Double Take: Stories Meant to Make You Think Twice
On Saturday, October 20, 2018, ten members of the UVA community stood on the stage at Old Cabell Hall and told stories. These were no ordinary tales, but rather personal narratives that served to let the audience in that room, and later on social media, connect with them and each other in meaningful ways. The event, part of the official inauguration weekend events for UVA President Jim Ryan, illustrated Ryan’s ongoing core initiative of bridge building throughout the University community. Double Take: Stories Meant to Make You Think Twice, featured a selection of storytellers selected by a committee of University representatives to showcase the diversity of identities and experiences found on Grounds.
One of the most moving messages of the day came from Ryan himself, who told his own story of how, at the age of 46, he began a search for his birth mother. With his beloved adoptive parents having both passed away, Ryan was running with a friend who suggested that he should begin searching for his birth family. Ryan explained that he had never really been interested in doing so, as he had had a wonderful childhood and didn’t feel, as he said, that he was missing anything. He Googled “Catholic Charities,” and learned that the information would in fact be available to him. He soon learned that his birth mother was an Irish immigrant working for a wealthy family in New York. He learned that she had not wanted to give him up, and that she spent the first nine days in the hospital with him, feeding him every day. He learned that she knit throughout her pregnancy, and was the source of the tiny sweater, and the St. Christopher’s medal he was wearing when his parents saw him for the first time. He learned her name was Anne. A phone conversation would follow, then a meeting at a rest stop on the Garden State Parkway. Anne held his hand for the entire two hours they talked, and brought cards for each of his kids with what she said contained a little “ice cream money for the summer.” He also learned that Anne had lived 15 miles from his home all throughout his growing up years. She had married a wonderful man named Jack, he shared, and had three more children. “This was not a bridge I ever expected to cross,” Ryan told the crowd that day. “...It has enriched my life in so many ways, and it is one of the reasons I think bridge building is so important, and this weekend we have built yet another bridge between my extended family, who are all here, and my birth family.”
The power of connections Grounds showed through in the words of Rehan Baddeliyanage. He arrived at UVA with his hometown best friend J.P., whose happy-go-lucky, fun-loving, and open-hearted nature helped Rehan come out of his shell in ways he never imagined he could. His world crumbled in an instant the night he returned home for the summer and got a call from Dean Groves telling him of JP’s tragic passing in his sleep the night before. Rehan decided that returning to UVA would be too hard. His parents had other plans. While his early days back on Grounds were difficult, he soon found support in places and from people he never even knew were there. “I’m standing here today because even though I gave up on UVA, UVA never gave up on me.” He recalled so many reaching out to him, going beyond asking him how he was and inviting him to dinners, basketball games and other outings. “I wanted to show people that this is a place that matters, and that what really matters here most are the people.”
The UVA community suffered another unimaginable loss in March when Rehan Baddeliyanage passed away while hiking with classmates in Puerto Rico during Spring Break. In a letter to the University Community, University Dean of Students Allen Groves talked of Rehan’s selfless service to his fellow students. “Rehan was well-known to many of us. He was currently serving as Vice Chair for Professional Expectations and Promotions in Housing and Residence Life, through which he was tasked with a critical role in the selection and appraisal of the hundreds of peers who serve in the program. Rehan previously served as a Resident Advisor to first-year men in Fitzhugh and Echols houses as a second-year and third-year, respectively. Rehan had a tremendous impact on a great many students living in residence at the University and was a beloved member of the Resident Staff program.” Associate Dean of Students Andy Petters recalls Rehan’s “advocacy, frankness and approach to solving problems. I had immense trust in Rehan and will dearly miss him. Rehan’s legacy will always be felt in the lives he touched here at UVA.”