Chavis Learned by Waiting Tables

UM acting associate provost and art professor shares lessons from lifetime journey of learning

Virginia Chavis, UM acting associate provost and professor of art, talk to the crowd at the Graduate Student Council’s Research and Creative Achievement Symposium about how she overcame dyslexia and forged a successful career as an artist, educator and administrator. Photo by Thomas Graning/Ole Miss Digital Imaging Services

Just before the keynote address for the University of Mississippi‘s Graduate Student Council’s Research and Creative Achievement Symposium, Virginia Rougon Chavis shared her story of battling dyslexia and the lessons she learned through waiting tables. 

Chavis, UM acting associate provost and professor of art, spoke to the crowd, gathered on International Women’s Day (March 8), at the Gertrude C. Ford Center for the Performing Arts about the importance of women in leadership roles in creative research fields. She also talked about how many different life experiences can be educational. 

She used the example of her own background working in the service industry while she studied to become an artist. She learned early on that she expresses herself better with imagery than with words. 

“Like many of you with your passions, I learned from an early age my passion was working with my hands to make things,” Chavis said. “I could express myself better with imagery than with words.

“I am dyslexic. My deficiency has to do with words and retrieval of my vocabulary to express my thoughts.”

Chavis said she struggled with fill-in-the-blank tests but could more easily talk about the characters in a book, although she struggled to remember their names. She was also impressed as teenager by those with quick-witted and wide vocabularies.

She became stronger at the skills she needed for success by working in the restaurant industry.

“In college and graduate school, I waited tables,” Chavis said “Those of you who have also done this understand that a universal connection happens during this.

“I often point to my restaurant background because of the value and life experiences it brought me.”

She learned communication, teamwork, problem solving and the feeling that the customer is always right. These are good tools for success, she said.

Waiting tables helped her improve at the skills that dyslexia had made difficult for her.

“This experience helped me work with the public and develop professional skills alongside a diverse group of individuals who often felt like family,” Chavis said. “I have always thought that working in a restaurant or retail should be a part of the educational process because of the many life skills involved.”

She said after the talk that the metaphor of the restaurant for just about any job illustrates how people from all walks of life come together.

“While my initial goal in the service industry was to strengthen my communication skills, what I gained was a much larger lesson in in leadership,” Chavis said.

She hopes these connections were made by the group gathered in the Ford Center and that those lessons stick with them. 

“As humans, everyone has good days and tough ones, but because the group works together for a common goal, they learn to communicate and help one another,” Chavis said. “I hope that the brilliant minds in the Ford Center will think about this and learn from one another.”