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Student Voice Interview - University of Virginia


This article originally appeared in the SSA eMpirical No. 16 - Student Voice Part II.

Senior Campus Organizer interviews the University of Virginia Atheists & Agnostics. Isaah Vincent is the Activities Chair of this student group and had these responses.

Issah Vincent
Isaah Vincent, Activities Chair of the Virginia Atheists & Agnostics.
I hear that Richard Dawkins made a somewhat surprise visit to your campus recently. How did this happen, and was Virginia Atheists & Agnostics (VAA) able to drum up a lot of interest in such a short amount of time?

That visit was as much of a surprise to us as to most of the body of UVA. There was actually little advertisement about his visit in the weeks preceding. He was on his book tour for The God Delusion and had visited Randolph Macon Women's College. We had been planning to transport a large group of students over to RMWC to see him speak. Unbeknownst to us, the administrator who organized the tour stop there knew one of the deans here at UVA. The UVA administrator quickly arranged a stop here to coincide with his visit to the area and the anniversary of the debut of The Selfish Gene.

We were first alerted by Dawkin's homepage that there was a tour stop now planned for UVA. We contacted the dean in charge and found out, unfortunately, that they did not need our help. We were worried about low turnout for the two lectures, since we did not see any flyers or posters. We were prepared to do a guerilla ad-campaign before we heard the awesome wave of word-of-mouth excitement. It seems that the event was originally aimed at being a smaller book tour signing but ballooned quickly into a standing-room-only event in one of our formal lecture halls.

Isaah, when we last chatted on the phone, you mentioned that your group is having some recruitment problems and that many of your officers are seniors this year. What is VAA doing to ensure that it'll be just as strong next year?

One of our biggest concerns this year is group numbers. When the club began, we had lots of very active members who both participated in the group events as well as worked to recruit new members. However, the group was comprised of mainly freshman and sophomores. Now, many of these students have graduated or are preparing to graduate. The troubles this year probably began at the beginning of the semester, with a poor showing by us at the student activities fair. This is one of the biggest opportunities for us to become visible members of the UVA community and recruit new members. Things seemed to get worse as attendance seemed to drop off by the end of the semester. With a large group of our senior officers graduating in May, we have to revamp the group quickly to survive another year.

Right now, we have started to rework how we run the group. We have made it everyone's responsibility to advertise for the groups events instead of appointing an advertising chair and having him run around and do it all. Also, we hope to lead out next semester with two or three large events which will bring in new members. We are going to try to reach out to an untapped, highly motivated group of people, graduate students. They can provide highly motivated students as well as continuity from year to year (as we can spend anywhere from 4-8 years here).

I had the great pleasure of meeting you, James Armontrout (secretary), and Alex Campbell, (publicity) at the SSA conference in Kansas City last year. Do you think you gained a lot from attending the conference (other than being able to hit on heathen ladies)?

Oh, definitely. It was a great way to meet with other motivated people and get some ideas about how we can increase the level of discourse on campus as well as information on topics that are important to us. We also got some ideas about possible speakers to have visit, whose appeal is not just limited to the atheist and agnostic community such as Hemant Mehta and Lori Lipman Brown. The people were great and a lot of fun to hang out with (not just the ladies). Being thrown into a basement with people due to tornadoes really helps group bonding.

I hope you grace with your august presence at Harvard this spring. Are VAA members planning to attend?
I've already got my Boston Red Sox apparel all lined up and have been working on my long 'A's. I am also really interested in many of the speakers I see on the list. E.O. Wilson? Salman Rushdie? Who would miss that?

Earlier this year you and I were working together to get Matt Cherry of the Institute for Humanist Studies and Lori Lipman Brown of the Secular Coalition for America to speak to your campus using the SSA's Speakers Bureau. Is this still something that you guys hope to carry out? Can I help with that?

Most definitely. It was planned late last semester and I decided to head up arranging all the details for their visit here. However, I did not anticipate the size of my workload and those plans got delayed. I would love your help on arranging a visit early this semester as a great intro to the semester. We would like to have it as a co-sponsored event with other groups on campus and our graduate schools, bringing in a large group of students.

This article originally appeared in the SSA eMpirical No. 16 - Student Voice Part II.

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