet leader,” she said
Ng agrees that over time, however, she learned to trust her leadership style and approach.
“Seeing how everything’s come together and the person that I am today, it’s something that I am very happy about, and it is something that I am going to take with me as I prepare to walk the Lawn and finish my undergrad career,” she said.
Learning Through Tough Times
For Ng, and for all Class of 2023 members, the disruptive effects of COVID-19 forever color their undergraduate years. The threat of the virus and the ways it affected student life added even more pressure to RAs on residence hall front lines, where a positive test on a hall could lead to students being quickly moved to other facilities or temporarily housed in hotel rooms to satisfy quarantine guidelines in place at the time.
RAs found themselves in unfamiliar and uncomfortable positions of policing mask and gatherings policies, issuing warnings, documenting repeat violations. The role already helped Ng develop leadership and even management competencies, but doing so through the pandemic – while far from enjoyable – accelerated that maturation.
“What I appreciated from that year, even though it was a difficult year, was that I was still able to build community in my hall,” she said. “Still keep my door open and talk to residents and have that interaction despite the restrictions that we had. And of course, I had my mask on.”
Asked about other experiences that helped her grow in her role and in general, Ng recalled the difficulty and uncertainty of handling a situation involving a dorm resident who was showing symptoms of alcohol overdose. RAs are taught to watch carefully for, and take action if they see, any one of the four alcohol overdose signs, which include things like a resident vomiting while passed out, showing no response to being pinched or shaken, breathing irregularly, and their skin having a blue and cold appearance.
With just weeks remaining in her undergraduate career, Karissa Ng is soaking up time with friends, taking in the food truck scene and keeping an eye on last semester grades. (Photo by Sanjay Suchak, University Communications)
It's one thing to go through training to prepare, but another to actually encounter a potentially dangerous situation. Ng said the experience was frightening at the moment, as she had never called 911 until that evening.
“You want to help them, but at the same time you don’t want to do something wrong,” she said. “You need to have a humble heart as you’re approaching all these different situations and you know that humility can show in different forms. It could be asking fellow peers questions, people who might have done this a little bit longer than you have. And as you grow and work through the process together with others and actually make that effort, the experience you gain is far more valuable. It’s something that no one can take away from you.”
Soaking It All In
Now, with just weeks to go before Final Exercises, Ng is focusing on a few things. First, her grades, of course. But also seeking a job, which she expects will involve working for a consultancy initially and a career in health care administration later.
Outside of class and separate from her Residence Life responsibilities, Ng said she’s banking quality time with her closest friends, squeezing in lunches or other ways to connect, and enjoying volleyball in Memorial Gym. She’s soaking in her UVA surroundings as she crosses Grounds between classes or appointments, especially now that spring has arrived.
“There are times where I randomly pull out my phone and take a picture of a really beautiful scene that I know I probably won’t be seeing anytime soon after I graduate,” she said.
A self-described foodie, Ng particularly enjoys Asian cuisine. Her favorite local restaurant, Silk Thai, closed temporarily after a fire and Ng hopes to get a chance to visit it again before her time in Charlottesville ends. She also gives UVA’s food truck scene high marks.
“Especially Halal Kitchen’s butter chicken and their mango lassi. Those are my go-tos.”
Naturally, as all UVA students must, Ng enjoys Bodo’s Bagels. For her, the perfect combo is ham and egg with provolone cheese and avocado on an everything bagel.
The Final Move
Jerry Ng remembers a lot of details from that August day in 2019 when Karissa moved into Page-Emmet. The drizzly weather. The rolled-up rug. The parental advice about trying new things and making lots of connections. The warnings about not walking alone at night and carrying pepper spray just in case. Karissa falling asleep on the way to Charlottesville as she always did on long car rides as a kid.
Ng shares a laugh with colleagues in UVA Housing & Residence. She currently serves as co-chair of the Resident Staff program. (Photo by Sanjay Suchak, University Communications)
Dropping off the couple’s only child to college, and all that higher education seemed to promise, and returning to Virginia Beach made him reflect on his own life experience. In 1967, Ng’s parents immigrated from Hong Kong to the United States when his mother was six months pregnant with him in search of better opportunities. Jerry Ng would find them here, and attributes much of his success to effort, persistence and nurturing relationships.
“I told her, ‘Just try, you know, don’t live life in a vacuum. Get out there, get to know people,’” he said. “When it all comes down to it, it is basically about people. It’s not about what job you’ll have one day or what your major is going to be. It’s about how you use your talent and how you make a difference in impact.”
Thankfully his daughter never needed the pepper spray, but she definitely took the other advice and ran with it.