I moved around a bit for my education. I started out in New Jersey by earning my bachelor’s degree from Rutgers University. It was there that I saw the world opened up by my professors and my residence hall life. I saw accomplished scholars asking big questions about significant topics and began to see the power of critical inquiry. I moved from there to the University of Texas, Austin, where I had my first opportunity to teach undergraduates and became part of a very talented and lively cohort of graduate history students. Many of these folks have gone on to distinguished careers at colleges and universities all over America. I decided to move on from UT to study at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. It was here, for the first time in my higher education experience, that I worked in what seemed at the time to be a small community—only 6,500 students instead of the 30,000 at Rutgers and the 50,000 at the University of Texas.
My favorite aspect of academic life at Saint Vincent is the opportunity to see students develop across multiple years. I have students in their first years, just out of high school, in the sophomore and junior years, and then finally in their final semesters at college, when they have matured academically and are poised to launch into their fully independent adult lives. This is a part of teaching that faculty at larger institutions do not get to experience, and it is inspiring. I have seen some of the most shy and tentative students become self-assured, accomplished, and ambitious graduates.
My most memorable moment at Saint Vincent occurred in a Junior Seminar class about six years ago. One of the students was especially anxious about presenting his work to the class, and his distress multiplied because another student had been such a tenacious questioner through the other student presentations in the weeks leading up to the semester’s close. The first student kept putting off his scheduled presentation date until we had reached the last day of class and he could delay no longer. Throughout each earlier presentation, the tenacious student waited patiently until the students had completed their prepared remarks, and then launched in with his penetrating queries. His was always the first hand up after the presentation, and he was often the only hand raised. The other students had handled the questions with varying success, and most were none the worse for the experience. But the prospect of enduring this caused even more anxiety for the student who had delayed his presentation. Finally the day arrived and he could dodge it no longer. He moved through his presentation with mounting distress, clicked through his last power point slide, and looked down at the podium for a good 30 seconds before raising his eyes to begin what he must have thought was the grand inquisition. What he saw when he looked out at the room stunned him (and me). Instead of the one lone questioner in the front seat with arm stretched out, there were more than a dozen hands raised, each with curious but friendly inquiries about his project. One by one they asked their questions until his time expired and he could not recognize the final query from the tenacious student. I thought that I was the only one who knew of the student’s profound anxiety, but the rest of the class had risen to the occasion in a communal act of compassion. None of the students has ever said a word about that day to me since, and it might not have seemed like a significant moment in their time at Saint Vincent. But it has stayed with me ever since.
College should be a profoundly liberating experience, intellectually, socially, and culturally. You have the opportunity to see the world anew, to reinvent yourself, to stretch in all sorts of ways. Be open to these opportunities and push yourself. Study abroad, pursue internships, embrace your classes, move out of your comfort zone. Seek wisdom. Be generous.