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Lilly Brinegar (UVA ’27) Knows It’s Meant to Be

Thanks to the Comm Cohort, Brinegar is feeling much more settled in at her University home. And with a potential future starting to come together, she’s ready to share her strategies for early success with next year’s newcomers to UVA.

According to first-year Lilly Brinegar, there’s not much to where she grew up in Carroll County, VA. But there must be something considerably important there in that place she calls “a really small town” located in the southwest part of the Commonwealth, something that is at least partially responsible for helping her trust the convictions she formed about her future.

Talking to her, it becomes immediately clear that a big part of what made her hometown significant is the enduring love of her large and supportive family. And the positive spirit they nurtured in her shines through in a singular way. It reflects an optimism steeped in a cheerleading background that took her to London—her first time both on a plane and out of the country—for a 2023 New Year’s Day parade in the UK. Back home, she spent summers visiting day camps, teaching routines to young girls from her town. As a former babysitter who still enjoys working with children, an avid reader of sci-fi and romance novels, and an enthusiastic dessert baker, Brinegar’s sweetness is rivaled only by her curiosity. And maybe it’s because her hometown was so small that she’s fully enamored with the idea of exploring new places.

“Even if it’s just going to a new coffee shop or a cute little store that I’ve never been to, I will drive however long it takes,” she says.

Perhaps it’s no surprise, then, that those character traits and interests, buoyed by her unrelenting commitment to education and a determination to expand her horizons, would lead her to the seemingly life-changing choice to apply to UVA—and also, to be a part of the McIntire School’s Commerce Cohort Program.

“School and education have always been something that have been very important to me, but they aren’t a priority where I come from,” she explains. “My school didn’t offer AP classes, a lot of dual credit, or ways to help students get further along for college.”

Having graduated near the top of her high school class, Brinegar’s drive to succeed in the classroom made it clear that she fit the profile of the high-performing students who make up the ever-growing Comm Cohort Program.

But taking that first step to come to UVA—three hours from her hometown and everything she knew—was no easy decision.

Big Changes, New Horizons

Originally, Brinegar was intent on attending a university out of state—despite the fact that her parents tried to convince her to consider going to much closer Virginia Tech.

“I needed to get far away from my hometown to experience something I wasn’t used to,” she says, explaining that since she would be paying for her college tuition, staying in state would be the smartest financial decision. With Brinegar being a product of that very close, large family who got together every Sunday without fail, it was unfortunate that no one from it had the background to help her work out her perspective college plans; an older brother and older sister had commuted to school, as did nearly all of her friends, so she found it particularly difficult to get useful advice about undertaking her college career on Grounds.

Though the stress of the decision was wearing on her, a kindly suggestion she received from her therapist—to consider UVA—put her on the path leading to Charlottesville. “It was a cost-effective school and a good distance away from home,” she realized.

“It’s a lot different than where I’m from,” Brinegar says, recalling how she reached out to current second-years who graduated from her high school to find out what they thought. “They told me about how they fell in love with it and how this was their place. I related to a lot that they said, and I felt like if they love it and if they fit in here, this is their place, then it might be my place too.”

She visited and “automatically” had the same overwhelmingly positive reaction to touring the University. Her parents would support her decision to attend UVA, but the challenges that came with the academic rigor of her classes led to a feeling of imposter syndrome. “I thought there must have been a mistake in my application. There’s no way I belong here with all these smart kids,” she says, recalling that the first month was also incredibly difficult because she was homesick.

“I missed my family,” she says, noting that she found some comfort in the fact that there were two other students from her high school who came to UVA—one of whom was a close friend. But still, she felt as if she were starting completely fresh. “I’ve found very good connections and that helped a ton, but it was definitely an adjustment.”

The shift to college life can be trying for many students, but Brinegar benefited greatly from sharing her struggles with others and from the support she would find within the Comm Cohort.

A Sense of Belonging

She arrived, and it was overwhelming. “But I started hearing from other people that they felt the same way,” she remembers, “that they weren’t smart enough to be here and were having the same thoughts that I was having about feeling a little out of place.”

Weeks earlier, she had received an invitation to join the Cohort program but wasn’t sure about what it offered. She put off looking over the message, but luckily, decided to sign up right before the deadline passed. And then, during her second week on Grounds, she met with the Cohort, which proved to be a critical moment for her.

During that initial session, students wrote a reflective journal entry about their reaction to the first few days at UVA. She let all of her insecurities out on the page and turned it in.

Sharice Welch, McIntire’s Assistant Director of Undergraduate Admissions, supplied her with some much-needed encouragement.

“In the response to my journal, she wrote that I belong here, this is where I’m supposed to be, there was no mistake, and that every first-year probably feels the same way I do,” says Brinegar. “It gave me so much peace, reassurance, and motivation to keep going and become the best version of myself. That response to the journal really shifted my whole mindset, and it made me feel less out of place.”

The Cohort, which launched in September 2018, was created to offer unprecedented learning opportunities for UVA students considered to be prospective McIntire students. Its sessions have been designed with a business framework in mind, but in addition to providing academic mentorship, career preparation, and personal development, the program has also been forging real bonds, an essential community among students, staff, and faculty, driven by lessons on active critical analysis, self-reflection, and communication.

Brinegar, who enjoyed a business management class she took early in high school, was keen to major in the subject, which also made highly ranked McIntire a big draw for her to come to UVA.

“There are so many options in the business world. It’s so diverse and flexible, and there are so many things that you can do with a business degree,” she says, recognizing the anxiety she had about trying to get accepted to McIntire. “But when I joined the Comm Cohort and learned more about the Commerce School, I was surprised to learn that even if I didn’t get in, I wasn’t done: There were still going to be things that I could do and ways that to find a career that’s best for me. It gave me a lot of reassurance,” she says.

From that first Cohort meeting, when Brinegar reviewed an overview of the program and learned that student participants would be assigned a mentor, and that they would be assisted with everything from class sign-up to preparation for applying to McIntire, she was greatly relieved she chose to join.

“When Sheri [Welch] was having one-on-one conversations with us, I could just tell that she genuinely cared, wanted to see us succeed, and that they were going to do everything they could to help us prepare. It has been so amazing, because I know that if I ever need anything or have any questions, they are willing to meet with me. I’m honored to be a part of it. I would feel lost if I wasn’t in there,” she says.

She’s also been shocked by the sheer amount that she’s learned through the Cohort. UVA faculty have exceeded her expectations as well: “I came in expecting the professors and the administration to not necessarily care about people like me, but they do care, and they show it by their actions.”

A Future in Finance

Brinegar has always been attracted to the financial side of business. A stint working at a smoothie bar located inside of a gym in her hometown gave her experience in multiple aspects of running a company—and she found herself gravitating toward delving into profits and losses.

“Anytime my boss wanted me to work on costs and how much we should be charging? I’m your girl. I’m good with the numbers,” she says. “That’s how I realized that I was more into the financial side.”

She hopes to learn more about the subject to support her hopes of pursuing a specific professional path. “I’ve thought about business management because my ideal career right now involves finance in hospitals,” says Brinegar. “I have a distant cousin on my stepdad’s side who lives in South Carolina who is always traveling with her job, going to different hospitals, looking at their financial standing, and creating these presentations about what they can do to be more cost effective. I was intrigued by that—and I love to travel.”

Sharing What She’s Learned

Thanks to the Comm Cohort, Brinegar is feeling much more settled in at her University home. And with a potential future starting to come together, she’s ready to share her strategies for early success with next year’s newcomers to UVA.

She preaches patience: for students to give themselves the grace to adjust and the time required to get used to their new surroundings, academic challenges, and faces.

“It’s very common to be overwhelmed by all the changes that are happening simultaneously, but you will find people here; you will make friends. The longer I’ve been here, the more I’ve noticed that the people at UVA care about me, my future, and as more than a student. They want me to succeed in my career, but they also want me to be mentally and physically well at this time, and they want me to continue to be that way through my studies,” she says.

She also implores students to get in touch with their feelings, as she now acknowledges that she suppressed her own homesick emotions during her first few weeks at the University.

“I just busy-bodied myself, trying to not let myself think about it,” she says. “But then Sunday would roll around, and since Sundays were our family day when we would go to church together and all my siblings would come over for dinner, being here on Sundays—and not with my family—that’s when it would hit me.”

As she’s come through those tough moments and learned to rely on those she met through the Comm Cohort and elsewhere at UVA, she’s no longer doubting herself and her potential. And she advises others who come to Grounds to do the same.

“Know that if you got in here, you made it here to Move-In Day, and to the start of your classes; you are meant to be here,” she says.

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