Cody Woodson: Tireless mentor, steadfast friend, celebrated TA

A celebration of life for Cody Woodson

Editor's note (May 7, 2021): The College of Engineering at Virginia Commonwealth University has established a scholarship in memory of Cody Woodson.

Scores of students who made it through Computer Systems (CMSC 257), a challenging computer science course that is almost a rite-of-passage among VCU Engineering undergraduates, have him to thank.

A smaller, but much devoted, community of gamers and programmers with a passion for the Linux operating system also have him to thank.

And the hundreds of Ram Engineers whose spirits were lifted by conversations that often began with “Howdy, howdy, howdy” or ended with “Later, homie!” — they thank him, too.

Cody Austin Woodson was a year away from graduating from the VCU College of Engineering with a degree in computer science and a software engineering concentration when he died April 5. The funeral was held April 11. His friends have created a GoFundMe page in Woodson’s honor and many have shared memories at #VCURemembersCody.

The mark his life made on his peers and professors is as big as the future that lay before him.

“Last time I spoke to him was Sunday night. He was helping me with a homework assignment,” recalled Lannah Davis, a junior majoring in computer science. “My dog had recently been attacked and I was having a hard time concentrating. Cody just kept saying, ‘Don’t worry. It’s going to be okay.’ Then he would explain it another way without ever getting frustrated. We were going to work on it more on Tuesday.”

Davis first got to know Woodson when he was a teaching assistant (TA) in her CMSC 257 class. Later, the two became friends, video game competitors and colleagues in VCU’s Linux Users Group, which Woodson led as president. She remembers his excitement about an upcoming internship with geospatial software company Geodecisions and his aspirations for a career in game design.

But it was in Woodson’s role as a TA that he was perhaps most widely known around the VCU Engineering community.

Debra Duke, M.S., instructor and undergraduate director in the Department of Computer Science, said when Woodson became a TA for her classes, some students would specifically ask to work with him because of his reassuring style. “He had a calming presence. He made them see that they could do it, and they did,” she said.

Woodson had a sixth sense for being available during crunch times. At the beginning of the semester, Woodson asked Duke if other classes needed TAs. There were none, but when offered the chance to be a tutor with office hours, Woodson chose Fridays. “Well, students’ projects are due on Fridays, and Cody knew this,” Duke said.

Ahmet Sonmez, Ph.D., assistant professor of computer science, noticed that some of his TAs were helping students after midnight. He reminded them to maintain their boundaries and not take on extra, unpaid work at the expense of their own classes. He was touched by Woodson’s immediate reply: “I will be sure to help when it is reasonable for me, as well as during my scheduled times.”

“So he was really helping students around the clock without being paid at all,” Sonmez said.

Charlie Dil, a second-year computer science major, was inspired to become a TA after having had Woodson as theirs.

Computer science can be intimidating to earlier undergraduates, Dil explained, but “Cody was never judgmental. He was someone you could relax around and he really treated you as his friend. I would always leave little jokes for him in the code I was writing, and he always laughed.”

When Dil became a TA, “I wanted to have the same connection with students that he had,” Dil said. “Not as a person who is ‘higher up’ than them, but as a friend who is coaching them through the problem.”

Sometimes that coaching even convinced students to stay with the computer science field.

“Computer science is a difficult subject, and it can get to you sometimes. At one point I was very close to reevaluating my options. Cody talked me off the ledge as far as CS was concerned, just by being so humble and encouraging. I’m pretty sure he made everyone feel like they were his best friend,” said Kylan Thomson, who will graduate with his B.S. in computer science this year.

It’s not just the mentoring and encouragement these students say they will remember. It’s the little things that made Woodson a big presence in the community of engineering students, things like the funny conversations on Discord, the computer science department’s group-chat interface.

Or his Discord ID, which was “Beesechurbger," or the “League of Linux” status he would sometimes set for himself on the platform, or the baseball cap he often wore.

What do they hope others will remember about their friend? That’s easy.

“He really cared,” said computer engineering and computer science major Omar Amr. “He wanted to see others be as good as he was, or better. That’s what I hope people keep as a sort of lasting memory, the idea that he really did care about you, even if you were someone he didn’t know well. He wanted to help others grow. As a fellow CS major, and as a human being, that’s my takeaway.”