Class of ’24: She’s More Than Good Enough, and UVA Degree Proves It

April 22, 2024 By Bryan McKenzie, bkm4s@virginia.edu Bryan McKenzie, bkm4s@virginia.edu

Jennifer Bowyer did not pursue her University of Virginia bachelor’s degree for prestige, promotion or a pay increase, but to firmly tell the doubting and derisive voices of her past to shut up.

“It means everything to me because all my life I was told ‘Jennifer, be quiet. Nothing you have to say is important. Just be pretty, marry well and be quiet.’ Then I married somebody who told me every single day that I was stupid and worthless,” Bowyer recalled on a recent sunny afternoon while enjoying an order of French fries.

“You hear something your whole, entire life, and even when you don’t think it’s true, it still seeps into your inner voice. With all these things I heard and fighting with all I have listened to and been told, my degree is very personal and it means everything to me,” she said. “I don’t think it’s going to change my life in any earth-shattering way, but on the inside, I have this attitude that whatever comes now, I’m good.”

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Bowyer, 55, is graduating with a Bachelor of Interdisciplinary Studies degree from UVA’s School of Continuing and Professional Studies and served on the Honor Committee. She earned the liberal arts degree studying on a part-time basis, taking evening and online classes. 

The program fit exactly what Bowyer needed.

“I’ve always thought about different things and want to learn things and know things. I’ve told my sons that when I die, they need to delete my Google search history, because people would think I’m crazy for looking up everything I do,” she laughed. “When I started at UVA, I was originally studying health care management because I knew that was reliable and dependable for finding a job. And then I thought ‘You know what, Jennifer? This is probably your last shot to make school count.’”

UVA was not Bowyer’s first stint in college. She enrolled in college numerous times, only to drop out when her family moved to follow her ex-husband’s job assignments. Still, she’s been a lifelong Wahoo-wannabe and even encouraged her three sons to apply.

Bowyer’s sons, Coleman and Jackson with her sitting at a table in a restaurant

Bowyer’s sons, Coleman and Jackson, convinced their mom it was her time to shine. After her acceptance, they brought her to Grounds, bought her Cavalier gifts from the bookstore and proudly told everyone they met that their mom was a Hoo. (Contributed photo)

In the admissions essay she wrote prior to her acceptance into UVA, she explained that her Cavalier attitude involved family indoctrination at a young age by her grandmother.

“Maw-Maw had an unexplained fondness for UVA athletics and academics. ‘The very best students go there and when you go, I’ll meet you for all the games,’ she would say,” Bowyer wrote. “To keep me hooked, she bought a steady supply of Wahoo pencils, notebooks and buttons, some of which I still have.”

In the ’80s, Bowyer’s orange-and-blue school spirit was such that she risked suspension at her junior high school for organizing college basketball betting pools.

“I got caught when a sore University of North Carolina loser snitched, but I had an excellent academic record, no prior discipline issues, and received only a warning,” she recalled. “The other guy got detention, which was fair, given his team.”

But lack of money thwarted her Wahoo dream. She dropped out of a South Carolina college, got married, raised a family and tried to transfer her love of UVA to her sons. Although money was tight, she offered to find a way to pay tuition to the first two sons, both of whom joined the U.S. Army infantry, the eldest as a paratrooper in the elite 82nd Airborne Division.

She bribed her third son with a new truck, plus insurance.

“He also enlisted in the Army infantry,” she said, shaking her head.

“My professors created an environment that allowed me – each class and each semester – to get more comfortable being Jennifer, not who Jennifer thought she had to be.”

Bowyer’s path to personal Hoodom had more curves and bumps than a Blue Ridge backroad. She survived a cancer scare and struggled through “a nasty, nasty divorce.” She grieved when her eldest son, who served several deployments, took his life. She endured several health issues, lost her job during the pandemic, dealt with troubling family matters and was gobsmacked by her other two sons’ deployments to Djibouti.

Those deployments motivated her enrollment at UVA once her sons convinced her she was ready.

“They drove me to Charlottesville. They took me to the bookstore. They told everybody on Grounds – everyone we walked past – ‘Our mom’s a student!’ They acted like proud parents,” she recalled. “They bought sweatshirts. They bought me a notebook and pencils and proud-parented me through.”

While her sons took her to school, it was her professors who got her through it.

Jennifer Bowyer leans on the brick siding of the stairs outside of the Rotunda and Jefferson statue

A definitely nontraditional student, Jennifer Bowyer, 55, is graduating this May from the School of Continuing and Professional Studies after dreaming of being a Wahoo since she was a small child. (Contributed photo)

“They made the difference. They are why I stayed. They are how I found my voice and found out it’s OK to use it. This is the first time in my entire life that I’m getting to be me, exactly how I am, without apologies, without fear,” she said. “My professors created an environment that allowed me – each class and each semester – to get more comfortable being Jennifer, not who Jennifer thought she had to be.”

As graduation approaches, Bowyer is ready for the future.

“People keep asking me what I want to do with this degree. But here’s the thing: Because of all I’ve gone through, I’m not real stressed about that. I figure I’m going to be exactly where I’m supposed to be and doing what I’m supposed to do,” she said.

She does have some practical goals she hopes her degree will help her achieve.

“I hope it gets me a job that has the medical coverage I haven’t had in almost 10 years and will allow me to meet monthly expenses without enormous stress and occasional help from a church food pantry,” she said, “and maybe even let me attempt some long-term financial security so I won’t burden my sons.”

A little respect would also be nice, she admitted.

“People treat you differently without a degree, whether intentionally or not. I got tired of being dismissed or condescended to,” she said. “My UVA degree remains mostly a personal accomplishment, but yes, it’s a paper that opens doors for me that have always been closed. I will have options that I never had before. That feels good.”

Media Contact

Bryan McKenzie

Assistant Editor, UVA Today Office of University Communications