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‘She’s really come into her own’: How Glynis Boyd Hughes disrupted her story, and found her voice

Glynis Boyd Hughes on an artistic background of word art
Glynis Boyd Hughes's research compares representations of religion in the writings of Flannery O’Connor and Zora Neale Hurston. (Photo illustration by University Relations)

When Glynis Boyd Hughes was a child, she was a voracious reader. Among her favorite books were Nancy Drew novels. She identified with the young heroine’s tenacious commitment to each case. When the character wanted to know something, she did everything possible to get her answer. Hughes felt she was the same way. She also was a diligent student who got straight A’s, participated in extracurricular activities and reveled in every day she spent at school. She was insatiably curious. Sometimes, she conducted impromptu experiments, such as dropping a flip-flop in a rain-swollen ditch to see how fast the water was running.

“I was highly motivated and a high performer,” Hughes said. “I really just loved being a student. However, I didn’t have background support that was conducive to excelling.”

In a first-person piece for the Richmond Times-Dispatch, written in 2012, Hughes recalled, “My home life was more akin to Oliver Twist than Richie Rich, complete with domestic violence and poverty. My only friends were books, for two reasons: In books I could go anywhere and be anyone I wanted, and books accepted me, no qualifying needed.”

Hughes gave birth to a daughter in ninth grade. A year later, she made the difficult decision to leave school to work so that she could support her child. Eventually, she secured her GED, earned an associate degree at J. Sargeant Reynolds Community College and transferred to Virginia Commonwealth University, where she majored in psychology while working several part-time jobs. She viewed her presence in college as transactional — the love of learning replaced by a focus on how a degree could help improve her earning power.

“I was pursuing education for different reasons,” Hughes said. “I had all of these responsibilities. When you’re not making enough money to live on, it’s difficult to really be at your best and get everything you can out of the college experience.”

When a full-time career opportunity as a social worker arose, offering a steep increase in her income, Hughes knew she needed to take it. So she accepted the position and left VCU. She worked in various capacities in social work for 20 years. Then she was unexpectedly laid off from her job as a training coordinator at a health care company. She was surprised to feel something like relief. Her career had once been rewarding but it no longer felt like a fulfilling personal pursuit — “the joy was just gone” — and she felt as though she was missing something critical.

“A person wants to have a meaningful and engaged life,” Hughes said. “Money is obviously important, but it doesn’t give you purpose. To have a meaningful life, you’ve got to find something that really matters to you.”

Hughes knew that meant making a change.

“You’ve got to be willing to disrupt your narrative if you want a different outcome,” she said.

In 2017, two decades after she left VCU, Hughes returned in search of that missing something. Her love of literature had never gone away, and she decided to embrace that, switching her major to English and later adding a minor in gender, sexuality and women’s studies in the College of Humanities and Sciences. 

From the outset, college was different this time. She was immersed in her classes and the college culture. She felt more a part of the VCU community, even as an older student. Christine Cynn, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the Department of Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies, taught Hughes during her first semester back at VCU in a class on Asian-American sexualities. Cynn said Hughes stood out for her intellect, curiosity and sensitive, emphatic nature.

“Glynis was a star in the class,” Cynn said. “She’s a really gifted student with a flair for writing and a talent for close reading. She’s also an incredibly nurturing presence in the class. She worked closely with the other students, really looked out for them, helped them and checked in with them. I’ve never had a student quite like her before.”

Glynis Boyd Hughes
“A person wants to have a meaningful and engaged life,” Hughes said. “Money is obviously important, but it doesn’t give you purpose. To have a meaningful life, you’ve got to find something that really matters to you.” (Photo by Allen Jones, University Marketing)

In Cynn’s class, Hughes was surprised how much she enjoyed the research process, even though she felt intimidated by it at first. Cynn told Hughes she learned by seeking connections among topics and that immediately clicked for Hughes, who felt freed to chase those connections as though they were solutions to puzzles. Cynn said Hughes’ potential as a researcher was clear.

“She’s one of the most committed students I’ve ever had,” Cynn said. “She’s also got a lot of skill and talent. She was initially tentative about research, but she’s really come into her own.” 

Hughes presented research on James Baldwin’s short story “Sonny’s Blues” at a poster symposium that first year back. Then, last year, Hughes applied and was accepted to the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program. Her UROP project is an intricate comparison of the works of Zora Neale Hurston and Flannery O’Connor, two of her favorite authors. In particular, Hughes examines their views on religion and personal responsibility, noting differences and similarities that she has never seen addressed before. 

The originality of Hughes’ thesis has made thinking and writing about the topic both challenging and rewarding.

“It’s exciting because this isn’t something someone else has done,” Hughes said. “I am creating scholarship.” 

Hughes said her research pursuits have given her a new confidence, making her feel validated and ready “to hold my own at any table.”

“I’m sitting up a little straighter now,” she said. 

Hughes said she has learned to read literature more closely during her second stint at VCU, creating a richer and deeper experience. She sees layers to stories now that she never saw before and finds herself critiquing authors’ choices and seeking to learn more about the context in which they were made.

“It’s like I’m Neo in the ‘Matrix’ choosing between the red pill and the blue pill,” Hughes said. “I took that red pill and I’ll never see things the same way again.” 

Hughes believes she is only beginning to reach her academic potential. She plans to pursue a Ph.D. after she finishes at VCU (her target graduation date is May 2020) and is considering a career in student affairs, with aspirations to become a dean. She started a new student organization called Retro Rams for nontraditional students, and she’s worked through the organization to help students have the best VCU experience possible, from providing academic support to forming connections with other nontraditional students.

Hughes said she will continue to look for new opportunities to grow as a student and a person. Every class is fun and engaging, she said, and every faculty member and student are compelling characters with viewpoints and knowledge worth knowing. When it’s time to go home at the end of the day, Hughes feels energized and grateful for “every minute of it.” Hughes feels as though she has in some ways picked up where she left off decades ago, completing the journey she was meant to travel.

“This is what I’ve always wanted,” Hughes said. “I’ve become the student I always knew that I could be. Now it’s my turn to help other students find their way.”

As part of Research Weeks (April 5-26) we are highlighting the work of six undergraduates whose work was made possible by VCU’s Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program, Department of BiologyDivision for Community Engagement and guidance from faculty members.

Research Weeks take place on both campuses and feature a wide variety of projects in multiple disciplines. 

See more stories by clicking on links in the “Related stories” section or learn more about the lineup of events for this year’s Research Weeks.