Virginia College Road Trip: University of Virginia

Learn what it’s like to attend college in Charlottesville.

UVA has some 1,000 student organizations, including everything from the Belly Dance Club to the Future Baristas of America.
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It's said that Thomas Jefferson looked out from his home at Monticello as the university he founded was built, overseeing construction of the "academical village" at its heart that remains its most coveted housing. 

Today, tradition and history infuse the culture of the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, and so does the future. 

In engineering professor David Sheffler's 3-D printing lab, students design and build working models of jet engines and unmanned aerial vehicles. 

A visit to Lou Bloomfield's office finds the physics professor finishing up the last episode of his wildly popular How Things Work massive open online course; he is one of several professors offering these free MOOCs to anyone with an Internet connection. 

George Sampson, an associate research professor, leads a Design Thinking class for students in any major that's focused on interdisciplinary approaches to solving real-world problems, from testing a website for new employee training to creating ties between a local resort and the UVA community. 

It's an approach more universities are incorporating to better prepare students for careers. 

[Learn how colleges are working to engage STEM majors.] 

Those who enter the "Grounds" – you'll quickly be corrected if you call UVA's 1,700 acres a campus – are "expected to be smart. That's the baseline," says Ashoka Rajendra, a 2013 grad in biology. 

"We definitely consider ourselves as a public Ivy League," says classmate Caroline Hackett, who majored in civil and environmental engineering. 

UVA admits roughly 30 percent of its applicants overall: 41 percent for in-state, and 24.2 percent for nonresidents. Among undergrads, 60 percent are white, 12 percent are Asian-American, 7 percent are African-American, 6 percent are international and 5 percent are Hispanic. 

One of the school's distinguishing features is its student-run honor system, a cherished tradition. All students pledge not to lie, cheat or steal, and assume the responsibility of reporting infractions to a student honor committee, to be investigated and judged by other students. 

This system of self-governance encourages assertiveness and leadership, which were on display last year when UVA's Board of Visitors ousted university president Teresa Sullivan in a disagreement over funding and the role of higher education before ultimately reinstating her after thousands of students protested. 

Student leaders even develop and teach for-credit courses. That's what Louise Stellmann, a recent grad in art history, did. She and two other students created and taught an art business course, bringing in speakers to define how the art market works and to offer insight into career paths. 

[Check out 11 college majors that lead to jobs.] 

Or if teaching isn't for you, perhaps research is. Some 64 percent of undergrads take advantage of the chance to work with professors on research projects

Opportunities to blow off steam are plentiful, too. UVA has some 1,000 student organizations, including everything from the Belly Dance Club to the Future Baristas of America.

"There is a work hard, play hard attitude," says Hackett, who resides in one of the spartan singles with fireplaces, known as "Lawn" rooms, in the academical village, where professors live in close proximity to encourage constant give-and-take. 

As for athletics, "we lose the sports that are on TV, and we win every other sport there is," says Rajendra. 

Men's tennis and women's rowing are among the top performers in the Atlantic Coast Conference; both lacrosse teams have won national championships. 

Charlottesville itself offers plenty to do, with its vibrant music and arts scene and the nearby Blue Ridge Mountains. 

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This story is excerpted from the U.S. News "Best Colleges 2014" guidebook, which features in-depth articles, rankings and data.