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A Childhood Dream Come True for U.Va. Employee

Katherine Thompson JacksonMay 21, 2004

By Katherine Thompson Jackson, SCPS ’04

My childhood dream was to attend the University of Virginia after high school. But in 1969, that was not a reality for this poor, black girl from Albemarle County. Today, however, it is a different story, and in May, I will be among roughly 5,000 undergraduate, graduate and professional students receiving degrees from the University of Virginia.

The prospect of earning a U.Va degree began for me in the early 1990s. Sondra Stallard, not yet dean of the School of Continuing and Professional Studies, predicted that the University would soon offer an adult-degree program. In the fall of 1999, Stallard announced that the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia had approved the creation of such a program. The resulting Bachelor of Interdisciplinary Studies program at U.Va. opened the door for me and other adult students seeking a four-year degree and the honor of walking down the Lawn in confirmation of completing our undergraduate education.

I enrolled in U.Va.’s 2000 summer session to complete the 12 credits of science and math requirements, prior to entering the BIS program. I decided to confront my fear of numbers by enrolling in the College of Arts & Sciences’ three-credit “Introduction to Statistics” course. After the first day of class, two things were clear: I was totally lost, and I didn’t know how to ask some of the brightest young people in the country for help. I needed more time to prepare for this new venture. I requested time off, and my supervisor, Carol Wood, allowed me to take leave from work. The good news was that for 12 weeks I could devote about eight hours a day to studying statistics; the bad news was that this course wasn’t going to help me overcome my aversion to working with numbers — it would reinforce it.
My coursework included classes from the College of Arts & Sciences, as well as from the BIS program. I knew early on, my academic transcript would look no different than students much younger than me.

As I planned my progression through the program, I faced time constraints that included balancing the rest of my life as an adult with family responsibilities, and my full-time work in University Relations.

As an adult student I was challenged by concerns that were different from traditional students in the College. Because I lived about 25 miles from the University, for example, I was unable to make early Sunday and late-night group meetings.

There was another concern: I was attending one of the finest institutions in the country, and that fact was daunting. Luckily, as a mother I had honed skills that enabled me to succeed as a student. Discipline, perseverance and prayer had helped get me through the years of raising four energetic teenagers, and I returned to those strengths. By spring of 2001, my math and science requirements had been completed, and I mapped out a three-year graduation timeline.

About halfway through the program, I began to think about the Capstone Project, a thesis-like paper that all BIS students are required to write. The BIS program describes it as the culminating academic activity of the program, which provides students with an opportunity to integrate academic accomplishments and professional interests.

Even though I felt my classes had prepared me to go forward, I approached the capstone experience with apprehension. (One student described the experience as “haunting me like a wolf howling in the dark.”) According to BIS guidelines, I should expect to be “fully engaged in the work.” But how many pages define fully engaged? After many revisions and valuable assistance from my mentor, assistant professor of religious studies Cory D. Walker, my paper was completed, signaling the end of my undergraduate experience.

I am often asked what inspired me to return to school after finishing my associate’s degree at Piedmont Virginia Community College a decade ago. PVCC was the beginning of a journey instilled in me by my mother years ago. Because I was the only girl among four boys, I was expected to do well in every aspect of my life. My mother — a domestic worker without a high school education — embraced education. Often at the end of the day, I would find her curled up in her bed reading a book. She died when I was 12 years old, but I promised myself that I would fulfill her wishes to become educated.

I am the first in my family to complete a bachelor’s degree, and I hope this will inspire my two daughters and two sons. I hope that I have instilled in them and their children what my mother wanted for me: a good education.

Following graduation I will take a week off to rest at the beach with my husband and children. (I didn’t tell them I would be bringing a supply of books that I have been waiting a couple of years to read.)

Then I will return to my position in University Relations.

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