Thinking Small: First-Year Students Find Community at UVA Law in Small Sections
When he was considering which law school to attend, Mark Gruetzmacher heard a lot of hype about the collegial nature of the community at the University of Virginia School of Law. When Danielle Moore first visited UVA, several students went out of their way to explain how the school fosters a sense of belonging and inclusion. Now a few months into their studies as first-year law students, Gruetzmacher and Moore say what they heard wasn't exaggerated.
"You could see these people actually meant what they were telling you," Moore said.
First-year students at the University of Virginia School of Law build close relationships among their classmates, receive friendly guidance from section professors and upperclassmen, and become part of a community through the small-section approach to learning.
Each year, the Law School breaks the incoming class into small groups, or sections. The sections each consist of about 30 students, and this year's class is comprised of 10 sections. The students take all of their classes along with their section. And while some classes are combined with other sections, two classes each semester are intentionally section-exclusive in order to keep them small.
"Members of your small section tend to be the people you end up in study groups with and talk through issues with," said Sarah Davies, assistant dean for student affairs and a 1991 graduate of the Law School. "The nice thing about sections is you get to know those people pretty well. Many of your best friends end up being people in your sections. I'm still in contact with people who were in my section."
As in years past, the Class of 2017 got to know their section mates right away through activities facilitated by their upperclassmen Peer Advisors during orientation. Davies said each section gets six Peer Advisors so that students always have someone they can relate to and go to for advice.
Gruetzmacher, who is in Section B along with classmate Moore, said orientation was more than just informative. It was an induction into the Law School's culture.
"We participated in a playfully stressful game called 'The Island Game' that's apparently a tradition,'" Gruetzmacher said. "Immediately, we got to know each other, learning names and unique information about each other. From there, our Peer Advisors were scheduling social events, scheduling potluck dinners, showing us around the town and inviting us into their homes."
In addition to the numerous informal get-togethers, first-year students participate in the annual 1L Softball Tournament and the decidedly informal Dandelion Parade, among other activities organized by Peer Advisors.
Elizabeth Reese, a third-year student and Peer Advisor, said helping first-year students is a way of giving back to a program that helped her.
"I had such a rewarding 1L year, largely thanks to my P.A.s, who were there to encourage me, manage my expectations, and make sure I had a lot of fun along the way, that I wanted to 'pay it forward' by being a P.A. myself," Reese said.
She added that the relationship between Peer Advisors and advisees is mutually beneficial.
"The best part of the Virginia Law community is that we all look out for each other, regardless of class year, and I know that from personal experience," she said. "When my mom passed away earlier this year, my advisees were some of the first to send flowers and some of the first to welcome me back to school."
The sections also benefit from events organized by the Law School's faculty and administrators. In the fall, each section gets to have lunch with Dean Paul Mahoney. While connecting with students one-on-one, the dean encourages them to ask any questions they might have about the running of the school and how he can help them be successful.
Section B is currently taking Contracts with Professor Alex Johnson, their section leader, and Legal Writing with Professor Ruth Buck. For section professors, their role is more than just teaching students in a classroom. They, too, are forming bonds — relationships that may prove the most influential of all to students' careers.
"They get, for want of a better term, an intimate learning experience," Johnson said. "Basically, I serve as their mentor and tell them the first time I meet with them during orientation that, between us, there are no stupid questions — they should feel free and comfortable to ask me anything about law school, UVA, Charlottesville, the legal profession, etc."
Johnson said he takes his section responsibilities seriously because his advice will ultimately affect the classes students take, the summer work opportunities they pursue and countless other choices.
As in other first-year classes, Johnson's Contracts includes a midterm that's not for credit. Instead, he uses the opportunity to meet with students individually and make sure they are understanding key concepts. But he said his door is open for whenever students seek guidance or simply want to "shoot the breeze."
Recently, per his tradition, Johnson invited his section to his house for dinner, which he said he will do in their second and third years as well.
"I want to ensure that I stay in touch with them and remain knowledgeable about their future plans," he said.
Moore said having a professor who both interacts with students on a personal level and teaches them to think like lawyers has made the classroom experience less daunting.
"[Johnson] is definitely not easier on us because we're in his small section, but people are more comfortable participating, I think," she said.
When Johnson taught Property as his small-section course, he used to participate in the first-year softball competition along with his students. The professor said he looks back fondly on that time. Gruetzmacher said Section B's winning of this year's tournament may have served to make their bond with Johnson a little more special.
"Our greatest accomplishment was to get Professor Johnson a 1L champions' T-shirt," Gruetzmacher said. "We know we made him proud."