CCSJ: Not Just a Job, But a Community

Last week I walked into the office (CCSJ) for an hour in between classes like I normally do, with no idea what was in store for me.  My friend Bree, who, like me, practically lives in the office, was sitting at the computer when she turned around and said to me, “Lindsey, when’s your first class on Friday?”  And I knew I was in for it.

This may sound terrible, but I had a feeling Bree was going to ask me to wake up at an ungodly hour (did I mention my first class on Fridays is at 11?) to help her with something CCSJ-related, and I, being me, wouldn’t be able to refuse.  But I love Bree, and I love the work she does, so when she asked me to fill in for her supervisor (who would be out of town) in delivering Viva House bags on Friday morning, I of course agreed.

Like me, Bree is a service coordinator at CCSJ, her specific jobs being Care-A-Van and Viva House.  With Care-A-Van, Bree organizes a weekly group of students to hand out sandwiches, drinks, snacks, and toiletries to people experiencing homelessness in Baltimore.  I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to participate in Care-A-Van one Monday night last semester, when Bree had an open spot at the last minute.  I loved talking to the people who came to see us and doing something, however small, to contribute to my city and the people who call it home.  It’s one thing to learn about them at CCSJ, but it’s hard as hell to see the inequities and unjust systems at work whilst out and about in the city.  It would be easy to become discouraged and want to give up, but Bree, like many of the people I work with, encourages me with her optimism and resolute character to continue in the work I feel called to do.

Viva House, the other agency Bree works with, is another CCSJ community partner.  Viva House is the Catholic Worker House in Baltimore, and Brendan and Willa, who live there and feed many people from their home on a regular basis, run a monthly food bag collection, in which the Loyola community participates.  Students, faculty, and staff can donate a whole bag, with requirements such as soup, pasta, cereal, and toothpaste, or they can donate bits and pieces of a bag, whatever they can do to help.  The bags are distributed by Viva House among families in Southwest Baltimore.

Viva House bags

I knew all of this and I was excited to see Viva House firsthand, since I had heard so much about it, but when 6 AM on Friday morning rolled around, I was not so excited to hop in the shower and get myself into motion.  I was even less excited when I walked out into the wind and the rain after a beautiful summer-like week here in Baltimore.  But when Bree greeted me at the storage room to pick up the Viva House bags, my enthusiasm for our work finally kicked in.  It took a number of trips, and a couple of soaked service coordinators, but we loaded all 43 bags into the van and were on our way.  As I sipped my coffee, Bree and I had time to catch up and have a nice conversation, something we don’t always have time for in the hustle and bustle of office life.

 

With Bree after getting soaked loading up the Viva House bags.

Before long, we arrived at Viva House in Southwest Baltimore and were greeted there by Brendan and Willa, two of the most joyous and authentic people I have ever met.  Together, we carried the bags into the house (passing by a huge “Abolish the Death Penalty” banner on the back fence, I might add).  When our job was done, Willa showed Bree and I around their home.  I have never before seen a home so real, so beautiful.  It was decorated with a variety of social justice-related prints, quotes, art pieces, and photographs, and made a CCSJ-er such as myself feel right at home.

 

A collection of pins at Viva House.

Willa offered Bree and I homemade peanut butter cookies, and shared with me copies of some of the prints she made.  Before we left, we hugged them both goodbye, and in that moment I felt more joy than I had in recent memory.  Waking up at 6 AM, loading up bags in the pouring rain, it was all worth it.

I guess it’s time for the obligatory reflection/nostalgic look back at my year of CCSJ, both working there and serving as an SBO site leader.  And truth be told, it’s all been pretty difficult for me lately.  Many of my CCSJ friends are seniors, who I’ll be saying a final farewell to before I know it.  Others are juniors, but they might as well be seniors since I’m leaving to go abroad for the year in September.  The greatest blessing of this year has been the gift of working in an office of like-minded people, individuals working toward a greater good, a community that is more like a family than a bunch of random people who happen to work together.  More than anything, I don’t want this year to end, because this community of people will never be together again.  But if I have anything to be grateful for, this is it.  My CCSJ family has shown me what authenticity, passion, and love are, and for that, I will forever remember each one of them and carry them with me throughout my life.

Finding the Authentic Self

Sometimes at college, it’s hard to really get to know people.  I don’t mean like “favorite color, favorite movie, favorite Starbucks order”-type getting to know people, but actually seeing people for who they are, for who we don’t normally get a chance to see them as.

Chit-chat with friends before and after class, over lunch in Boulder, or while walking back to your apartment at the end of the day is one thing, and a game night with friends after a home-cooked meal is another, but how often do people actually allow themselves to be fully vulnerable, completely open to others and honest with themselves?  This problem isn’t something specific to Loyola, or to college kids in general either.  I think that we’re all too busy with the things we deem “important” in life, like running errands, studying, working hours upon hours, and trying to squeeze in a bit of sleep to worry about authenticity in our relationships.

But during my week of SBO (Spring Break Outreach) I got to know eleven other people, many of whom I see on campus on a regular basis, at the truest level, one detached from schoolwork and other on-campus stresses.  I mean, when you squeeze twelve people into a two-bedroom basement apartment (with one bathroom, I might add), you’re bound to get pretty close.

But we didn’t just get close because we were forced to do so by circumstances.  We became close during those eight wonderful, intense days because we wanted to be.  With some help from Loyola, we gave ourselves the opportunity to see our peers and classmates on another level.  I had a conversation, while walking into the prison (see my last post) with one of my participants, about her decision not to go abroad, and why she’s so glad she didn’t because she wouldn’t have had the opportunity to participate in SBO.

Another night, I sat on the sofa in the living room of the house we stayed in with another one of my participants, long after everyone else had ventured back downstairs (and the two guys fell asleep on chairs), about our families, our struggles, our passions, and our plans.

Conversations like these happen at Loyola, don’t get me wrong, and I can think of more than a few.  But I think the great thing about SBO is that it puts together, for a week, twelve people who, under no other circumstances, would ever be together.  In telling stories I refer to group members as participants, but let’s be honest, these people are my friends.

Together, we spent a weekend at a prison with a group of guys who taught us more than we could have ever imagined (see my last post), spent hours pulling nails from pieces of wood, sorted clothes for a re-entry organization we worked with, and cooked all of our meals as family.

Every night we ate our home-cooked meals, sitting on the floor in a circle, discussing the day, maybe having an argument, making fun of each other, and laughing. A lot.  We then reflected on the events of the day for two hours or more, learning from and with each other.  By the end of the week we had two and a half pieces of looseleaf taped to the wall that comprised our “quote wall,” a masterpiece collection of goofy quotes from all of us throughout the course of the week.

These eleven other people now hold a special place in my heart and in my mind.  I think of their different perspectives, what they all brought to the table, how we made an awesome team, and how twelve very different people became close friends.  Next year, some will graduate, some will go abroad, and some will be here at Loyola still, but it will never be the same.  We can never get back that same feeling we had on SBO, when all we had was each other, for better or for worse.  But each of us knows that he or she has eleven other people, members of the Loyola community, who will always be there.  Even if, after a while, I don’t see or talk to some of my group members again (not that I want to think about this possibility), I know one thing.  I will carry each of them with me: in my thoughts, my actions, and how I approach the unknown, with confidence in my leadership abilities and trust in my friends.

My SBO group atop Federal Hill in Baltimore on our last day.

The Greatest Experience I Have Had at Loyola

When people ask me how my week learning about issues surrounding the prison system and prison reform in Baltimore during spring break was, my first response is: “I can’t even put words to it.”  Well, I’m going to try.

As I mentioned in my last post, my week began on the first Friday of spring break, as I led my group in departing from Loyola at 3 o’clock in the afternoon to stop for a bite to eat on our way to the prison for the weekend-long workshop we would be participating in, called AVP, or Alternatives to Violence.  This was to be the beginning of the SBO (Spring Break Outreach) trip I was leading on prison reform in Baltimore, through CCSJ.

Before that day, I had never set foot inside a prison, and I had only occasionally glanced at the barbed wire surrounding local prisons from a distance.  But that Friday evening, as the sun set around us in an unfamiliar place, and the gray sky emitted an eerie glow, the barbed wire lining the high fences around the prison yard was the first thing I noticed as I pulled into the lot.

Like the rest of the group, I was nervous about entering a maximum-security institution, uncomfortable with being patted down, and unsure about how we would be received by the “inside guys,” as we quickly learned to call the inmates.

Though I don’t want to reveal any of the guys’ personal details or those things they told us about themselves in confidence, I will describe my own experience and the incredible effect the weekend had on me.

By the end of the first night of the workshop, I already felt safe and comfortable in the group, made up of me and five of my SBO participants (the other six were in another room), seven inside participants, three inside facilitators, and two outside facilitators.

By the end of the second day, I had developed a community and unbreakable bond with the seventeen other people in the room. This may sound ridiculous to say, but I felt that in that room, I could be my completely authentic self, with zero fear of judgment, in a way that was very different from anything I had ever experienced. It was different from hanging out in a dorm room with college friends, reuniting with high school friends, or spending time with my family. The focus in that room was on community, communication, and authenticity, and we were all committing to that openness and vulnerability by our willingness to participate in the workshop.

Throughout the weekend different aspects of the workshop focused on peaceful methods of approaching conflict, role plays, group activities, one-on-one conversations, group conversations, and fun group games that caused the entire room to erupt in laughter.  Without giving away too much about the program of AVP, I can say that as I looked around that room on Sunday afternoon and into the eyes of each of my new friends for what was probably the last time, I knew I would never forget a single one of them.

Maya Angelou is quoted as saying, “People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”  I think this statement is one very efficient way of summing up my experience of AVP. Years from now I won’t remember the exact words any particular individual may have said to me during AVP, or the exact conversations we had, but I will never forget that feeling of having all of my misconceptions blown away and my eyes opened to what it truly means to see the humanity of all persons and to be united as brothers and sisters with my fellow human beings.

Despite the hardships the inside guys have endured before and during their incarceration, they were still some of the most honest, authentic, and sometimes joyful people I have ever had the blessing to meet. And the same can be said for those my group met during the rest of our SBO week.

For the next five days after AVP, my group served with a number of re-entry organizations in Baltimore, which aid those who were formerly incarcerated in things like job skills, resume writing, the job search, clothing, food, housing, and other necessities. I had no idea about the challenges facing returning citizens after they’ve been incarcerated, and I’m proud to say there’s a number of excellent resources and hard-working non-profits in my beloved city fighting for the rights of that large and growing population.

Group participants sorting clothes at a reentry organization, the Mentoring Academy.

After a week of seeing first-hand the inequities in the prison system and sentencing (largely based on race and class), seeing the inhumane treatment of people in prison, and witnessing the stigma society harshly places on those who are incarcerated or formerly incarcerated, I knew I had found my passion, something I cared about more than anything I have ever known.

Group participants chatting with one of the guys at Christopher's Place, which aids men in job-training skills and gives them housing and meals until they have found jobs and homes.

My education about and experience with the criminal justice system is not over just because the week of SBO is over. I can’t stop reading books and articles about the issues and need for reform, and I have decided that the next step on my journey will likely be law school and further study in the field of criminal justice. It angers me to see the injustice present in the system, but it brings me hope to know that I have the knowledge, skills, resources, and passion to do something about it.

Group participants working at Second Chance, a non-profit that provides workforce development in the field of deconstruction and reclaiming furniture and other household materials.

Leading this group of amazing and dedicated students (see my next post for more about the experience with the group!) and having this life-changing opportunity of experiential learning makes me feel so blessed for the opportunity to be a Loyola student. I feel like SBO has been a part of my education here, not just an extracurricular activity, and during the week I found myself using knowledge I had learned in the classroom to understand and process the new things I was learning.

Loyola gave me the opportunity to be more of a citizen of this city and of the world.  I took that opportunity and made it my own.  And for that, I am forever grateful.

Spring Break is In Sight!

I’m looking forward to the end of my last class this Friday for a different reason than most Loyola students. Yes, a break from school will be nice, but more importantly, SBO (Spring Break Outreach) is only days away.

Last week I was barely in existence, shuffling from midterm to paper to midterm and back again, averaging about 4 hours of sleep and staying awake during the day only due to the constant presence of coffee.

What I came to conclude from my “hell week,” which began the previous weekend as I worked on my essay midterm for my Statesmen & Tyrants class, is that we all have those times…in life, but especially in college.

In a perfect world, I would go to class, go to work, do my extracurriculars, and still have time to make dinner with my roommates every night and get a good eight or nine hours of sleep a night.  Notice I said a perfect world, though; don’t ever mistake this scenario for the reality of my life.

The fact is, I usually have to choose between all of those things listed above, and depending upon the day, what I have going on, and how I’m feeling, different things win out.  Well, last week, midterms and the stress of classes won out.

But I’m much more pleased with what’s winning out this week: preparations for SBO.  SBO stands for Spring Break Outreach, a program through CCSJ, the Center for Community Service and Justice. During SBO, 80 students spend their spring break at 8 different sites throughout the country for a week of service and education. Each site focuses on a different social justice issue.

Some of our sites include Immokalee, Florida (migrant farm labor), New Orleans, Louisiana (racial justice), West Virginia (environmental justice), and Kentucky (rural poverty).  Last year, as a first-year student, I traveled to Newark, New Jersey for a week learning about urban poverty, and the city’s historical and social context, while serving in the city.

With my SBO group in Newark last year.

In the spring of 2012, though, I took a leap and decided to apply to be an SBO site leader for 2013.  Each site has a student leader, 10 student participants, and a staff participant. I’m leading the Baltimore site on prison reform and I could not be more excited about what lies ahead for my group.  We’re the first to leave on Friday afternoon, as soon as classes end, and we’ll be spending our weekend doing a workshop with inmates at a local prison, with a program called Alternatives to Violence.  We’ll then be spending the rest of our week in Baltimore serving at a number of programs relating to re-entry into the community for individuals exiting prison.

Since September I’ve been meeting with my fellow site leaders and our director, forming a bond that moved me to tears at our final pre-SBO meeting on Sunday. We’ve educated ourselves about our issues, educated each other, and at weekly meetings, educated our site groups.

At this point, I feel very ready and prepared for the 8 days of SBO, and I am really really looking forward to it. All I can say is that I hope the participants in my group all feel the same way. I know it’s scary when you don’t know what to expect in a situation like that.  Personally, I was scared to death before leaving for Newark last March. And to an extent, I still largely don’t know what to expect during SBO Baltimore next week. But that’s just part of the experience, and something we come to expect.

SBO means giving freely of yourself and your spring vacation to be present with a group of your peers, serve others, and serve yourself and your community by learning through firsthand experience. We can predict very little of what will happen throughout the week of SBO. We pack t-shirts and jeans, basic foodstuffs and water bottles, and no makeup or hair supplies. With the intention of living simply, we embark together, as a group of ten in Baltimore and a group of 80 throughout the country, in an effort to experience humanity.

Check back post-Spring Break for another post about how it all went!

Until, then, peace, my friends.

Painting the Town Purple

I’ve waited for this moment for the past 12 years. Twelve years of wearing my Ravens PJs. Twelve years of wearing my jersey twice a week during the football season (Purple Fridays and then game day of course). Twelve years of putting off homework to watch games and occasionally trekking to M&T Bank Stadium to be part of the “12th Man” crew. No words can adequately describe my love for my Baltimore Ravens, what the team means to me as a member of my sports-loving family and a native of the great city of Baltimore.

But if you were in my apartment last Sunday night, you now have some appreciation for my love of the Ravens. My roommates and I invited some friends over for wings, chili, and good company during the Super Bowl, and everyone came bearing desserts, dips, and snacks.

We crowded into the living room, some on the sofa and chairs, some spread out on the floor. We laughed at the Doritos goat commercial, teared up together at the Budweiser horse one. But mostly, everyone witnessed the widest range of emotions they’ve probably ever seen me experience.

From the unbelievable first half to the second half, which was much too close near the end, I was all over the place, from tears of joy to tears of hope to tears of despair. And I’m pretty sure I gave my friend Tommy, sitting next to me, a number of bruises on his arm. What can I say, I can’t control my limbs when I’m that emotionally unstable.

Well, we all know how the night ended. And the feeling of that victory coursing through the veins of Baltimore is one I will never forget, one that everyone who was in Baltimore on February 3, 2013 will never forget. As tears streamed from my eyes the room erupted in triumphant screams, and we soon moved to the hallway where everyone was chanting, shouting, and wearing their best Ravens gear. Somehow, somewhere along the way, someone thought it would be a good idea to run to the quad, in below-freezing weather.

Yes, it’s cool to be a Ravens fan in Baltimore during a Super Bowl win, but it’s even cooler to be a Ravens fan and a Loyola student during a Super Bowl win. With some of my friends, I ran across the bridge to the quad, in nothing but a jersey and leggings, barely feeling the sting of the cold against my face. Once there, we met with probably 100 more students, chanting with banners, equipped in their jerseys, some old fans, some new. But none of it mattered. We were all there, celebrating, together, as a family.

Of course when the celebrations in the city of Baltimore rolled around on Tuesday, I wasn’t going to miss out. With my professors’ permission I missed my two classes for the day and took the light rail, meeting my mom and two cousins at M&T Bank Stadium. We packed in there with about 100,000 more Ravens fans, and awaited the arrival of our boys in purple as the parade made its way from City Hall to the stadium.

A packed M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore, two days after the Super Bowl.

With my cousin Diane, Mom, and cousin Jessica at the Ravens celebration.

Seeing Ray Lewis’ last dance out of the tunnel, looking around and seeing nothing but a sea of purple, and seeing the expressions of pure joy and shock on the players’ faces was more than I ever could have hoped for. Spending those days of celebration and bliss with my family and friends, well that was the icing on the cake.

Ray Lewis soaking up the cheers from tens of thousands of fans.

So go ahead and say it’s just a sport, just a team, just a rag-tag group of guys. I’ll never buy it. To me, the Baltimore Ravens represent unity among my city, and our city. We believed in them, and they never let us down. Among the already present fan base at Loyola we added many new fans this time around, and I couldn’t be more thrilled about it. It’s important that we unite as a school, but to unite as a school and residents of Baltimore … well, that’s even better.

A Fresh Start for the Spring Semester

As I prepared to move back to campus last Thursday, three days earlier than everyone else, I was questioning why I had ever thought it was a good idea to sign up for RoadTrip.

I signed up back in the fall because all of my junior friends who attended last year told me that RoadTrip was one of the greatest things I could possibly do while at Loyola, though they didn’t say much more about it. All I knew was that RoadTrip was a weekend-long retreat for sophomores run by Student Engagement, focused on reflection on past experiences and discernment about your life’s path and purpose.

So knowing that, I signed up for RoadTrip, made my roommates sign up as well, and then quickly forgot about the whole thing … until the end of the winter break I enjoyed so much with my family and friends at home. I packed up my Jeep and picked up my roommate at the airport on our way back home … Loyola.

Despite our premature regrets, doubts, and complaining, I have never been happier to say that my roommates and I were proven wrong by the afternoon of our first day on retreat at Willow Valley Resort in Lancaster, PA.

The RoadTrip group: participants, atlases, and compasses. Photo courtesy Loyola Student Engagement.

I’ve been on many, many retreats before, but it wasn’t long before I knew this one was different. The talks, given on the key questions (based around the idea of what brings us joy and what we can do with those things that bring us joy), had various perspectives, but all of which we, as participants, found we could somehow relate to.

The retreat (which is different from other retreats at Loyola, being focused more on reflection and discernment about one’s life than faith, per se) was run by Student Engagement, the office on campus dedicated to giving Loyola students opportunities to bond with their classmates, explore Baltimore, and get the most out of their four years here.

The Atlases were student leaders on RoadTrip, juniors and seniors who were close to us in age and experience, but also guides and companions on our journeys of personal reflection. Compasses were faculty members, most of whom were professors I had never met before who became friends and mentors during that weekend, and some of whom I found I could really connect with and still plan to keep in contact with in the future. For example, the compass for my small group was a professor who, like me, plays the saxophone, and we’re planning a jam session in the near future.

Though I loved so many things about RoadTrip, including the talks by atlases and compasses, private time to journal and reflect, and the “coffeehouse”/talent show on Saturday night, my favorite aspect, by far, was the small group. During all of my previous retreats, I haven’t had much of a foundation with my fellow small-group members to form any kind of bond, but in this case, that was different. Our small group (like all of them) was put together because of something we had in common based on our responses to short-answer questions prior to the retreat. Because of this, though I was with a few people I knew and a few I had never met before, I felt incredibly safe with my group and willing to open up and discuss things with them, even in the span of a few short days. As a matter of fact, I’m grabbing coffee at the end of the week with one of the members of my small group, a new friend.

My wonderful RoadTrip small group. Photo courtesy Loyola Student Engagement.

After RoadTrip, meeting new friends, and dedicating large chunks of time to reflecting personally and with my peers, I went into the spring semester of my sophomore year with a relaxed mindset (a rarity for me) and a commitment to allowing myself to pursue those things in my life that bring me joy, rather than those things that stress me out to no end and I just feel like I have to do.

In what I believe to be a quite relevant sign, halfway through RoadTrip I received an email from Loyola’s Office of International Programs that I had been accepted to the study abroad program I applied for, and I will be spending my entire junior year as a student in Scotland at the University of Glasgow. This has been my dream, to return to the land of my ancestors for my study abroad experience, for as long as I can remember. Knowing now that it will be realized, as soon as this August when I leave, I am a little nervous, but mostly thrilled for this new adventure. I look forward to a lot of reflecting and discerning on my current life path both in the upcoming days and during my time in Scotland.

Maintaining Sanity in the Midst of Finals

All around me, my friends and classmates are slowly losing their minds as the stress of final papers, projects, and exams takes over, and the overwhelming desire to be home baking cookies and decorating the Christmas tree with their families consumes any ambition they ever had to study.

In my opinion, this isn’t the most effective mindset to enter finals week with, getting three hours of sleep a night and worrying about a tenth of a percentage point that you need on the final to clinch that grade you’re hoping for in a certain class.  While it’s true that I’ve been guilty of these things as well, I’m not proud to admit it, and instead of complaining about the stress that we’re all experiencing and holing up in my apartment for the entirety of finals, I’ve decided to take care of my whole person at this hectic time of year … not just my academic self. Cura personalis at its finest, right?

I’m one of the most serious students you’ll meet, but in my year and a half at Loyola, I’ve also come to realize that if I don’t allow myself time for fun and bonding with friends, the intensity of school and the endless assignments will drown my own personality and desire to explore and discover.  So even during finals, I’ve allowed myself time for some of the most important things in my life: friends, food, and adventure.

The weekend before last, with finals quickly approaching and one day of classes left to go, my roommate Meagan and I took a break from studying and paper writing to attend Chordbusters, a hugely popular on-campus concert that occurs once a semester, featuring Loyola’s two a cappella groups, the Belles and the Chimes. We bought tickets at the beginning of the week and looked forward to this major event all week. When it finally came, we enjoyed every second of seeing our immensely talented friends and classmates on stage belting songs by Mumford and Sons, Maroon 5, Christina Aguilera, and fun.

After the show we made a spur of the moment decision with a few of our other friends to make a late-night trip to Sip & Bite Restaurant, a classic diner in the Canton neighborhood of Baltimore. Among the five of us we enjoyed breakfast, burgers, dessert, and coffee, and for a few hours forgot about impending exams, focusing instead on catching up, laughing, and enjoying some of our last quality moments together before break.

With my friends Meagan and Sara at Sip and Bite.

In the middle of exam week, just a few days ago, I designated two evenings to invite two friends of mine over so that I could cook dinner for them. The great part about exam week, in my opinion at least, is that you don’t have classes and extracurricular commitments, and therefore have more free time to study and do things that become rarities at college (watch TV, make a nice dinner, go to bed early, bake banana bread, etc.)

The first night, with Kaitlyn, one of my best friends, was a bittersweet moment, as we said goodbye before she leaves to study abroad in Rome for the spring semester. Since I’m planning to study abroad for the entirety of next year, we’ve come to the end of our time at Loyola together. We talked about Kaitlyn’s plans for Rome, the family she’ll be staying with, and our work plans for the summer. We watched Jeopardy! together after dinner and tried to delay the unavoidable moment when we would both break into tears and embrace each other tightly at my front door. I can honestly say that those few hours with one of my best friends was a night I will never forget, as I realized just how much someone who has helped to define my time at Loyola means to me … and I took the time to express it to her.

With Kaitlyn at Loyolapalooza last spring.

This past weekend, while many people had exams on Friday and Saturday, I was lucky to have a break from Thursday afternoon until Monday morning. I knew I wouldn’t study for my Monday final until Sunday, so I took the time I finally had to take a Friday morning train to New York City and visit my friend Alexa from high school, who now goes to college in the city. We spent two days getting student rush tickets to Broadway shows, eating NYC burgers and bagels, and taking in the beauty of the city at Christmastime. I returned home Saturday night and collapsed for a long sleep before dedicating my Sunday to studying for my Interest Groups final exam, which was very productively accomplished at Chocolatea, a local cafe.

Rockefeller Center in New York City with my friend Alexa.

As it turns out, I never allowed the end-of-semester stress to get to me, and this afternoon, before studying for my last final exam (Politics of Russia, tomorrow morning), my roommate Jen and I are heading up the street to Carma’s Cafe in Charles Village for a quick lunch.  If you take care of yourself, study a lot, and balance that studying with some fun, I think finals can be the chillest time of the semester … at least, that’s the way it’s turned out for me.

Merry Christmas and best wishes for the holidays and a happy new year!  See you next semester!

A Collegiate Take on Christmas

A few months ago, sitting around the dinner table with my parents, I proposed an idea to them: “What if we don’t do presents this year?”

“What do you mean not do presents?”  I’m pretty sure that for the past 19 years, my mom has enjoyed shopping for gifts for me just as much as I’ve enjoyed opening them on Christmas morning, and my dad has always left the shopping and the wrapping up to her. My family’s Christmas morning tradition is like most family’s Christmas traditions.  I would wake up before 9 (which was a miracle in and of itself), wander down the stairs in my flannel PJs, and sit at the bottom of the stairs until my parents came out of their bedroom and we could all enter the living room together. My parents would sit on the sofa and drink their coffee, while I sat on the floor with the dogs and slowly unwrapped my presents, savoring the once-a-year moment.

As I’ve gotten older, the gifts have gotten fewer in number but slightly more expensive. Last year I received a few articles of clothing I really had my eye on, a new pair of Uggs, and a Vera Bradley duffle bag. Now to be honest, I still use these things all the time (probably because they’re the ones I specifically asked for). But there have been many gifts throughout the years that were just never really used. When I was younger, these would be the miscellaneous books and DVDs that my mom saw and thought I would like … but for some reason I never opened. And last year, it was a mini video camera that would seem like the perfect gift for me, but I just didn’t really need it when the camera I already had took perfectly fine video.

The point that I’m getting at with all of this may seem lost, but it’s actually quite simple. As I’ve gotten older, it’s not that my parents don’t know me well enough to know what I like … it’s just that I don’t want these kind of gifts from them anymore.

With my parents after my Winter Jazz Ensemble concert last week.

It’s so easy to bring a child joy with some dolls and games, and that’s why I definitely think the work Loyola does with Presence for Christmas with our community partners is so important this time of year. But as a college sophomore, I’m no longer looking forward to Christmas because of the early morning gift-unwrapping frenzy.

I’m looking forward to the late nights staying up with my family, watching cheesy Christmas movies with hot-chocolate and homemade cookies in hand. I’m looking forward to anxiously awaiting the January premiere of Downton Abbey with my mom, recapping the previous two seasons for weeks leading up to it, and having our casual-turned-deep conversations by the late-night glow of the Christmas tree.

The gifts my parents will give me this Christmas will be their presence, and I will reciprocate with exactly the same. I plan on spending many days of my break with my cell phone turned off, while I am downstairs spending time with my parents … and eating … a lot of eating.

I’m more excited for this Christmas than I have been for any one in the recent past, and I honestly think that’s because I’m looking forward to genuine time with the people I

Christmas 2011 with family and friends.

love … not trying to make myself look forward to fleeting, artificial happiness. After a year and a half at Loyola, I’ve had many lessons in authenticity, and I’ve learned that this is what I strive for in my own relations with family and friends.

As I walk through the Loyola campus at night on these last days of exams, I make an effort to slow down and take in the lightposts, wrapped in evergreens and Christmas lights, the Christmas tree on the quad next to the statue of St. Ignatius, and the overwhelming silent beauty of the school on a cold winter’s night. I’m grateful, as always, for the opportunity to go to school at a place that has surrounded me with people and presented me with opportunities that have taught me what truly matters to me and where I find joy in life.

So yes, my parents and I have agreed to “not do presents” this year, and I am looking forward to returning home to our cozy little house, my mom’s homemade Christmas culinary traditions, and to have a break from cooking and laundry for a while. It only took 19 years, but I realized that to me, the most important part of Christmas, is indubitably my family.

Retreat to the mountains: Loyola style

Sometimes things seem to happen right when you need them most.  Two weekends ago, there were countless activities going on both on and off campus that I could take my pick of: the Project Mexico/Encounter El Salvador auction on Friday, the Sleep Out at City Hall, the Ignatian Family Teach-In, and I had my choice of CCSJ-related options.  But back in September, when registration opened for AMDG Retreat, something told me that in the middle of November right before the chaos of final exams and papers, I was going to need a retreat to the mountains more than anything else.

I went to the Loyola retreat house, named Rising Phoenix for the mythical bird known to rise out of the ashes of death into a new life, for the first time in April 2011.  And let me guarantee you, a short weekend at this glorious place is quite the right recipe to inspire a “rebirth” in myself and other students.

The AMDG 2012 Retreat group, photo courtesy Loyola Campus Ministry.

Women’s Retreat was a great choice for my first retreat at Loyola.  Coming from an all-girls Catholic high school, I had become accustomed to going on retreats with all girls … most of which usually ended with tears and hugs aplenty.  Loyola’s Women’s Retreat was a little more mature, though.  We explored our own independence and individual gifts, and were challenged to spend alone time with ourselves.  All of this, of course, didn’t happen without some treasured time in the craft room.

AMDG Retreat was an incredibly different experience, and new for me in a very refreshing way.  It’s billed as an “upper-level” retreat, focusing on the Jesuit core values and Ignatian themes, such as AMDG (Ad Maiorem Dei Gloriam), which means “For the greater glory of God.”  The retreat is for sophomores, juniors, and seniors who have been on a Loyola retreat (or had another significant retreat experience) and are willing to challenge themselves to go deeper than typical retreat-goers.

For me, the challenge to go deeper was answered in an hour-long sojourn I took to the woods behind Rising Phoenix, located in Flintstone in western Maryland.  I sat by myself, in the cold, and just listened.  Listened to what God was trying to tell me for the first time in months, listened to what I was expecting of myself at this pivotal point in life.  I did some reflecting on my recently submitted study abroad application, which of my on-campus activities truly fulfills me, and what kind of career path I think I want to follow, not because it’s what’s expected of me but because it’s what I think will make me happy.

Well, I did all of this until I was certain I heard a deep growl come from behind a tree and then I high-tailed it back up to the house faster than I’ve moved in my life.

My retreat small group, courtesy Loyola Campus Ministry

The retreat was led by a group of student leaders, Rev. Tim Brown, S.J., the director of Campus Ministry, and Kristin Witte, the assistant director of Campus Ministry.  The amount of time, effort, and care that the team put into our AMDG retreat experience shined through even in the smallest details.

Though the main purpose of a retreat is, for me, the strengthening of my relationship with God, there are other facets of it that make it quite the worthwhile experience.

The food, as just about everyone at Loyola knows, is out of this world.  Ms. Denise and the ladies take care of all of us Greyhounds like they were our own mothers, preparing three home-cooked meals a day that never leave you hungry.  And there’s always a special (slightly-altered) portion of whatever we’re having for any students with dietary needs.

Saturday night dinner, photo courtesy Loyola Campus Ministry

Then of course there’s the time with friends who I don’t see nearly enough on campus, late-night hours gathered around the fireplace with s’mores and hot chocolate, forgetting about sleep, school, and just about everything else.

My favorite, though, is my early morning coffee, in solitude, on the back porch.  The funny part is that it actually happened by accident while I was on retreat.  We turned our phones in for the weekend (which happened to be the biggest blessing of all), so I had no way to set an alarm to wake me up in the morning.  When I heard music coming from downstairs, though, I assumed it was time to rise and get ready for breakfast.  I climbed down from my bunk, grabbed my watch, and saw that it was 8:30.  Breakfast was supposed to be at 9, so I got dressed and went downstairs.  As it turned out, I never set my clock back when Daylight Savings Time ended at the beginning of the month, and when I thought it was 8:30, it was actually 7:30.

Usually, I love my sleep.  And I mean I really love my sleep.  But I grabbed a mug of coffee, meandered outside, and let the cool air wake me up.  I guess the caffeine (and the three refills that followed) didn’t hurt, either.

Welcoming our Hounds Home to Reitz

A couple of weeks ago, on a bitter cold Friday night in early October on the Evergreen campus, my friends and I attended the first home men’s basketball game of the season.

Before college, I was never interested in the slightest in basketball (unless you count my less-than-stellar third grade performance as my team’s center, which included scoring a basket for the opposing team).  But as the basketball season approached last year, I quickly realized the sport’s centrality to the famous Greyhound school spirit.

In 2011, the Greyhounds began the season unranked, basically unnoticed by the nation and the authorities in college basketball.  But in March, the team won the MAAC championship played in the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1994, almost as long as I’ve been alive.

I’ll never forget watching that game, as our 15 seed Hounds took on number 2 seed Ohio State in Pittsburgh.  Though the outcome of the game seemed to be apparent prior to the game even to the most optimistic SuperFans, we all still gathered to watch the game with as much love and passion for our hometown Hounds as we have ever garnered before.

Sports analysts attribute a lot of the credit for the success of last year’s team to Jimmy Patsos, our beloved coach, and one who is widely recognized as among the best in college basketball.  While I love and admire Jimmy Patsos just as much as any other Loyola student (and I may or may not wear a t-shirt with his face on it and allow myself to be a little starstruck when I see him around campus on occasion), I give just as much credit to the team of amazing men.

Comprised of students from all years, I had never seen such amazing camaraderie among a group of athletes, and I truly believe that their love for each other and commitment to Loyola and its Jesuit ideals guided their path to the NCAA Tournament.  To read a little bit more about the inner-workings of the Greyhounds, you can check out the blog of Erik Etherly, a starting forward on the team.

Well, needless to say, after all of the excitement for the team last year (and some very passionate and hard-working SuperFans who graduated), I wasn’t sure that basketball would have as much excitement surrounding it this year as it did last year.  I could not have been more wrong.

Walking into Reitz Arena half an hour early on Friday night, we just barely secured seats in the student section, and even those were on the bleachers.  But the only thing that mattered to me was being surrounded by a sea of green and proud Hounds cheering on the team that could.

Prior to the game, University President Father Linnane and Coach Jimmy Patsos together unfurled the NCAA banner from last year to resounding cheers from the entire arena.  The game was jam-packed with the spirited marching band from a Baltimore middle school, the Loyola Dance Team and Cheerleaders, competitions during time-outs for students and local youths who came out to watch with their families, and, of course, the Hounds’ 71-45 win over Binghamton.

The next day, students received an email thanking us for supporting the team.  With the distribution of over 900 (free!) student tickets (that’s almost 1/4 of the undergraduate population!), a new record was set for attendance at a home basketball game.  What can we say?  We were just doing our job.