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A Different Take on UVa’s Madison House

By Ryan Orr

Ryan is a third-year Biology and Global Public Health major and Bioethics. He currently serves as President of the Bioethics Society at UVa, Student Representative for the UVa College of Art & Sciences College Foundation, Program Director for Madison House Medical Services, and Peer Mentor for PALS (Peers are Listening) on Grounds. In addition, Ryan is actively involved in clinical research through the UVa Department of Infectious Diseases and International Health. His research is heavily focused on the clinical significance of antibiotic resistant organisms.

Madison House has long remained the cornerstone of student volunteering at the University of Virginia. Over 3000 UVa students currently commit to over 20 community volunteer programs. Weekly volunteering commitments bring UVa students into the many neighborhoods of Charlottesville, Virginia and directly serves thousands of local residents. From food banks to hospice centers, students are able to escape the “bubble” of University Grounds and become exposed to some of the harsh realities of most Americans (e.g., inadequate food security, social isolation in the most dire of times).


Madison House can undoubtedly be one of the most quintessential experiences a student can have during their college career. With students filling the ranks of leadership for each volunteer program, the organization provides excellent opportunities for prolonged engagement at a higher level.  

I’ve been a hospice volunteer since February 2016 and, this fall, I had the privilege of introducing the New Century Hospice Volunteer Program to Madison House as the PD (Program Director)- a Madison House elected student leader who manages a group of volunteers for a given year or semester while serving as the liaison between the community partner and Madison House infrastructure. Being a Program Director for Madison House places a fair amount of responsibility on an individual, especially after training and recruitment. A seemingly straightforward job of volunteer management and thorough communication is an excellent example of capitalizing on the rich, young enthusiasm found on college campuses.


These qualities associated with being a PD, while notable for many reasons, are not necessarily the reason why students dedicate and sacrifice their time for their program. While going through the process of training, however, I was a bit surprised to find that Madison House, itself, seemed to advocate for just that: the importance of self-promotion in the work of a Program Director. During the annual Madison House Fall Summit, in which all Program Directors are mandated to attend for training and orientation, Madison House facilitated a presentation on volunteer “recruitment and registration as well as program vision and mission, goals, and professional development.”


That last point of professional development was managed by the University of Virginia’s Career Center. While a necessary and excellent resource for any student seeking professional guidance, finding them at this event was both morally and ethically troubling. Of the 90 minutes spent at the Summit, approximately 35 minutes were spent listening to the Career Center presentation. That’s roughly 39% of the time for a supposed volunteer training session. Because this session served as my, and many others’, first impression of how Madison House operated, I strongly believe that this was the time for Madison House to be pushing a morally correct mentality. Volunteering is an altruistic and self-sacrificing aspect of society. It was undoubtedly evident at this point that even if a PD had not thought about his or her work in a self-promotional spotlight, they now would. Motivations for volunteering should be selfless. Professional development can wait for another day.


My work in hospice is not something I seek, or even try, to extract professional benefit from. My motivations for pursuing such work are deeply personal, not unlike those of my program’s volunteers. Hearing my volunteering organization, an organization that I will serve for over the next year, highlight this kind of material in such a significant manner raises strong personal and professional concerns with Madison House’s vision. The tone an organization chooses to set, especially at a university, can have far reaching and broad implications. As current student volunteers move on past graduation and enter the workforce, whether it be with a local non-profit, government agency, international aid organization, etc, how they’re taught to think now sets the stage for future decisions.


A student is a university’s export to the world. Forever symbolizing the attitudes and values established during their time on Grounds, do we hope to see these rich minds as an asset or a liability? Even the slightest endorsement of questionable character can tip the scale.

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