A woman standing outside in front of a fountain holding a book.
Christine Singleton, an avid reader, is part of the English department’s Distinguished Major Program. (Tom Kojcsich, Enterprise Marketing and Communications)

Class of 2023: After allowing herself time to grieve, Christine Singleton returns to school and resumes her love of literature and learning

Singleton, an English major, has thrived at VCU, where she has found her voice again.

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Near the end of Christine Singleton’s sophomore year at Spelman College in Atlanta, her father died. She was devastated. Over the next two years, Singleton, who had always been a dedicated student, struggled to find her footing in the classroom again. She felt depressed and “deeply, deeply overwhelmed.” She would enroll in courses at Spelman but then her resolve would falter and she would miss class, ignore emails and fail to complete assignments. She’d eventually withdraw from classes and then try again the next semester without success. 

Finally, in February 2018, Singleton realized that she needed to return home to Richmond, Virginia, and focus on her mental health – a decision that she now says saved her.

“I have a lot of family support here at home,” Singleton said. “I needed to take the time to grieve properly – to sit and grieve and reflect and to think about my dad without worrying about school.”

Singleton, who grew up in the Church Hill neighborhood of Richmond, has two older siblings with special needs. Her sister has cerebral palsy, and her brother has autism. Singleton sometimes found that environment challenging as a child, though her family was a close, loving one. She was an indoor kid, forever reading books, particularly fairy tales, folk tales, mythology and the novels of Frances Hodgson Burnett, such as “A Little Princess” and “The Secret Garden.”

Singleton had known from her days in the Richmond Public School system that she would study English in college, but following her father’s death she found that the classes had lost the magic they had once possessed for her.

Back in Richmond, Singleton started therapy, worked a couple jobs and helped her mother with caregiving responsibilities for her sister. That was the rhythm of her life for two years. Then, when the pandemic arrived, Singleton had to quit her job – at the time, she was working in a call center – because both her sister and mother were high risks for COVID.

Stuck at home and wondering what to do, Singleton decided it was time to go back to school. She started taking classes at Reynolds Community College, using federal COVID relief money for tuition. Suddenly, Singleton remembered how much she enjoyed being a student.

“I loved just being in class,” Singleton said. “I loved having the opportunity to debate with my peers again.”

The necessity of Zoom classes even proved helpful – as a part-time caregiver for her sister, it allowed her to attend classes from home. After a year, Singleton transferred to Virginia Commonwealth University as part of the Mellon Pathways to the Arts and Humanities Program, which supports and guides students during their studies at Brightpoint and Reynolds community colleges and as they transfer to VCU. She remained in the program once she arrived at VCU and eventually became a mentor to other transfer students.

Singleton thrived as a student at VCU.

“I’d forgotten what I was capable of,” Singleton said. “I have this confidence that I’d really forgotten that I had. I’m not a shy person, especially not in the classroom, and it feels really good to me to have my voice heard again.”

A woman standing outside. Behind her are trees and a river.
Christine Singleton grew up in Church Hill near Libby Hill Park and its famous view. (Tom Kojcsich, Enterprise Marketing and Communications)

Literature remained particularly exciting for Singleton, and she selected English as her major in the College of Humanities and Sciences. The love of books that had been so important to her as a child strengthened at VCU, and she grew increasingly convinced of how she wanted to spend her future – as a writer, joining the literary tradition of some of those authors that have most inspired her, such as Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, Zora Neale Hurston and Gwendolyn Brooks.

Singleton is already working on a novel, a choreopoem (which combines poetry, dance, music and song) and a collection of poetry. After she graduates this month, Singleton plans to take a gap year and work before returning to school in pursuit of an MFA in creative writing.

“I want to see how far I can go with writing,” Singleton said.

Just as when she was growing up, Singleton still finds sanctuary in her inner life. At home, Singleton surrounds herself with stacks of books – “they’re all very important to me, and I can’t part with a single one” – fresh flowers, jigsaw puzzles and art of all kinds, including poems printed on thick cardstock that are made available in the English department offices and that she has taped to her bedroom wall.

Even as Singleton expands her literary interest, she also revels in returning to the books and writers that first captivated her. She has reread “The Secret Garden” and “A Little Princess” in the past year, and she still loves to read mythology and fairy tales. She now feels assured in her appreciation for those works.

“I’m 27 now, and I’m trying to be kinder to the 17-year-old me and the 7-year-old me and all the other variations of me that have existed and that felt shame for the things that they were interested in,” Singleton said. “I don’t feel that shame anymore.”

At VCU, Singleton has been a part of the Black Student Union, the Student Literary Association and the English Club. In addition, Singleton received a Black History in the Making Award through the Department of African American Studies – a moment that particularly resonated for her. She attended the ceremony for the awards at Cabell Library with her mother, two aunts and an uncle. Shermaine M. Jones, Ph.D., a close mentor and her faculty adviser in English’s Distinguished Major Program, also was there.

“I couldn't stop smiling,” Singleton said. “My cheeks hurt because I was smiling so much. I couldn't remember the last time I was that happy. It was just so beautiful.”

Singleton believes she has valued her second run as a college student more than she did her first one. She knows how much she has gone through to get this opportunity.

“It’s like I’d been given a second chance, and I didn’t want to ruin it,” Singleton said. “Even though I’m not ‘healed’ because I don’t think anyone ever can be, I do feel really, really good. And I feel very proud of myself.”

As a final honor, Singleton will serve as the student speaker at the Department of English’s commencement ceremony on Saturday. Singleton said her speech is partly inspired by the writers that have inspired her – and by her own story.

“When I came to VCU, I knew I wanted to leave my mark here,” Singleton said. “I hope that I have, because VCU definitely has made its mark on me.”