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Life as Art: In Front of the Class

by Linda Levanti, Asheville, NC, senior in Humanities

linda-levantiI have a great vantage point from my position in the back of the classroom. Seated near the large picture window, with a glorious view of the massive walnut trees planted during the golden days of the Biltmore Era, I’m quite content. The wall to my back encloses this pleasant space, where like a cat curled on a sunny window ledge, I’m more or less out of sight. I don’t often speak, satisfied to watch the activity from my sanctuary in the corner. Who’d have thought that one day I’d decide to become a teacher? Certainly not I.

It was the unconditional patience and encouragement of my kindly neighbors in a tiny, old-world village in central Mexico that set me on my path to teaching. It’s a constant challenge to communicate even simple thoughts when faced with a language barrier, something we rarely experience in the United States. Accepting me into their beehive of daily activities, these aproned Madonnas were as happy to teach me some Spanish as I was to share a few words of English. I’m humbled and grateful for the many good humored teachers who helped me along the way. Nonetheless, there were still many times I felt terribly isolated by language, and a stranger in a strange land, in spite of the warmth of my Mexican family.


Shortly after my return to the United States I started volunteering at the local community college in an adult education class to satisfy certification requirements to teach English to speakers of other languages (TESOL). My experience had fostered a desire to help those living in the United States whose struggles with a foreign language are likely a great deal harder than mine had been in Mexico. I want to make a difference in the lives of those who are committed to learning their new country’s language. After completing my training program, I stayed on at the college; I like helping in the classroom. And, the opportunity to quietly observe the instructor, while reinforcing my novice teaching skills, fit in with my predilection for staying out of the spotlight. That is, up until last week.

The class began quite as usual. As students filtered in, I handed out worksheets, and Monica, the level 4 instructor, began to teach. The lesson for discussion was subject-verb agreement. And so, Monica taught English and I helped Monica, that is until her phone rang mid-lecture, and the baby-sitter informed her that her infant daughter was ill…could she come home right away? Monica’s eyes sought mine, pleadingly, as if to say, you do have your certification. Other than the one evening I had student taught an adult class many months before, an experience replete with sweaty palms and horrible stage-fright, I had not taught a class on my own. I wasn’t feeling inclined to do so any time soon. But under the circumstance what could I say? Monica left for home, and I was on! And on my own.


It was performance time, and I flashed back on the frightened five year old I’d been at my first dance recital. The delicate pink ballet slippers I’d laced onto my feet, when told it was time to go on stage, no longer felt as enchanting as I’d imagined them. I was scared silly. All the wisdom and life experience I’d gained in nearly fifty years was reduced to the size of a quivering child. Thrust in front of the classroom, with the students’ inquiring eyes focused on me, I felt a vulnerability that caused every fiber in my body to scream “run”, which is what I had done at that first ballet recital. Not a pretty picture when you want to be a teacher. But I was no longer five years old, and fleeing was not an option. My saving grace is that age and hard won experience has provided me with an unwavering resolve, and so I stayed put and opened my mouth.

At a total loss for words, the immediate need to say or do something was bewildering. Quite unexpectedly, I felt as if a stranger had taken control of my senses and I began to dance. Not literally, but in a way that expressed my individuality. Performing as both marionette and marionettist, I was acutely aware of the tension in the strings that propelled my initial movements as an imperfectly executed pirouette spun me from the front of the room toward the large table that was the students’ shared desk. As I drew a chair closer to my audience, inviting them to join me, I remembered how much I had loved my ballet slippers; how good it felt to lace the ribbons and twirl across the polished wooden floor. Without a script, I listened to myself conduct the class. The words flowed and the teacher in me sounded so confident. She was enjoying herself! In getting on stage, I was introduced to a part of me I had never met, someone who seemed to like dancing for an audience. I’d caught an astonishing glimpse of my potential self in those moments in front of the class.


Art critic, Michael Kimmelman, wrote in The Accidental Masterpiece that “Life itself might be an art.” If my experience was any indication, I agree. Good art, when real and not contrived, fuels a deep and lasting impression upon viewer and artist alike. It can do that when we let go, and get out of our own way. I believe that this sentiment is essentially what Gunter Berghaus wrote about in the “Happenings and Fluxus” chapter of his book Avant-garde Performance. Based on the idea of unconventional and spontaneous artistic expression that compels the interaction of performer and audience, art is created that shatters life as we know it, effectively changing who we are into something new. The certainly unplanned accident of my performance in the classroom that day exemplified what both “Happenings” and “Fluxus” stand for. Reflective of Jean-Jacques Lebel’s portrayal of the “characteristics” of Happenings, it became a moment of “breaking down the barriers between art and life…[to] transform human beings, and make them change their old ways of seeing, feeling, and being.” It was terrifying and exhilarating.

Initially, my performance fell flat on its face. I wasn’t like Monica. My audience was confused by this unsure presentation of a teacher. I’ve since learned that many students see their teachers, myself included, as if we’re all cut out of the same academic “fabric”, and whether it’s Monica or myself at the head of the class, we are “all knowing” and greater in stature than the students there to learn English. In part, this is a cultural issue and likely a misinterpretation of Americans in general, but nonetheless, it makes for a very tough audience. I was faced with a chasm I had no idea how to bridge. Human nature being what it is, I’m sure they recognized my fear. Those sorts of things speak clearly in any language. Did they realize the degree to which my teaching had become the performance of my life? Probably not, but I do think they recognized themselves through the cracks in the perfect image they had constructed of me as an “American” teacher.

Unexpectedly presented with an instructor they were not accustomed to, the students initially responded to me by withdrawing. My discomfort increased and I felt myself teetering on the edge of the stage, an abyss between myself and the students huddled in the audience. They were reticent to speak; our previous interactions had been minimal. I experienced something that my instructors at NCSU had said about teaching foreign language classes, something that applied to me as well. Students are often afraid to speak for fear of looking foolish or making mistakes. Student or teacher, we all want to do well and look our best. There were moments during that two hour class when I stumbled. I recovered, the world didn’t come to an end, and I kept going. When I performed for that class, it wasn’t perfect. I was nervous at times, and lost my way. And then art happened in one spontaneous moment of laughter.


I’d laughed out loud at how much fun I was having in spite of it all. I couldn’t be frightened any longer. It was just too silly. The students thought it was tremendously funny, and so did I. At that moment the feeling in the room transformed each of us. The “American” teacher, who fell off the stage, wasn’t really any different than they were, and they gladly joined me in my dance. I had their attention. The chasm disappeared, and my students got that it was OK to try, and it was acceptable to make mistakes. We laughed, exchanged ideas, and as we became partners on that stage, no longer separated by perceptions of culture or class, we were performers and audience alike. I reflect that it was much more than just the subject-verb agreement of English grammar that we learned about that day. The art of authentic communication became a Happening. The Happening became the universal language of human interaction. I’ll never know who learned more that day, me or them. I do know that together we created an accidental masterpiece that will remain a vivid image in my mind for years to come.

My son, who is a wonderful artist believes that art should exist only for the moment and then be gone, to allow for other inspirations to take its’ place. My performance in the classroom reflects that sensibility. I’ve learned that art is not the result of paint and brush, nor is teaching, simply the rules of English grammar. They are only the tools we use to express the essence of who we are. When I teach, the art itself is ethereal, but its’ effect lingers on. Like any artist who performs for an audience, I’m sure there’ll be wonderful experiences as I teach and those that may not inspire great art. Either way, it will remind me that life, if lived as art, is its own accidental masterpiece.


* This essay was originally written for an assignment in Ann Millett-Gallant‘s class The Art of Life, in which the students are asked to create and partake in an act of performative art, then write about their inspirations, their interactions with their audience, the performance itself, and the results. The fortunate timing of Linda’s unplanned teaching stint as this assignment was approaching led to this “accidental masterpiece.”

Regarding my choice of the kitchen photo from among many possibilities, Linda writes, “of all the photos, you pick the staged photo my husband took of me with a large beer bottle “caguama” and mug! My husband thinks that it’ll make me look like a borracha! (drunkard) which is really funny as I rarely drink.”

After Jamaica Kincaid’s “Girl”

by Jessie Lane, BLS student

Jessie Lane

Jessie Lane.

The assignment, for Debby Seabrooke’s Contemporary Short Stories class, was to create a personal adaptation of “Girl” by Jamaica Kincaid. “Girl” was first published in the June 26, 1978 edition of the New Yorker, and has since been widely anthologized. It is frequently studied in literature and writing classes.

(after Jamaica Kincaid)

Jamaica Kincaid, ca. "Girl."

Jamaica Kincaid, c. 1978.

Remember that we all are always alone. This is not bad news. This news will lead you to the truth quickly. You can rest assured that there is nothing else in this world to do other than honor your family and to work. Do not worry about forming connections beyond that, this will only waste your time and cause you to suffer. Being alone is honorable—not lonely and isolationist. It is a sign of strength. The only company you need is that of your children. You will understand when you become a mother. But, I’m not sure that I want to become a mother. All other relationships are luxuries, and luxuries make you lazy. The world will make you think that you need people; they will constantly be at battle with your wits on this one. They want you to believe that relationships are a testament to your worth. Beat ’em! Make sure that you prove your worth though production. You must make progress, always and continually. This will help you to continue living life. Money is the key to success. Not riches, mind you, but the constant flow of steady money. Find that and do not waste your time on other pursuits. Well—you can—you are a free person, but if you do you will know great sorrow and depression. Not only, but mostly. Oh, and don’t let your softness show, it is unbecoming. Girls are really only anything these days if they act like boys. Don’t look like a boy, please…God…look like a pretty, lean girl. But, act like you can kick everyone’s ass because you know how to make it on your own. Be tough, dirty, fierce, and blood hungry on the inside and look physically accommodating on the outside. Being one of the guys without them knowing is key to this fight. But I don’t know much about fighting. Learn everything you can learn about fighting. This is important. You have got to fight in the war to win. Makeup is your war paint; wear it often, and wear it right. But I can’t seem to get used to the feeling of makeup on my face. To be a proper girl, a proper daughter, you must also take care of us parents. There is a special reason that you are the only girl. Let the boys be single-minded. You can do it all. You must, really, if you want to live a life of meaning. You will understand when you have your children. But, don’t have children because you don’t want to be alone or because you think that you have an unnerving urge to give life and love. These are biological tricks that nature plays on all of us, and it’s important to remember that you can always control nature. Have your children because you will need someone to provide for you in old age. You don’t even need a man. But, I’m not even sure what I want. You will see, child. You will see.


Jessie Lane is a 28 year old senior in the BLS Humanities concentration and lives in the mountains of Asheville, North Carolina. She started her college education at age 15 after dropping out of high school in Phoenix, Arizona,  running away to Asheville, and enrolling in classes at Asheville-Buncombe Technical Community College. She has lived all over the United States and traveled worldwide, including Mexico, South Africa, France, Netherlands, and Spain. She is a passionate percussionist, and plays with groups in various genres all around the Asheville area. She loves dancing and writing.

Studying in Ghana

by Nargiza Kiger, BLS student, Tamale, Ghana

Nargiza in Tamale, Ghana

Nargiza Kiger in Tamale, Ghana.

I am in the middle of my online midterm test, and rather confident that I know the material, but becoming anxious because the test has a limited time and my internet connection is being torturously slow. I click to submit my answer, and watch the precious seconds go past, becoming more anxious as I wait for the next question to finally appear. I answer it…click…and wait again.

That’s when the power goes out.

Cussing and feeling defeated I storm outside to calm myself. The last time the power went out (the day before the test), it lasted for over twelve hours. In my head I am already drafting yet another email to my professor trying to explain my situation. “Just don’t make it sound like one of those excuses professors get from students all the time,” I tell myself as the security guard approaches me.

The central market in Tamale, Ghana.

The central market in Tamale, Ghana.

I have been living in the West African region since 2011—the same year I became a student at UNCG—and since then I have been taking my classes from Nigeria and Ghana. Living in West Africa is exciting and rewarding both on a personal and a professional level, and the new phenomenon of “distance learning” creates huge opportunities for a student like me, who can live in Ghana and take online classes from an American University. However, living in and taking online classes from Tamale has its own set of challenges. Sudden power losses and slow, at times non-functioning internet are common situations. Reliable internet access and reliable electricity are rare. As a distance learner I face these challenges on daily basis. It can be maddening.

As Ibrahim the security guard approached me, I wanted to vent my frustration and complain to someone about how challenging it is to be a distance learner when you have such poor infrastructure around you. In the course of our conversation something special happened that made me reflect back on the bigger picture and why am I a student in the first place. He brought me back to reality, and now any time I am frustrated about my tests, quizzes and mid term exams, I remember the story of Ibrahim Sulemana.


Ibrahim Sulemana.

Ibrahim is a 22-year-old young man who wants to be a medical nurse. He was the oldest son of a farmer who relied on him greatly in managing the farm. When Ibrahim was 14 an educational project “Literacy and Development through Partnership” came to his community. This project focused on adult education and taught them how to write and read in English, the formal language of Ghana. Ibrahim joined the project and started going to night school after long, labor-intensive days in his family farm. Only at the age of 14 did he have access to basic education that I had had access to at the age of 7 growing up in Uzbekistan.

In rural parts of Ghana basic education can easily become a burden for parents. In rural Ghana a person on average lives on $2 USD a day. Although the education itself free from 1st grade to 9th grade, if you want to go to high school you have to pay on average 100 Ghana Cedi ($50 USD) per academic year. Private schools are 4-5 times higher. Because Ibrahim wanted to further acquire his higher education, it was crucial to graduate from high school.

Ibrahim committed to his night school education so much that his uncle noticed his abilities and convinced Ibrahim’s farther to let Ibrahim go to high school. In the following farming seasons, his father encouraged Ibrahim to hire some assistance in the field, so he could spend less time on the field and more at school. Ibrahim joined the junior high school at the age of 17 and graduated from High School in 2013 at the age of 22. He paid for his school from the small profits he made from growing rice. He told me that one year he had such a bad yield (6 sacks of rise) that he did not have any money or rice left when he paid his school expenses.

Ibrahim at his school.

Ibrahim at his school.

Ibrahim told me that he was surrounded with classmates who were much younger than him and always felt a bit ashamed, but he said that adult students like him tend to have clearer goals and have less time to “play around.” Now he is studying for his standardized entrance exam for the Nursing School. He tells me that it is very competitive and mostly not based on merits. Since he has no connections to the influential people at nursing school, he says that he has to only rely on his abilities and knowledge. At the same time the educational system favors those with financial capabilities. Ibrahim says that if a person pays about $5,000 in bribes to “the right person,” the person’s place at the Nursing school can be secured without any exams. He knows that it is impossible for him to save up that much money working as a security guard and making about $150 a month. So, he is determined to challenge himself and take the test. He told me that most of his salary and harvested rice is spent on his siblings’ education. He wants them to be educated at much earlier age than he was.

The day Ibrahim and I shared our educational journeys was the day I told myself that I will not feel frustrated over small challenges and will do my best to focus on the bigger picture. Ibrahim’s story made me reflect on educational journeys that many young people go through in different parts of the world, facing their own challenges. Most of us in the United States are lucky to have the opportunities in front of us. We only have to recognize them and take advantage of them. Immense resources and technology make education even more accessible. Online education has become a widely used approach in non-traditional education. It definitely allows me to achieve my educational progress from the other side of the Atlantic Ocean.

Ibrahim and Nargiza under the mango tree where Ibrahim likes to read.

Ibrahim’s reading spot under the mango tree.

Ibrahim and I became good buddies since our bond over our educational goals. We both encourage each other in our so different world, and remind each other of our ultimate goals in this journey. Recognizing poor availability and access of the resources for Ibrahim, I now share my books with him, as he is very nervous about passing English on his big test.


Nargiza Kiger (rhymes with “tiger”), a senior in the BLS Social Sciences concentration, currently lives in Tamale, Ghana with her husband. A resident of North Carolina, she finished her Associate of Arts at Forsyth Technical Community College before coming to UNCG. Prior to that, she grew up and started her education in Kyrgystan and Uzbekistan, and she speaks enough languages that the College foreign language requirement probably won’t be an issue for her.

Enrichment Online: The Bachelor of Arts in Liberal Studies at UNCG

By Tyler Steelman (BLS Class of 2012)

Facing the completion of my Associates in Arts in English, I was quite undecided on how I would continue my college career after leaving the community college I entered after high school.  Thanks to her wisdom and insight into my interests and character, my college adviser there introduced me to the BLS program at UNCG.

I have always had a deep interest in the fields described as humanities: literature, art, history, philosophy, and religion.  Thus, the BLS program was a great way to formally study subjects I have always loved.  The online learning environment was also a major factor in my choosing the BLS program.  Having completed my associate’s degree online, I had grown comfortable with the freedom and flexibility of online courses, so I knew I would be successful in the BLS program.  Furthermore, UNCG’s low tuition rates make it quite an affordable way to further your education.

While my focus in the program was on literature, to my delight I have been able to delve into the other branches of the humanities as well.  One of my favorite courses during my time in the program was Magic, Media, and Popular Imagination with Dr. Emily Edwards.  In this course we examined the effect the supernatural has had on popular media.  We watched several films with supernatural themes which we discussed in discussion forums.  For the final project we created a visual narrative blog, where we used photographs and narration to create a documentary or creative piece.  It was interesting to learn how profound an influence the occult has had on popular media, and the visual narrative project was an enjoyable experience.  To view my visual narrative project, click here.

In my time in the BLS program, I have been fortunate to also take three courses with Dr. Carrie Levesque.  In American Motherhood, I studied how the role of motherhood is perceived by our society and the different ethnicities and sub-cultures that it contains.  For that course I created a blog examining how motherhood is represented in popular media.  I also took Religious Resistance to Political Power, where I examined how various religions responded to oppressive measures by governments.  In Women, War, and Terror, we read three memoirs written by women during times of war, violence, and social upheaval.  Dr. Levesque is a very insightful instructor who provides a warm and informal atmosphere to discuss these often challenging and distressing issues.

Finally, I have also been able to explore the world of drama and theater with Professor Marc Williams.  In Big Plays, Big Ideas, I read numerous plays, analyzing how they portrayed various issues pertaining to society and the human condition.  In Eye Appeal, I learned how spectacle (costuming, lighting, set design, music, etc.) adds to or affects dramatic productions.  I wrote a review of a theatrical performance I attended, detailing how spectacle was utilized.  Professor Williams offers wonderful critiques on assignments that not only advise you on how to be a better student in that course, but also on how to be a better writer.

I am not the typical BLS student, as the program is geared to working adults and I am a full-time student who just graduated high school four years ago.  Thus, I do not have as much life experience as most students in the program.  However, the BLS program has in a sense opened up the world for me.  I have learned more about the various cultures, beliefs, conflicts, and arts that characterize humanity in the two years I have been in the BLS program than I believe most people my age or perhaps any age have.  I am confident that the insights about the human condition I have acquired in the BLS program will be invaluable in whatever direction life takes me.  I will be graduating with honors in May, and I am hoping to continue my liberal arts education at UNCG next fall with the Master of Arts in Liberal Studies program.  If you want a quality liberal arts education that not only gives you freedom and flexibility but also enriches the way you see humanity and the world, I highly recommend looking into the BLS program at UNCG.

My Experience in the BLS Program at UNCG

By Julia Burns, BLS Class of 2012

I woke up this morning and went into the bathroom to do my daily ritual as usual. The only problem that I have is looking in the mirror at a very scary soon to be 52 year old! Thinking, I realized today is 11th of December and it is 4 more days until I will officially be graduated. I did it! I worked hard to get my Bachelor of Arts degree while I worked making money in a reputable job. It took me 2 years in person and a year online to complete in 3 ½ years what normally have taken in 4 to 5 years. How did I do it?  The Bachelor of Arts in Liberal Studies program at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.

When I first enrolled, I thought this was going to be a breeze – a piece of cake. I couldn’t have been more wrong. I never worked so hard in my life. A traditional student can walk to class, take notes, study, test, and interact readily with other students; an online student does not have that luxury. An online article by Terence Loose points out the following seven myths about  online learning:

  • Online courses are easier than in-class courses.
  • You have to be tech-savvy to take an online class.
  • You don’t receive personal attention in online education.
  • You can “hide” in an online course and never participate.
  • You don’t learn as much when you pursue an online degree.
  • Respected schools don’t offer online degrees.
  • Networking opportunities aren’t available through online education.

I compared these seven myths to my experience with online classes. I am technologically illiterate. I received a lot of personal attention in online education. I couldn’t hide in an online course and not participate if I expected to receive a grade and keep my financial aid. I learned more from studying on line than I did from attending in person. The University of North Carolina at Greensboro is a well-respected, fully accredited, state university. I made some wonderful contacts online–not just on the North Carolina campus but from all across the country as well as all over the world.  Through online classes, I have learned the art of self discipline, how to prioritize better, how to write for specific disciplines, developed a stronger interest in all types of literature, and a gained great appreciation for all types of anthropology.

Many classes featured heated debates, such as the mock trials in “Great Trials in American History.” This was done live online and all students had to participate. It was a difficult night because in some parts of the country there were terrible thunderstorms and a lot of tornado activity going on. The thrill of the storms and the debate combined was really exciting!

What do I intend to do with this online degree in Bachelor of Arts? I would like to be a lawyer or a teacher. But in the meanwhile, I have chosen neither. I am currently refreshing my algebra skills to take the GRE and get my Master Arts in Liberal Studies. The law has always fascinated me, teaching would be a great challenge, but to become better educated is where I am headed. Who knows–maybe I will get my PhD?

Why I Chose an Online Degree at UNCG – The Asynchronous Advantage of the BLS Program

By Catherine Kahn
(Class of December 2012)

I began my college education as many people do:  fresh out of  high school, living in a dorm, attending a top tier institution.  As many of you know, life has a way of changing your plans.  After three years of working towards my degree, I met and married a Naval Officer.  My education took a backseat to supporting him and his career especially in the aftermath of September 11th, when he was more likely to be flying missions over Afghanistan and Iraq than to be home.  Life eventually settled down, and I thought it time to complete my educational goals, but by then there were a myriad of options− so many online programs− private, public, for-profit, not-for-profit, etc in addition to classes in a traditional setting.

Online courses definitely appealed to me.  I live just minutes from another public university in North Carolina, but the asynchronous nature of the online environment definitely fits into my schedule as a mother of three far better than traditional classes.  It seems that almost all schools offer online classes these days, but the BLS program and UNCG stood out to me for several reasons.  I am not merely an online student in a degree completion program; I have the opportunity to connect with other students and attend traditional classes should I so choose.  I have all the resources of UNCG as a state-supported institution behind me.  The school’s full accreditation and low tuition made it an easy choice for me to complete my degree here.

I’ll admit I really wasn’t sure what to expect from the classes or the BLS program, but I received a thorough well-rounded education.  The BLS program is a traditional liberal arts education that teaches critical thinking skills by exposing students to a variety of topics in the humanities.  In today’s society, which often places job training over critical thinking skills, programs like this are becoming extinct, yet I believe that these sort of classes truly make for better students and better people.

Professor Claude Tate’s “Visions of Creation” class was perhaps the most intense of the eleven courses I took within the BLS program.  By reading and analyzing creation myths from various cultures, the class was able to see patterns emerge and challenge our own views towards creation and learn what influences such beliefs.  This course was more than a religious survey, because it really forced the students to view the studied societies through the lenses of their respective creation myths, and in doing so we saw how these creation myths can shape an individual culture, including our own.

“Women, War, and Terror” taught by Professor Carrie Levesque opened my eyes to how women have been brutalized by war utilizing first-person narratives written by women who had lived through 20th century atrocities such as the Holocaust, Stalin’s post-WWII Soviet Union, and the Bosnian War.  As a student, I had often wondered why we never heard the women’s stories.  Surely, they were just as horrific as the men’s.  Surely they were beaten, starved, raped, tortured, and treated like no human being every should be treated.  Professor Levesque’s class delved into these topics, and while the readings and discussions were often painful, they were nothing compared to what the authors experienced.  The authors were marginalized in their own societies, but our society needs classes like this to remind us that women have voices and sometimes they scream out in pain, and we need to listen.

I could go on and on about the classes I have taken, because save just one or two I have enjoyed them immensely and learned so much.  While studying the plays of Shakespeare, the history of the theatre, writing my own memoirs, discussing ethics, reviewing some of the great trials that have shaped America, or studying one of countless other topics, all the courses in the BLS program forced me to make connections.  I learned to connect whatever I was studying to my experiences and to this culture.  And, that is what critical thinking is all about.  I feel my education at UNCG has prepared me for my next step in life.
I’m graduating next month from UNCG with my BA summa cum laude, because of the BLS program, and next fall I’ll be attending a top ten law school to which I have already been accepted.  The UNCG BLS program has made it possible for me to succeed and fulfill my dreams by both fitting into my demanding schedule and providing me with a world class education.