May 14, 2004
Vol. 34, Issue 9
Back Issues
‘Our Students Lead Us’
Sullivan Award-winners
Part of the fabric of University life
Curiosity drives Mitman’s pursuits
‘Reverend Nurse:’
At 52, Valley minister feels call to care for the whole person, spiritually and physically
Leap of a lifetime:
Athlete Kim Turko jumps a formidable hurdle — life-threatening illness
He’ll be back:
Adult education graduate studies adult education
‘Hungry to Help:’
Student refugee wants to improve the lives of Burma’s forgotten children
Revitalizing Main Street:
Jill Nolt’s plan for her hometown high school makes front-page news
Peace Corps bound:
Business major trades fast lane for slow pace on Tonga
First in her family:
Angela Caldwell, a Native American, overcomes community attitudes to become lawyer
From Crane’s love of the cosmos comes new era for stargazers
A history of Finals
Sharlotte Bolyard is flying high
A ministry of medicine

Bombay bound:
Darden grad to apply best U.S. business practices to family company in India

Peer educator looks beyond educating:
Health advocacy is next step for Alyssa Lederer

No ‘cookie-cutter’ solutions:
Family expert Charmaine Yoest says creativity, flexibility are keys to resolving work/family issues

Reflections on the road to enlightenment:
Thirteen years, one class at a time, but who was counting?

‘Connecting communities:’
Presentation on African-American history at U.Va. gets students thinking, talking
Reflections on the road to enlightenment
Thirteen years, one class at a time, but who was counting?
Rebecca Arrington (right) and her daughter Jennifer
Photo by Chris Myers
U.Va. employee Rebecca Arrington (right) and her daughter, Jennifer, will walk the Lawn together May 16, both receiving their undergraduate degrees.

By Rebecca Pace Arrington

Sitting in class, listening to my professor’s live rendition of a Charlie Parker tune, I tapped my foot and marveled at the mastery of his performance. Then I looked out the floor-to-ceiling windows next to my desk in Old Cabell and beheld the Lawn. I closed my eyes. It seemed like a dream. When the music stopped, I returned my attention to the front of the room. My professor had finished his daily musical intro to our “History of Jazz” course and was beginning his lecture. I really was there.

From a young age, I wanted to go to college. When I was 12, I wanted to be a veterinarian. At 15, it was a brain surgeon. (Actually, that was my biology teacher’s idea. She said I had a deft touch with a scalpel.) And by 16, I was certain a business degree was in my future — from a college near a beach. I would be a corporate executive and live in a grand house. But somewhere between dissecting rabbits, visions of soaking up knowledge and sun, and making millions, life happened.

I graduated from high school in 1978. A year later, I was married. A year after that, I had a son, and two years after that, a daughter. It was 1982. I was 21. The economy, as well as my marriage, was in a recession. I got laid off from a local manufacturing plant. To qualify for unemployment, I had to apply for three jobs a week. I preferred being at home with my children. “Apply at U.Va.,” I was told. “They never call back.” My daughter was three months old when I started working here.

It was through my career at U.Va., and my children, Mark and Jennifer, entering elementary school in the late 1980s, that my desire to attend college was rekindled. I wanted to instill in them the importance of education, and I wanted to achieve for myself a long-held personal goal.

With the support of my parents, who provided evening childcare, and my department, the Office of University Relations, I was able to take advantage of the educational benefits offered to U.Va. employees. I enrolled at Piedmont Virginia Community College in 1988, and from then on Mark, Jen and I did our homework together at the kitchen table. Along with math, reading, science and spelling, Mark and Jen were exposed to what I — now a single parent — was learning: Spanish, government, accounting, women’s studies. They may have been the only first- and third-graders in their school to know about Emerson’s “Self-Reliance,” and feminist pioneers Aphra Behn, Mary Wollstonecraft and Sojourner Truth.

I transferred to U.Va. in the early 1990s as a part-time student in the College of Arts & Sciences. Being accepted to the No. 1 public university in the country was a dream come true. The first course I took was Alison Booth’s “Austen, Eliot and Woolf.” It cemented my decision to major in English. I wouldn’t be sorry.

Katherine Maus’ phenomenal lectures on Shakespeare would follow, as would many others, including Sydney Blair’s “Expatriates in Paris: Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Stein.” During one of her classes, professor emeritus and state Poet Laureate George Garrett dropped in to lecture. There I was again, sitting in class, pinching myself in awe of the company.

This same feeling washed over me every time I walked through the corridors of Bryan Hall, home of the English department. The names on the office doors are a Who’s Who of the literary world — Rita Dove, Charles Wright, Ann Beattie, Stephen Cushman and Lisa Russ Spaar, to name a few.

It was in several other courses with Blair and Spaar, director of U.Va.’s Creative Writing Program, that I experimented with fiction and poetry and discovered a new love — the short story. But English courses weren’t all that I took. Electives included “Music in Film” and “Elvis: A History of Rock’n’Roll,” both taught by Stephan Prock, an animated lecturer and gifted composer; the aforementioned “History of Jazz,” taught by a talented teaching assistant and jazz artist, Jeff Decker; and the thought-provoking “21st Century: War, Justice and Human Rights,” team-taught by politics professor Michael Smith and religious studies professor James Childress.

I took the latter course at the urging of my daughter, also a fourth-year student here. “You have to take Professor Childress before you graduate,” she said of her adviser and mentor. So I did, along with an independent study with Spaar on poetry and publishing.

Childress is an excellent professor, as is his colleague Smith. The material for their course, however, was very disturbing. It included books and articles that chronicled man’s inhumanity to man; grappled with moral and ethical dilemmas and rationales, such as just-war criteria; and gave philosophers’ and political framers’ views on how societies should be structured. My independent study with Spaar was a much-needed antidote to the bleakness of the 21st Century course.
With Spaar’s guidance, I refined a children’s story I’d written about palindromes and the importance of living by the Golden Rule, and explored a number of publishing options for it. (I’m still getting very nice, hand-written rejection letters.)

Being a nontraditional-age student, I didn’t share the normal undergraduate experiences, such as pulling all-nighters at the library, 2 a.m. pizza runs, or streaking the Lawn. But I did get to know my fellow students through the courses I took, especially when group projects were required. For example, I’d find myself in an apartment on JPA on a Sunday night, discussing ideas for set designs and film shorts that we had to create for drama professor Thomas Bloom’s course on digital design.

I even experienced Spring Break last March. My daughter and I took a road trip to Ft. Lauderdale, cruised to the Bahamas, and spent a week reading and relaxing under palm trees. It was the first time either of us had been so far from home.

Helping to guide me over the years with my academic endeavors has been my adviser, English professor Stephen Arata. Though I never got to take one of his courses, I did have the opportunity to write about his experiences as a Fulbright Scholar in India several years ago through my full-time work in the News Office.

Running parallel to my formal classroom education has always been the informal education I receive on the job. When Jennifer was about 4, she was at my office one day. Standing next to the drafting table, admiring the scissors, tape, Exacto knives and markers (used to layout Inside UVA before the days of desktop publishing), she said, “Mommy, you have the best job. You get to cut and paste and color.” She was right, but not exactly for those reasons. Where else but at a university can one hear Nobel Peace laureates speak; witness visits by world leaders, among them thus far during my tenure three U.S. presidents — Carter, Reagan, and the senior Bush, who hosted the historic Education Summit; and everyday have entrée to meetings, classes and impromptu gatherings where knowledge is shared, giving back to one’s community is practiced, and story ideas are born.

As I make my way down the Lawn May 16, I’m sure many more thoughts and memories will fill my mind — music and weighty conversations drifting out of Lawn rooms, dogs catching Frisbees, Desmond Tutu and the Dali Lama sharing a light moment, Groundskeepers mulching and discussing their stock options, fog lifting on my way to early morning classes. But when I’m in the moment, I will know that among the thousands of friends and family members gathered to watch their loved ones complete this milestone will be my mother, brother and son, the first in my family to graduate from college. My father, who passed away in November, will be there in spirit. And walking beside me will be my daughter.


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