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U.Va. faculty members on their past memories, present state and future wishes

Several former and current faculty members reminisce on their journeys at the University by sharing their most rewarding and prominent memories

Although professors experience gratifying recognition in their role as educators, the ultimate core of the University will always be the student body.
Although professors experience gratifying recognition in their role as educators, the ultimate core of the University will always be the student body.

A professor is a role model, a mentor and a leader all in one. The University consists of influential faculty members who devote their lives as educators for the growth of the student body. As leaders of the University community, faculty members help pave new roads for future generations by sharing their experiences and wisdom.

Richard Guy Wilson, former History of Architecture professor, started at the University in 1976. During the 1980s, he witnessed the University’s move to integrate the Architectural History division into a department in the School of Architecture, and he also assisted in the development of the Modern and American architecture program. As an onlooker and contributor to these monumental moments of the University’s growth, Wilson — just as so many other faculty members — is a vital actor in shaping the history of the University.

Although Wilson retired in 2019, he knows that the University’s Jeffersonian architecture will always be momentous in his heart.  

“All universities have architecture and most have something pretty good,” Wilson said. “But no place has anything like the University of Virginia as far as the totality and the Lawn.”

The memories Sylvia Chong, Asian American Studies professor and co-founder and director of the Asian Pacific American Studies minor, holds most dear to her heart are the moments when she was able to host themed meals for her students at the end of the semester. From the Banh mi that she served her Vietnam War in Literature and Film students to the ramen she served her last Introduction to Asian American Studies class, these moments have become her favorite memories during her 16 years of teaching at the University. 

“I also make it a point to invite all of my students from every single class I teach to have a meal with me at the end of the semester,” Chong said. “I learned the value of this when I was an undergrad … and I've really missed cooking and eating with my students this semester, now that we're all sheltering apart.”

As for former Psychology Prof. Dennis Proffitt, his joy teaching at the University from 1979 to 2019 stems from how much he learned from his students’ diverse upbringings and perspectives. Through the partnership between a student and professor, the University can become an environment where student curiosity pushes professors as educators to explore beyond what they already know. 

“The students are coming to the course with different perspectives than what I have,” Proffitt said. “Getting fresh questions from bright students ... [pushes] you to know more than you know every class, they’ll push you.”

Not only does the students’ curiosity and dedication encourage professors, but it also inevitably brings them great joy, a reality that is especially true for Commerce Prof. Michael Gallmeyer. 

“The thing that I love about teaching at U.Va. is the fact that all of you as students … recognize the fact that there’s more to life than just the classroom,” Gallmeyer said. “I see it in the desire to do good and the desire to be great.”

At times, acceptance and encouragement from a professor can impact a student for life. Anthropology Prof. Frederick H. Damon has dedicated 44 years to the University so far. During this time, he has been able to see students leave his class to take the next steps in their careers.

“Connie Jones wrote me to say she was now an assistant professor in counselor education at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro,” Damon said of a former student. “We all know we succeed with some students and not with others … some are now all over the world.”

Jones was a student at the University from 2002 to 2006 and was inspired by Damon’s impact as a leader. Through his endorsement in her graduate school recommendation letters, Jones was able to continue her pursuit in her career. After a little over a decade, Jones wrote to Damon to share her gratitude.

“I was a young black woman from a small Virginia town … [Damon was] the first professor that made me feel like I belonged at U.Va. and that I could become anything I wanted to be,” Jones said. “[Damon] inspired me to be a professor and to teach students about culture.”

It is these changes in students’ lives that reminds many professors why they love what they do.

For Chong, it has been rewarding to be able to educate students about the importance of Asian American Studies during this pandemic, especially as racism towards Asian Americans has been on the rise in recent months.

“While [COVID-19] has been horrible for our society at large and for education at all levels, the crisis has reaffirmed for me the value of what I teach and research in Asian American Studies,” Chong said. “It also felt very urgent to be teaching the history of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders during this period of global crisis and rising racial and national tensions, and I felt really connected to my students this semester for that same reason.”

Without the student body present at the University due to COVID-19, many faculty members express their sincere regards to let the students know they are dearly missed. As students are essential to the community, their absence has caused some professors to feel a sense of loss.

Larry Sabato, politics professor and founder and director of the Center of Politics, describes this vacancy as a lesson learned, as well as a reminder to be present in the moment and treasure all that passes by.

“Empty shells … [are] what colleges are without the students that bring any institution of higher learning to life,” Sabato said. “I don’t think any of us will ever take the everyday joys of life in this vibrant community for granted again.”

During this time of the pandemic the University may be physically empty, but the love for community remains at its heart. 

“I thank the students for having allowed me to be a part of their lives in such a significant way,” Religious Studies Prof. Heather Warren said. “I can imagine how wonderful it will be when the university is again filled with students, faculty, and staff, buzzing with life.” 

As faculty members and students fight against the pandemic together, joint efforts to make the return as soon as possible are longed for by many faculty members, including Warren. But once students return to Grounds, whenever that may be, she believes this pandemic will only bring the community closer.  

“As difficult as it is, we can pull together in this time of COVID-19 by staying apart because it is the right and good thing to do — I believe we can do it,” Warren said. “I also believe that when we return to Grounds, we will have a far greater appreciation for being together and for U.Va. as a place that draws us together.”

Throughout their teaching careers, professors often experience incredibly fulfilling moments, ones they can look back upon with nostalgia. Especially for Proffitt, those proud moments are moments spent with you — the students. 

“We really miss the students, I think, as much as they must miss us, and that’s a good thing,” Proffitt said. 

Although professors experience gratifying recognition in their role as educators, the ultimate core of the University will always be the student body. 

“I think [the pandemic] has made everyone realize that the heart of the University is its people,” Gallmeyer said. “It’s not about buildings, it’s not about Grounds — it’s the people.” 


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