Small gifts and a legacy of grace

By Deborah Hunter McWilliams ('82)

This is just one of many stories from Madison magazine's award-winning Professors You Love series, written by JMU students and alumni, about the professors that have made the most impact on their lives — then, and now.

Professor emerita of psychology Virginia Andreoli Mathie

Professor emerita of psychology Virginia Andreoli Mathie

It seemed like a relatively insignificant object — a bookmark. This particular bookmark, however, was anything but insignificant: it was momentous. I carried it in numerous books — the Bible, a Shakespeare anthology, an Irish verse collection. It came with me in my move from Harrisonburg to Phoenix and from America to the Republic of Ireland and back again. This small token has accompanied me along my life's journey and helped mark the milestones of that pilgrimage. A graduation gift from professor Virginia Andreoli Mathie, the bookmark symbolized an act of generosity and kindness — an act that deeply encouraged me and ultimately became the very emblem of impression and inspiration. In that small gift, Dr. Andreoli Mathie transformed within me the then-tenuous faith I had in both myself and in my world. I thought, "If one revered teacher could find in me something so worthy of a hand-embroidered bookmark to honor my graduation, then I, too, can locate something of merit in myself and others and, thus, honor this mentor's faith in humanity."

In the process of completing my final year's graduation requirements for an English major and psychology minor, I took a social psychology course under the tutelage of Dr. Andreoli Mathie. At the time I met her, I was most certainly part of a "lost" generation of college students — people who populated the hallways of academia without a clear sense of purpose or direction. What's more, as I had been a midsummer transfer student in 1981, my JMU experience had been one of many fragments of time and history that comprised my collegiate career. If the images of my academic endeavors were portrayed as shards against the backdrop of college life, my personal sensibilities were even more fragile. Addiction, abuse and apathy were among the many demons against which I was waging battle, and the process was taking an enormous toll on my ability to complete my education. But I forged ahead and, in so doing, my fledgling spirit encountered Andreoli Mathie's special attention. She not only tutored me in social dynamics, social acculturation and group interaction, she also gave me much-needed permission for self-expression. In her risk-taking, I learned recovery. She gave to me the very intellectual and social fodder I needed to begin to reconstruct my ideology of self — my own sense of identity.

In the late 1980s, I decided to enter the teaching profession, not at the urging of anyone, but because I had come to understand that for some, such as professor Andreoli Mathie, teaching was not a matter of occupation so much as it was an active vocation. I, too, wanted to alter for the better the journey of young people, in particular because I had become keenly aware of how many young adults are thrust into adulthood without being fully equipped to deal with, and respond to, the pressures of society.

Last spring, JMU President Linwood Rose told retiring professors — Andreoli Mathie, among them — "I hope you feel you did make a difference." Not only did professor Andreoli Mathie make a difference in the lives of her students, but her benevolence continues to make a difference in the lives of many students whom she will never actually meet but who, nonetheless, benefit from her legacy of kindness, grace and charity.

Thank you, professor Andreoli Mathie.

Deborah Hunter McWilliams ('82)

Deborah Hunter McWilliams, Ph.D. ('82)

About the professor
Psychology professor Virginia Andreoli Mathie retired in May after 28 years on the faculty. She was a recipient of the 2002 American Psychological Association's Distinguished Contributions Award. She earned numerous other honors for her contributions to the applications of psychology through her work on the Psychology Partnerships Project: Academic Partnerships to Meet the Teaching and Learning Needs of the 21st Century. Andreoli Mathie also won the APA's 1999 Presidential Citation Award for her work on the partnership project and was the Harry Kirke Wolfe speaker at the 2001 APA convention.

About the author
Deborah Hunter McWilliams ('82) is an English teacher at a private, all-boys high school in southern California. In 1995, she earned her Ph.D. in English from Claremont Graduate University, specializing in British Isles literature, with an emphasis in Irish Studies. She is a published essayist and poet, but says her "greatest academic interest remains [her] students."