Barbara Benson has been a Kindergarten teacher, special education teacher, Peace Corps Volunteer, English teacher in Gabon, Central Africa, preschool and daycare teacher, and an educational program specialist. She received her bachelor’s degree from the University of Maryland, her master’s degree from West Virginia University and her Doctorate of Education from the University of Georgia. She was awarded the Outstanding Graduate Advisor Award in 2009 from Piedmont College, the Vulcan Teaching Excellence Award in 2003, and most recently the 2019 Age Well Live Well Award from the Athens Community Council on Aging.
How did you find yourself in Athens?
I grew up in Columbia, Maryland. I ended up going into the Peace Corps when I was 25 and that took me to Central Africa. When I came out of the Peace Corps I started teaching. I started in West Virginia and then moved down to Athens to teach. I initially came for a boyfriend, and while that didn’t work out, I fell in love with Athens and it’s now my home.
Tell us about your experience with the Peace Corps:
It was really life changing. I was an English teacher teaching to French-speaking students. It was their first exposure to English. It took me a good year to become fluent in French. Since it’s a French speaking country, not many individuals speak English except for maybe in the capitol city. I struggled my first year. I’ll never forget when I finally perfected it. One of my colleagues I taught with said, “Oh Barbara, you’re French is so beautiful now.” Before I was tongue twisted and there was a lot of gesturing. There was another Peace Corps volunteer in the same town that would often translate for me. It felt so good to not have to rely on someone and be able to express myself. It was a wonderful experience.
Back then, when I was in the Peace Corps from 1983-1985, there was no internet, no Wi-Fi, so my only form of communication was writing letters to my family and the occasional phone call. It was a different experience as far as not having a lot of communication with my family. I think it’s so wonderful now that volunteers have access to communication methods and can talk to family regularly. I think that would help a lot with the homesickness.
What did you do after this experience in Africa?
After the Peace Corps, I got my master’s in special education. I started teaching special education for a couple years in Athens. I decided to try to pursue a position at the University of Georgia, which I got. It was an educational program specialist, which required a doctorate, so I worked on my doctorate while working in this position. Afterwards, I was able to get this position at Piedmont College. They had just opened a satellite campus when I finished my doctorate. I started there in 1997and have been there most of my career.
Tell us about your position at Piedmont:
I’m a Chair of Early Childhood Education. I teach. I’m an administrator. I advise. I supervise. Supervision is my favorite. I get to work with developing student teachers who are learning and growing. Plus, I get to be in the school. It’s very rewarding. It’s my absolute favorite part of my job. My profession is teacher education. This is where I can really share, and we can learn from each other.
What do you enjoy doing in your free time?
I do a lot of community service. I spend the most time volunteering with the Clarke-County Mentor Program mentoring students. Maryland, my mentee, just graduated high school in May so I’ll be starting over in the fall. I haven’t met the new boy or girl yet. Hopefully I’ll get to see the child go all the way to graduate high school. I’m also very involved with the Athens Anti-Discrimination movement. We do a lot of educational workshops and community meetings.
I practice yoga regularly three times a week at Fuel Yoga. Bikram is hot style. I dance once a month. I love to salsa. I spend time with my husband, and I have a dog I walk a lot. Live music is so great. My favorite spot to check out music is Hendershots. I always feel comfortable going there by myself. I typically run into someone I know.
What has inspired your lifestyle?
My friend’s daughter was killed in 2008. I knew her daughter well. It had a big impact on everyone who knows my friend and her family. It made me think about how I should live life with meaning. My friend has been an inspiration to me as a mother who survived this tragedy. I see the way she lives her life. In the back of my mind, I think “how can I start today in a meaningful way”? I often think of milestones like her daughter’s birthday or the day of her death. I think, “gosh, I’ve been given this chance to live this really full life, this rich life and I’m going to”. That’s been my philosophy. Both my parents also died at young ages. They didn’t live into full adulthood. They didn’t live as long as I hope to live. So, they’re an inspiration for me that I definitely want to live a very full, long life. I try to take care of myself so that I’m able to be here for my husband, my family and my friends.
How do you Age and Live Well?
I exercise three times a week. It’s an intense yoga practice in a heated room. It teaches you to breathe and be present. I walk my dog several times a day. That helps me be calm. I look at the way she lives her life. Every day is exciting and new so that’s always a good reminder for me to think that way. I eat well. My husband makes a lot of salads. I feel very fortunate he’s retired, and he takes care of me which is really wonderful.
I think by helping organizations in town and being very involved in community activities, I get to know families and make friendships. Being committed to the community helps me age well and live well.
What advice do you have for people to get the most out of life?
To try to always have a grateful heart. It’s not always easy to be grateful for the life we have because sometimes things happen, and you have to deal with everyday life. Remember to keep things in perspective and to remember the people that are no longer here. Figure out how you can live life to the fullest in memory of that person.