‘We Had to Act Quickly, Establish New Processes and Think Creatively’: How the DSA Stepped Up to Lead Through the Pandemic

26 May 2021

By Jay Hodgkins

Every year, the Darden Student Association (DSA) plays a critical role in elevating the student experience at the Darden School. In the 2020-21 academic year, the group of committed Darden students found themselves going above and beyond, again and again.

With the coronavirus pandemic quickly throwing classes and student life into a virtual setting late in the 2019-20 academic year, the future was, at best, uncertain for the coming year in which the new DSA board would advocate for student needs and plan many of the events that define the top-ranked University of Virginia Darden School of Business education experience.

DSA Vice President for Social Mike Serverian (MBA ‘21)  had a sense things wouldn’t be normal. “I knew things would be different and a lot more difficult,” he said roughly one year later in May, a few weeks after concluding his DSA service and just days before his graduation. “This prediction proved to be true more than we could have imagined. We had to act quickly, establish new processes and think creatively.”

Social Distancing, Not Social Canceling

Perhaps in no area was the need to “think creatively” more acute than with the social events Serverian and his fellow VP for Social John Palmer (MBA ’21) were tasked with creating. Yet, despite strict limitations on in-person events and social distancing requirements for the safety of the UVA and local communities, Darden students found a way to adhere to the guidelines, plan and lead through uncertainty, and come together in a year where social bonds were both harder to form and more necessary than ever.

Throughout the year, the DSA managed to plan dozens of social events, from meet and greets with the incoming Class of 2022 to small backyard barbecues spread across 20 outdoor locations to a Halloween dog and baby parade.

“Managing and planning in a world of constantly changing restrictions challenged us. Our planning horizon was shifted to just days and weeks out, and regulations could change just hours before planned events,” Serverian said. “Overall, what helped fuel us was bias to action. In the face of these challenges, we decided that we would be open to almost anything and just push ourselves to make something happen.”

Serverian said he was most proud of two events. First, the 100 Case Celebration, which is an annual event for First Years to celebrate an important milestone in their first semester. This year, the DSA turned the event into an opportunity to bring the First Year and Second Year classes together and form bonds between them.

“We hosted a progressive where groups of First Years visited booths hosted by Second Years. The booths were themed to cases the First Years completed in their first few months at Darden, such as Target, Casper, RedHook Brewing and Jet Blue at Logan,” Serverian said. “The creativity and dedication of our Second Year class amazed me.”

The second event: A drive-in movie event at the UVA Foundation’s Morven Farm built from the bottom-up by Serverian and the DSA.

“I had the idea to gather the community to watch a movie as others did across the country,” Serverian said. “As the spring came around, I contacted the venue, found myself contracting audio and visual equipment, snacks, parking staff, and even port-a-potties. The weather cooperated and we had an incredible night under the stars. I was also able to use the event to spotlight other clubs’ upcoming events, like GWIB’s Women in Business week events, using a pre-show reel.”

Outside of the social realm, the DSA helped organize dozens of other events. From rethinking the annual Darden Cup competition among class sections to diversity, equity and inclusion programming such as One Darden Week to community service events, the DSA unleashed a wave of creativity and innovation to preserve the strengths of the student experience and build strong bonds.

Stepping Up as a Voice for Students

The DSA is much more than a nexus for organizing events. The association also serves as a critical voice for students with Darden and UVA leadership, and that voice was more necessary this academic year than perhaps any as students faced myriad challenges presented by the pandemic in their academic and personal lives.

The DSA this year constantly communicated student needs to Darden leadership based on the challenges and ideas the board heard from classmates. Backed in large part by financial support from donors through the Darden Annual Fund, the many victories they helped secure for students included:

  • A free Darden Executive Education & Lifelong Learning program for the classes of 2021 and 2022 anytime within three years of graduation
  • A meal plan for students, which included $1,200 in aid per student during the 2020-21 academic year
  • Student aid of $3,000 for each member of the Class of 2021. This amount is equal to the amount of the Darden Worldwide scholarship each student receives to cover for the cost of a global course, which were canceled for the spring 2020 semester and the 2020-21 academic year due to the pandemic.
  • Paid Darden Impact Internships for members of the classes of 2020 and 2021 whose summer 2020 internship and career plans were changed by the pandemic
  • Additional funding for student resources and programming, including additional mental health resources, First Year orientation events and snack budgets for Learning Teams
  • Funding to cover the cost of alumni events for the Class of 2021 at their one year reunion

In a letter to the Darden community at the end of their term as DSA leaders, then-DSA President Megan McGee (MBA ’21) and Executive Vice President Henrique Lopes (MBA ’21) summed up the work of the DSA in the context of running a marathon.

“Just as small runs over time lead to increased strength and ability to finish a marathon, small actions taken by many in a community lead to big wins,” they wrote. “The value that we were able to create and garner through the willpower of joint forces at Darden was immense — almost $8 million in value directly to students — but what we’re most proud of are the bonds that we maintained and strengthened through our collective resilience, generosity and love as a community.”

About the University of Virginia Darden School of Business

The University of Virginia Darden School of Business prepares responsible global leaders through unparalleled transformational learning experiences. Darden’s graduate degree programs (MBA, MSBA and Ph.D.) and Executive Education & Lifelong Learning programs offered by the Darden School Foundation set the stage for a lifetime of career advancement and impact. Darden’s top-ranked faculty, renowned for teaching excellence, inspires and shapes modern business leadership worldwide through research, thought leadership and business publishing. Darden has Grounds in Charlottesville, Virginia, and the Washington, D.C., area and a global community that includes 18,000 alumni in 90 countries. Darden was established in 1955 at the University of Virginia, a top public university founded by Thomas Jefferson in 1819 in Charlottesville, Virginia.


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Darden School of Business
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