College can be better the second time around.
It was for Jody Knowles, 57, of Charlottesville, who will graduate May 21 from the University of Virginia’s School of Continuing and Professional Studies with a Bachelor of Interdisciplinary Studies degree, with highest distinction.
Knowles first entered college in 1979, attending Michigan State University. She wanted to study journalism, a passion she discovered in her sophomore year of high school and honed in her senior year by spending time as a cub reporter at the Monroe (Michigan) Evening News.
“I loved school when I was a kid,” she said, “but I also wanted to experience life after high school. So after my first year at MSU, I made the decision to put my college education on hold.
“Then, with all the things I experienced – having a career, a house, a baby, getting married – I only got to read when I had free time.”
She did manage to earn an associate’s degree before moving to Charlottesville in 1990, where she worked briefly for the Daily Progress. From the newspaper industry, she worked her way into radio public relations and marketing, and then landed in the human resources field, where she worked for the next 20 years, most recently in the School of Medicine.
Though she had work and life experience, she did not have a bachelor’s degree, and Knowles knew that held her back.
“I felt I’d progressed well in my career, but I know there were jobs I wasn’t considered for where a bachelor’s degree was required,” she said. “If you don’t check that box, your application is rejected.”
While working, Knowles raised a son through getting a divorce and then getting married a second time. His departure for college rekindled thoughts of higher education for her. She mulled her options and chose UVA’s Bachelor of Interdisciplinary Studies program.
“I knew I wanted to be at UVA,” she said. “I’d heard good things about the B.I.S. program and how it works with a professional’s schedule. I contacted the B.I.S. office and they worked with me to make it happen.”
Part of the preparation for UVA included taking additional credits at Piedmont Virginia Community College. “This was a great trial run,” Knowles said, “to see if I could handle taking classes along with a full-time career.”
Knowles said going back to school forced her to sacrifice personal time – not just for her, but for her family as well. But she said the effort had many benefits. For one, the UVA program reignited her interest in feminism and her activism in women’s issues and LGBTQ issues. She concentrated in social science, specifically through the interdisciplinary Department of Women, Gender and Sexuality studies.
“I have grown so much intellectually,” Knowles said. “You come into a program such as this with ideas about things. The program challenged my ideas, made me think about them differently, challenged my opinions.”
Knowles found herself reading – a lot. During a recent class on contemporary American literature, she devoured a novel a week, a pace she had not kept in many years.
“I was surrounded by books. Lots of books,” she said. “There was not enough shelf space. There are books piled up on my night table.”
She was impressed with several books to which she was introduced in class, including “Tropic of Orange,” by Karen Tei Yamashita, and the works of Flannery O’Connor. In a course on poetry, she discovered the work of Russian poet Anna Akhmatova.
“I never thought I would say I have a favorite poet. Now I can honestly say I have a favorite Russian female poet,” Knowles said.
She also got to meet author Junot Díaz earlier this year when he visited Grounds as the Creative Writing Program’s Kapnick Distinguished Writer-in-Residence.
“He was like Elvis to me,” she said. “Whenever he was appearing somewhere, I was right there in the front row.”
Knowles started the B.I.S. program in 2013 and took one course each term, including summer and January terms. Some of the courses were online, but most she took in-person at UVA. She applied some of her human resources experience in helping her fellow students and by becoming a peer mentor.
“I enjoy helping people be successful,” she said. “That’s why I’m in human resources. In the classroom, I was working with people who were 20 to 30 years younger than me. They are such bright people. I consider my colleagues to be lifelong friends.”
Her dedication to her work and her devotion to the school impressed her professors.
“Jody has clearly embraced the B.I.S. program,” said Stephen Levine, assistant professor and the program’s director. “She is an excellent student who is intellectually curious. She is also a great team player and member of the B.I.S. community.”
He stressed that Knowles was a help to other students and to the program itself.
“Like most other students in the program, she works and takes B.I.S. courses primarily in the evening,” Levine said. “Her genuine interest in learning, her involvement in B.I.S. outside of the classroom and the simple fact that she works while attending B.I.S. classes mean that she is just the type of student for which the B.I.S. program was designed.”
Knowles credits her experience in the program with developing herself.
“Without this program, I would not have the confidence to write again, the eagerness to read again, the enthusiasm to put together a project, and the patience to compose a capstone paper,” she said.
Now that she has completed her bachelor’s degree, Knowles is considering an online Master of Education program, focused on lifelong learning and adult education.
“I have a bachelor’s degree and 20 years of experience,” she said. “I’m not sure what my future will hold, but I will never stop learning.”
(Editor’s note: This is one of a series of profiles of members of the University of Virginia’s Class of 2017.)