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I remember clearly trying to select my classes for my first semester of college. I had created 47 possible schedules for myself through a schedule builder! I was trying to knock out all these prerequisites, and I watched all my favorite classes fill up. Not to mention, using SIS was a disaster for me. On top of that, I was listening to my friends headed to competitive universities discuss their engineering or pre-med tracks and filling their schedules with Advanced Software Development and Biochemistry. 

I remember thinking that I was still recovering from my exhaustive, competitive high school experience and preparing for my very first semester away from home during a pandemic. I didn’t think I could handle a heavy course load right off the bat, especially in the age of online learning. I dropped into an academic advising Zoom where I learned about the COLA, and I began to feel some relief. 

COLAs are graded, one-credit classes for first years taught by their advisor. 80% of class time is for content and whole-class discussion, and the other 20% is dedicated to academic advising. UVA offers COLAs like “Are We Alone in the Universe”, “Why Haven’t We Cured Cancer?”, and “Brooklyn’s in the House.” As a new college student, I was excited to learn about content I had not been able to explore in my traditional high school classroom and also get the supportive environment I wanted. 

My class, “Twenty-first Century Women”, was taught by Professor Francesca Calamita. She is a very accomplished researcher and teacher in feminist theory, Italian women’s writing, and cultural and gender studies. Each class focused on a new topic, and we would prepare by watching a movie or reading a short story in the week leading up to class. We discussed beauty standards, female portrayal in the media, socio-cultural expectations, and the female body, just to name a few.


Female software engineer
This Engineering RAEng on Unsplash

I’ve always considered myself a feminist, but never had I been in an environment surrounded by so many empowered young women who shared the same mindset. Our discussions were engaging, passionate, and empowering. I felt supported and valued by these girls, even if we had never met in person. With all the stress of meeting new people, adjusting to classes, and being away from home, my COLA class on Monday afternoons became my time to unwind and speak my mind.


group of friends
Photo by Gemma Chua-Tran on Unsplash

Aside from the support, I felt that my eyes were really opened to feminist issues, and I considered myself an empowered feminst even before the course even began! We talked at length about women in developing countries dropping out of school because of the inability to get proper menstrual products. While I knew the lack of products was a serious issue, I had never considered its toll on a girl’s education. We watched the documentary Miss Representation, and I found that I had glanced over some of the sexist portrayals of women in the media because it had become so commonplace, such as low cut necklines on female news anchors. 


friends at a coffee shop
Photo by Brooke Cagle from Unsplash

Since the COLAs are only available for first years during the fall semester, it’s likely that most of you have missed this window. If you have siblings, friends, or anyone looking to you for advice as they start at UVA, push them towards a COLA. It offered me an outlet for my passion and a support network all through virtual learning, and I can only imagine what it would do for them.

Madeleine McCollum is from Bethesda, Maryland, and is thrilled about continuing her career at Her Campus UVA. She is a member of UVA's Student Entrepreneurs for Economic Development (SEED) club where she volunteers as a consultant for non-profits in Charlottesville. She has also interned for Lerch, Early & Brewer Law firm and Compass realty, assisting with their marketing operations. As a second year at UVA, she is very excited to keep writing for Her Campus and reading her peers' articles. In her free time, Madeleine loves to get out into nature, travel, curl up with a book, and go for runs.
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