There is the Korean American student whose traditional mother endured years of beatings rather than divorce her husband. There is the Bosnian student whose family fled genocide in Sarajevo. There is the student of African and Jewish descent struggling to find her place in a color-obsessed world.
And there is the student whose passion for TV dinners knows no bounds.
All were part of "Voices of the Class," a rapid-fire theatrical production at the University of Virginia last week, highlighting the sad, inspiring and often funny perspectives of students just embarking on their college careers.
Gleaned from admissions essays submitted by first-year students, the production staged in historic Old Cabell Hall Auditorium here underscored the increasing diversity of voices at U-Va., the 180-year-old bastion of tradition, which is fast changing to reflect a more varied society.
"Every student that comes to the university brings something important and different and wonderful with them," said Steven Shepard, 20, a third-year government major from Great Falls who helped found the Spectrum Theatre group last year. "That's the main point of this production."
About 3,000 first-year students have enrolled at U-Va. this fall, nearly 30 percent of them from Northern Virginia, according to university figures. Another 500 are transfer students. For the first time, the university held an orientation program this summer to help students adjust.
But before they were accepted at U-Va., prospective students had to submit an essay along with their application. Inspired by similar projects at Amherst College in Massachusetts and other schools, the theater troupe worked with U-Va. admissions officials to choose 50 or so of the most interesting and provocative essays for adaptation to the stage.
The group, which started rehearsing less than three weeks before opening night, received permission from all writers before portraying their essays anonymously.
The result was an ensemble production featuring elements of drama, comedy and music, ranging from a hip-hop meditation on right and wrong to a haunting recollection of life with an alcoholic father. Intensely serious subjects--from the Holocaust to race relations to domestic violence--were offset by lighter topics, including several ruminations on the importance of pop culture to teenagers.
"I am the Big Mac Generation!" one essay read.
The mix of topics made "Voices of the Class" notably lighter in tone than Spectrum Theatre's inaugural production, a multiracial staging of "Romeo and Juliet" earlier this year that prompted widespread discussion of the racial climate on the Charlottesville campus.
But, according to producers and actors, the message of the newer play was no less serious.
"I looked at this as kind of an orientation tool for first-years," said Les Williams, 21, a mechanical engineering student from Alexandria who performed in both productions. "This is a look at how different everybody is, and how similar they are, too."
Many of the vignettes varied little from the written essays. Others used student writings as inspiration for dramatic or comic effect.
Williams, for example, used his own experiences as an African American student at a mostly white high school to reflect the feelings of alienation experienced by many incoming black freshmen.
Eleanor Sparagana, U-Va.'s orientation director, said the stories highlighted by Spectrum's production show the broad variety of backgrounds and experience among the students.
"This is one of the most important missions of the school, to provide as wide a diversity of voices as possible," Sparagana said. "The fact that this message is coming from the students, and not from us, is really very inspiring."
CAPTION: Les Williams and Suzanne Chisolm portray a Rodin sculpture in the "Voices of the Class" production, which is based on essays students submitted with their college applications.
CAPTION: Members of Spectrum Theatre portray elementary students in "Voices of the Class" at the University of Virginia.