Jackson Ribler watched the thin brush glide along the edge of the sunflower petal, guided by his mom’s steady hand.

Bright yellow leaves bursting and blooming. Green and brown shades hypnotically blending inside the seed.

Painting served a cathartic purpose for the talented Rebecca Ribler. She poured her soul into the craft, filling the family home with easels, palettes, and frames.

“For my mom, painting was more than a hobby,” said Jackson Ribler. “She channeled the pain of her cancer and poured it onto her canvas.”

Rebecca Ribler died in 2015 when her son was a freshman in high school. She was a devoted mother and spouse, a skilled defense attorney, a beloved mentor, and a spectacular artist.

She passed on valuable life lessons to those who knew her, including her son.

Now a senior at Virginia Tech, Jackson Ribler practices those lessons. He used one recently, while teaching a class of elementary-school students.

Ribler double majors in Spanish and national security and foreign affairs. Part-time, he leads a weekly Spanish class at a local school.

In class, Ribler sometimes poses ethical questions in Spanish and English for his students to ponder.

“I’ll ask them, how can you be a good friend?” he said. “How do you resolve a conflict? Or, I’ll ask ‘que haces cuando estas enojado’ — what do you do when you’re angry?”

He considers how his mom expressed emotion through her artwork.

“I explain to my class, it’s OK to be upset, but it’s not OK to hurt someone because you’re upset,” he said. “When you teach Spanish to someone, you teach them more than language. Foreign languages are like a vehicle for learning about the world, cultures, and even yourself.”

Rebecca Ribler showcases one of her paintings of a sunflower inside the family home.
Rebecca Ribler showcases one of her floral paintings.

Ribler, who will graduate in May, inherited another value from his mom: altruism.

Last fall, Ribler gifted some of his personal earnings to the Virginia Tech School of Visual Arts to provide scholarship funding to a student in need, in his mother’s name.

Ribler’s gift will benefit a recipient of the Beyond Boundaries Scholars program. The initiative doubles the impact of qualifying scholarship gifts that help underrepresented and high-achieving students. Each gift is matched equally by the university.

“I appreciate people’s ability to create art, and I believe the world needs more artists,” said Ribler. “Lives are made much better by people who express the human experience. I believe in this as a student in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences, and as my mother’s son.”

Ribler hopes to meet the scholarship recipient. “I already know I’m going to be blown away by their art, and their self-expression.”

Larry and Rebecca Ribler pose for a photo with their son, Jackson, who was a child at the time. All three are wearing formal attire.
Larry and Rebecca Ribler with their son, Jackson.

As for his own future, Ribler is certain he found his calling in teaching and research.

His mother, who earned her own degree in Spanish, sparked his interest in the language during his Florida upbringing.

His stepmother — Anna Alvarez, a Spanish professor — has also provided encouragement. Alvarez and Ribler’s father, Larry, wed last year. Ribler served as his dad’s best man.

Larry Ribler and Anna Alvarez pose for a photo on VT campus on one side of the collage. On the other side, Jackson stands behind his father as they pose for a photo inside Lane Stadium.
Larry Ribler and Anna Alvarez during a visit to Virginia Tech (at left); Larry and Jackson Ribler in Lane Stadium (at right)

Following graduation, Ribler will pursue a master’s degree in Spanish literature at Georgetown University. His dream job: Spanish professor.

He credits his family and the “rock star” educators in the Department of Modern and Classical Languages and Literatures for illuminating his path.

“The professors I’ve met at Virginia Tech, they’re more than great teachers and researchers,” he said. “They inspire me as scholars, because they’re focused on improving themselves by continuing to learn.”

Vinodh Venkatesh, a professor of Spanish, said he's excited Ribler will continue his education in Hispanic studies.

"Jackson possesses superb language skills," said Venkatesh. "His ability to critically analyze cultural artifacts from the Spanish-speaking world and to link them to history, politics, and economics is truly excellent."

Ribler envisions a fulfilling career in academia. Teaching, writing articles, traversing the world to attend conferences, conducting research in Spanish-speaking countries. The international travel bug bit him when he studied abroad in Spain last summer.

He points to some of his first classes in the Department of Political Science when explaining how his global perspectives broadened at Virginia Tech.

Theory classes helped him better understand world phenomena. A course called Food, War, and Conflict taught him about banana republics and geopolitics. In another course, he learned about the history of the Balkans in the eastern Mediterranean.

“Even though my interests shifted and my goal is now to become a Spanish professor,” Ribler said, “I’m grateful for the incredible teachers who taught me about how the world works through my national security and foreign affairs major.”

Outside of his studies and his part-time teaching gig, Ribler cherishes memories of spending time with friends and participating in student groups.

He served in a leadership role with Hillel at Virginia Tech, the university’s largest organization for Jewish students. There, he helped organize mixers with fellow organizations such as the Asian American Student Union, sharing conversations over meals central to one another’s culture.

Jackson Ribler lays on the field in Lane Stadium and poses for a photo while surrounded by many other excited Virginia Tech students.
Cheered on by his fellow Hokies, Jackson Ribler poses for a photograph in Lane Stadium.

Ribler enrolled at Virginia Tech with an open mind and a full heart, encouraged by his family and inspired, especially by his mother, to explore his passions.

“I’m borrowing this saying,” said Ribler, “but it feels like at Virginia Tech, I put a quarter into the machine expecting one gumball, and I’ve gotten five.

“One thing I love about Virginia Tech is the principle of committing yourself to unwavering curiosity. If you come in open to new ideas with an interest in your studies, you can get so much more out of the experience than you’d ever imagined.”

Written by Andrew Adkins