Todd Burks teaches students to navigate the University of Virginia library. Photo by Ryan Kelly for EdSurge.Class starts with silence, and breath.
Fill the balloons that are your lungs, the professor says, then empty them completely.
“Thank yourself for making it to class,” she adds. “There’s nothing that happened in the past you can change at this time. There’s nothing you need to attend to right now that cannot wait one hour. What a joy, to be—for an hour—in one place.”
It’s a Wednesday in April, just past noon. A dozen or so students are gathered virtually in a Zoom room, inhaling and exhaling and summoning their attention for a brisk lunchtime lesson filled with music and poetry.
The course is called Transformations. It teaches the basics of critical thinking, research and academic writing. It’s designed for students new to the University of Virginia—but not entirely new to higher education. They’re all adults enrolled in the university’s online Bachelor of Interdisciplinary Studies program. Each of them has already earned at least 45 college credits—equal to about three semesters—and desires to complete a degree.
Yet many of the students want more than that, too. They have goals for their careers, their families, their communities. They want to read and write and think.
Some worry whether they’re ready. Yet their professors believe in them. Year by year, these adults have gathered threads of wisdom, which the university now invites them to weave into the great tapestry of the liberal arts.
These folks come with lots of experiences, whether it’s from jobs or family life, and maybe nobody’s taken the time to really hear their story yet.
—Charlotte Matthews“These folks come with lots of experiences, whether it’s from jobs or family life, and maybe nobody’s taken the time to really hear their story yet,” says associate professor Charlotte Matthews, who teaches Transformations.
The syllabus is structured to inspire confidence and courage. During the semester, students read “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass,” “The Secret Life of Bees” and “They Say/I Say.” They watch TED Talks. They practice polishing sentences. They write brief papers and give short oral reports, building skills and stamina they eventually will need to complete and present a capstone research project, their final assignment before they graduate.
Getting to that finish line starts here, in this hour carved out of a hectic week. After students practice breathing, they listen to a YouTube video of Yo-Yo Ma playing “Appalachia Waltz” on the cello. Then they read and discuss a poem, “What You Missed that Day You Were Absent from Fourth Grade,” which starts like this:
Mrs. Nelson explained how to stand still and listen
to the wind, how to find meaning in pumping gas,
how peeling potatoes can be a form of prayer.
She took questions on how not to feel lost in the dark
The professor explains the next assignment for the course. It’s a literature review, due several weeks from now on the last day of the semester. Students will need to craft a research question, read relevant sources and synthesize what they learn in a short paper.
The exercise aims to get students comfortable using the university library. So when one student says she plans to study the Bermuda Triangle, the professor recommends that she ask a librarian—maybe the one who talked to the class earlier in the semester—to help her curate a reading list of secondary sources.
“You don’t want to read 30 articles,” the professor says, “you want to read seven.”
As for primary sources, the professor suggests looking for a map, or a ship’s record, or a diary entry. A document that no one else has interpreted. Uncharted waters, ripe for exploration, where a student can sail as far and fast as she can, under her own flag—then record notes from her voyage for the next adventurer to find.
When it comes to research, the professor says, “We’re always entering into the conversation.”
The Bermuda Triangle. It’s a mystery that 40-year-old Ruth Cady Bell has wondered about since the fourth grade. That year, she had a teacher who used to be a sailor.
“He had sailed all the way up and down the East Coast. And he told us these vivid stories about the Bermuda Triangle,” Ruth Cady says. “I mean, he probably made them all up, but I specifically remember being in awe of this man.”
It’s not a topic Ruth Cady thought she’d ever be researching seriously. Especially not for a college course. Especially not one at the University of Virginia.
“I’ve always put UVa on a pedestal,” she says. “My entire family are graduates of UVa.”
At the all-girls boarding high school that Ruth Cady attended in a small Virginia town, she recalls being a middling student. Her family’s alma mater didn’t seem like an option for her. So she made plans to study dance and singing at East Carolina University—far enough away from home, but not too far away.
By March 2000, during her senior year of high school, Ruth Cady was chatting with her assigned freshman roommate. She was preparing to audition for a performing arts scholarship. She was feeling a little funny, so she took a pregnancy test.
It was positive.
Ruth Cady had been a dancer since she was three years old. It was the path she wanted to pursue—the only path. With her pregnancy progressing, though, she set that goal aside.
“That was the only dream that I knew,” she says. Releasing it made her question her identity. “Who am I gonna be without this? And then wait a minute, I’m gonna be a mom? I’m 18 and I’m going, ‘Wait, what the hell? What is happening?’”
After her daughter was born, Ruth Cady enrolled in two classes at a local community college: psychology and biology. They seemed like useful prerequisites for … something. To support herself and her child, she got a real estate license and worked for an attorney who specialized in property law. Then, between working and caring for her baby, Ruth Cady got too busy for school.
Single motherhood and college don’t mix.
—Ruth Cady Bell“Single motherhood and college don’t mix,” she says. “Well, at the time it didn’t—that was 22 years ago.”
A friend set Ruth Cady up on a blind date with a Marine. They clicked. They were married in a courthouse, hoping to have a bigger ceremony and a honeymoon later on. As a military spouse, Ruth Cady might have qualified for financial support for higher education, but her household income, though modest, was too high for scholarships. Besides, her new family moved around a lot, never long enough for Ruth Cady to pursue college in person.
“And then there were deployments, deployments, deployments, and that’s not conducive to going to school,” Ruth Cady says. When she worked as a liaison between the Marine Corps and families of deployed troops, she avoided reading news about what her husband’s battalion encountered abroad. “Afghanistan—the first time—was horrifying,” she says.
While her family was stationed outside of San Diego in Oceanside, California, Ruth Cady tried community college again. It was around the same time that she and her husband were trying to have another child, and their doctors weren’t optimistic.
Yet at the beginning of 2014, Ruth Cady became pregnant. She and her husband went in for an ultrasound. During the scan, the doctor remarked, “Well, that’s interesting.”
“So he starts counting heartbeats,” Ruth Cady recalls. “I will never forget. He starts counting heartbeats, and I was like, ‘Why does my baby have four hearts?’ And he was like, ‘No, you have four babies.’”
Ruth Cady’s quadruplets were born 16 weeks early. They spent five months at the hospital in intensive care. Ruth Cady spent much of that time living nearby in a Ronald McDonald House while her mother took care of her older daughter, then age 13.
Three of the babies survived. They needed many visits to therapists and doctors spread out all across California. Ruth Cady set college aside, again.
“It just wasn’t gonna happen,” she says. “And honestly, I don’t even know where the time went.”
Ruth Cady spent a lot of time waiting in medical office parking lots, watching other moms who were there for the same reason. One day, Ruth Cady had an idea. What if moms didn’t have to schlep and wait, schlep and wait, just to care for their kids who have special needs? What if there were a school that offered comprehensive care at one location?
What if Ruth Cady opened that school?
Ruth Cady had another daughter. Her family moved back to Virginia. And then her sister told her about an opportunity. She had heard that the University of Virginia offered a bachelor’s degree program designed for adults.
“I looked into it,” Ruth Cady says, “and I went, ‘Oh my God, I could actually go to UVa.’”
Counterclockwise from center: UVa student Ruth Cady Bell, her husband Sgt. Maj. Charles N. Bell, and their children Miriam, Mat, Charlie, Maggie James and Anna. Photo courtesy of Ruth Cady Bell.She learned that the program was entirely online, which meant Ruth Cady could take classes from home and still drive her kids to school and to their appointments. But it wasn’t just any online college program. It was at the university that meant so much to her family. The kind of brand-name institution that could prepare her to open the school of her dreams—and boost her reputation.
“I’m gonna have to have people invest or just work with me, and in order to convince them to come work with me, I at least have to have that education under my belt. And it’s gonna be that much more credible coming from UVa,” she says. “I wanted to go to a school that people had heard of.”
It was also a program that promised to feed Ruth Cady’s curiosity, where she could put into practice the advice she had given her oldest daughter about how to make the most of college: “Take astronomy and basket-weaving and the study of turtles—take it all.”
Ruth Cady filled out an application form online. She talked to admissions counselors. They answered her questions—even the ones she worried were dumb. They helped her round up the community college credits she had earned over two decades.
“I felt so intimidated talking to them: ‘I’m almost 40, about to restart school, please help me,’” Ruth Cady recalls. “They were so helpful and kind about the entire thing.”
This spring, Ruth Cady enrolled in her first two UVa courses. She drops her kids off at their school at 8:30 a.m., then comes home to dive into her own studies, completing modules for her childhood development class at her own pace. At noon on Mondays and Wednesdays, she logs in to Transformations.
For Ruth Cady’s literature review, she researches an enduring mystery. Unlike at community college, where she ran into digital paywalls when she looked for academic journals, she now has access to all the resources she can find. The librarian who presented to her class said that the university will even mail students books—with return postage so they can mail them back.
“And it kind of made me laugh, ’cause he said, ‘You can’t check out more than, like, 400 books at a time,’” Ruth Cady says. “Who’s gonna check out 400 books?”
As her Transformations professor recommended, she emailed a librarian to ask for support. Within 24 hours, one wrote back and helped her to identify resources. She found a map of Bermuda, some journal articles and stories published on History.com.
As Ruth Cady sits down to write, she thinks about her professor’s advice: Write your draft like you’re talking to someone in a bar. Don’t use a thesaurus for every word. Don’t overdo it.
“In hushed tones,” Ruth Cady starts, “sailors whisper tales of inexplicable occurrences within the area known as the Bermuda Triangle…”
Class starts with silence, and imagery.
Picture a white swan floating safely on a lake, the professor says. An elderly, beloved labrador dog resting on her bed. The way it feels on a February morning, when you wake up to a crisp, pristine snow and the world is ever so quiet.
It’s an exercise in rousing focus and discarding distraction. It’s how associate professor Charlotte Matthews starts class, having learned the importance of such moments over 18 years of teaching adults at the University of Virginia. Her students often call in from their jobs at the university hospital, or from homes filled with kids and pets. Many of them keep their cameras turned off so their classmates can’t peer into their habitats.
Charlotte wishes she could see her students’ faces. Nevertheless, she makes sure each of them participates. She calls them by name to answer questions. She tracks how many times each student speaks up. She coaches some to express their ideas with more confidence and others to practice better listening.
She tells students at the start of the semester that hers is “a gentle class, a calm class.” When she calls on them with a question, she doesn’t mind if they answer, “I don’t know.” She grants each student two “life happens” tokens in case they need to skip assignments, on days when, say, a child has a fever or a work shift gets rescheduled.
“They don’t have the spaciousness that your regular matriculating undergraduate has to set aside four years for their undergraduate education,” Charlotte says. “They could be driving for FedEx and doing homework at 5 a.m.”
The professor sees herself as a kind of hiking guide. She knows how far her students need to go to make it to the next campsite. She carries some food and water for them, to support their trek. But each student also bears a heavy backpack of his or her own, she says. They’re all going to get blisters along the way. She can’t carry them, nor do they need her to.
“I try to debunk that I know more, or have hierarchy,” Charlotte says.