As the fall semester quickly comes to an end, University of Virginia students are anticipating a well-deserved break from the academic rigor of Grounds. At the same time, they are building their course schedules, gearing up for the approaching spring semester. 

Reflecting on their time at UVA, every graduate remembers that one course – the one that changed everything and left a lasting impact on them. UVA Today reached out to four recent graduates and asked them what class truly “rocked their world.”

Related Story

Portrait of Kathryn Grant

Kathryn Grant

You get so much more immersion and opportunities to speak the language when you meet every day, which is really important when learning a new language.

FREN 1010: Elementary French I

Professor: Elizabeth Groff

If you had told Class of 2020 alumna Kathryn Grant when she was a first-year student that she would graduate from UVA fluent in French, she wouldn’t have believed you.

Initially on a pre-medicine track, when course registration opened during the fall of her first year, Grant was reluctantly prepared to sign up for another semester of biology.

“I remember going to my parents and asking, ‘Do you think it would be strange if I switched to French instead?’” she said. Without prior experience with the language, Grant took Elementary French I, an entry-level course scheduled to meet every weekday.

“You get so much more immersion and opportunities to speak the language when you meet every day, which is really important when learning a new language,” said Grant, who went on to major in French and minor in sociology. “Because of that, my class got really close, and we felt so much more comfortable speaking with each other.”

By the end of the semester, Grant was hooked. During that summer, she taught herself the next course level of French and passed a placement test, granting her acceptance into FREN 2010.

Her love for the language grew when she worked as an au pair for a family in Lille, France. “I got back from my three months of being an au pair and thought, ‘That’s what I want to do,’” she said.

At UVA, Grant lived in La Maison Française, a historic student residence and center for French culture where students must speak French. Living there, Grant again found herself immersed in the language.

Today, Grant teaches private French lessons through a platform called Italki, where she meets with students from across the globe, ranging in age from 2 to 91.

“I’m just so grateful that I took introductory French, even though I wasn’t sure if it was the most reasonable thing to do at the time,” she said, “because it worked out pretty well.”

FREN 1010 will be offered in the spring with alternate professors.

Portrait of Kevin Liu

Kevin Liu

There’s something very satisfying in seeing yourself learning and improving.

EAST 2559: Unlocking the Treasure Box of Chinese Calligraphy

Professor: Ran Zhao

Spring 2024 equivalent: EAST 1200 (East Asian Calligraphy with professor Shu-Chen Chen)

During his time as an undergraduate in UVA’s School of Engineering and Applied Science, Class of 2023 alumnus Kevin Liu didn’t have much room in his schedule for non-technical courses. However, of all the classes he took at the University, Liu recalls his Chinese calligraphy class as the most memorable.

“It’s 100% the furthest opposite end of the spectrum in differences,” the former computer science student said. “In the Engineering School, every class has a definite ‘right or wrong’ answer. In this class, the art you produce is never evaluated as ‘right or wrong.’”

While similar to painting in Western cultures, Chinese calligraphy is seen more as a form of meditation than a pursuit of visual aesthetics. In Chinese calligraphy, a pointed paint brush is dipped in water-soluble ink and stroked onto a rice paper canvas to depict the tens of thousands of Chinese characters.

Growing up in Beijing, Liu had some experience with calligraphy, but moving to the United States when he was 11 years old, he lost some of his skills. To fulfill one of his elective requirements for the engineering program, Liu picked up calligraphy again.

“The class was very relaxing,” Liu said. “Our professor didn’t make it seem like a traditional class environment. For a good majority of the class, she would put on chill instrumental music and we would just write.”

Liu said professor Ran Zhao emphasized the importance of showing improvement, rather than achieving immediate perfection.

“If you’ve worked on a character for long enough, you will see yourself change, adapt and learn how to use the brush properly,” Liu said.

“There’s something very satisfying in seeing yourself learning and improving.”

While EAST 2559 is not offered in the spring 2024 semester, a similar course is available, titled EAST 1200: East Asian Calligraphy, with professor Shu-Chen Chen.

Portrait of Carrington Epperson

Carrington Epperson

We all had to recognize the truth because we went through the historical timeline, bit by bit, without missing any details.

ENLT 2547: Black Writers in America: U.S. Civil Rights Movement and Fiction

Professor: Deborah McDowell

Knowing she wanted to expand her knowledge of Black history, Carrington Epperson decided to major in African American studies at UVA. The 2018 graduate took Black Writers in America: U.S. Civil Movement and Fiction to fulfill her second writing requirement in the College of Arts & Sciences.

The course focused on the literature published during the Civil Rights Movement. By examining the works of Black writers, Epperson said she significantly improved her research and analysis skills.

A portion of the course was spent analyzing fictional works – a literary genre that professor Deborah McDowell, the former director of UVA’s Carter G. Woodson Institute for African-American and African Studies, told students often unveils the truth behind a historical era.

Epperson took the course in 2015, marking the 50th anniversary of the passage of the Civil Rights Act. Epperson was able to participate in a study seminar of the American South led by the late Julian Bond, a key figure of the Civil Rights Movement and history professor emeritus at UVA.

Bond led students on a weeklong road trip of significant historical sites of the Civil Rights Movement. Epperson and the group visited where the Montgomery Bus Boycott was planned and executed, marched across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, site of “Bloody Sunday,” and met former U.S. Rep. John Lewis.

In terms of the class itself, Epperson said McDowell’s approach to the course material left her with a different perspective on the Civil Rights Movement.

“[McDowell] wasn’t there to sugarcoat things,” Epperson said. “We all had to recognize the truth because we went through the historical timeline, bit by bit, without missing any details.”

While McDowell will not teach this course in the spring, Epperson advises students to consider taking an African American studies course at UVA.

“A lot of times, schools growing up did not teach Black history,” Epperson said. “I recommend anyone to take an African American studies course because you will never understand how much you weren’t taught about it before.”

Portrait of Micah Rucci

Micah Rucci

My advice is to take a class that has absolutely nothing to do with what you think you want to do in life.

MDST 3430: Rendering AI: Cinema and Artificial Intelligence

Professor: William Little

“I was honestly scared to take Cinema and AI because I know nothing about technology. I was horrified that this course would be out of my wheelhouse, but it was the best risk I’ve ever taken,” Micah Rucci said.

The course, led by professor William Little of the Department of Media Studies, examined artificial intelligence through the lens of cinematography, viewing science fiction films like “Frankenstein,” “2001: A Space Odyssey,” “Ex Machina” and “Her.”

“Professor Little came to classes with lesson plans and daily objectives, but he never allowed those goals to impede class discussions,” Rucci, a Class of 2022 graduate, said. “The class discussions were integral to the course.”

Despite taking the course online due to the pandemic, Rucci credits Little’s enthusiasm for teaching students and learning from them for creating captivating group discussions.

“Every single person had an equal voice to professor Little’s,” Rucci said. “You could really tell that he was open to learning about this material just as much as we were, which is very in line with the Jeffersonian approach to lifelong learning.”

While Rucci doesn’t expect to pursue a career related to artificial intelligence, he advises students to take classes that make them feel slightly intimidated, because it could end up being the one that has the most impact.

“My advice is to take a class that has absolutely nothing to do with what you think you want to do in life,” Rucci said. “The best things that have ever come to me have come spontaneously or by accident.

“Now, I see the world so differently because of the skills I learned in a class that I originally thought I wasn’t cut out for.”

William Little will offer MDST 3430 in the spring of 2024.

Media Contact

Mike Mather

Managing Editor University Communications