As the Sun Sets on my Junior Year at CSB/SJU

/ 10 May 2013

Exactly 258 days ago I moved into Benet Hall room 221 for the start of my junior year (this was already the second year of living in Benet Hall, and I’ll be in the same room next year) at Saint John’s University. It was threatening to rain, but luckily didn’t start to rain somewhat heavily until all my belongings were moved from the car to the very room I write this (across the length of this past week) in. Hopefully rain doesn’t hinder the move out process in a few hours. Lots has taken place over the past few months and it seems worth it to spend some time, seeing that I somehow don’t have enough homework to keep me busy right now, summarizing/reflecting on pieces of what has happened. The very start of the Fall semester was made a little crazy the first full week by the professor of one of my classes telling me I should be in some class other than hers. How wouldn’t that make you crazier in the midst of the start of a new semester anyway? But the course I chose to switch into, Intercultural Communications, fast became my favorite course of that semester. This wasn’t just due to the amount to which I found the content interesting, but truly it was mostly because of the sense of organic community (almost like a homeroom or advisory) that we all, including our wonderful professor, fostered. This course was primarily filled with Japanese exchange students (here for just one semester or year) and American students of races other than the white race I claim membership in. That dynamic, of being the minority race (granted the one with the professor in it as well), was part of what advanced the course into an almost experiential status, and made it my favorite course that semester. By the end of the semester all of us were great friends and weren’t that eager to go on to winter break.

Only one other class I took that semester had anything like the sense of community that the Intercultural Communications course did, that was the Ethics course I took. Named Justice in the 21st Century this course was, in hindsight, functionally a philosophy course. We were reading many different authors’ looks on an ethical system: Rawls, Walzer, Nozick, and a few others. Many of my classmates found these readings very hard and found being made to discuss them even harder, I on the other hand actually found the readings interesting and enjoyed the class discussions. It was these discussions that got my mind really thinking about the question of ethical principles, and I was able to draw connections between what we were exploring in those readings and discussions to my other classes and life in general.

In many ways I found the class on local and regional governance to be a lot less engaging than either of the other two (and the math class I took was downright just, well, a math class, nothing more). Certainly interesting, but could have been more interactive for a night class. My expansion of the peer mediation research from a year ago was fun, as was the city case study group presentation, but the layout of the course, when up against the Intercultural Communications and Ethics courses, had something to be desired.

One interesting evening that semester was the day of the annual Peace Studies conference on September 17th. I was already going to attend the evening keynote by Dr. Patricia Mische, but made the spur of the moment decision to attend the final afternoon panel as well as a part of one of the Intercultural Communications long-term assignments. After the panel I went back to briefly talk to the department chair, Ron Pagnucco, instead of just heading straight downstairs for dinner in Gorecki. One of the things he told me was inviting me to the dinner they host for the department faculty and conference speakers. Now who wouldn’t take up such an offer? So here I am eating dinner with Dr. Kelly Kraemer (a professor I’ve taken numerous classes from) to my left and Fr. Rene McGraw to my right. Only one other student who wasn’t presenting or receiving an award was at this dinner, sitting at the same table as me and all these professors. I somehow think it was the absence of my faculty advisor, Dr. Jeffrey Anderson, that enabled me to be at this dinner. Anyway, we’re all just eating and conversing when the professors start talking about the new 5-day course cycle (at the time this wasn’t really common knowledge or officially announced to the student body as far as I was aware). “The what.” is what I first said. So, it is sort of fun to have first found out about this massive change months before the first official student notice directly from professors within my major.

On the residential front there is one major change that no longer feels as such, but is now rather just what feels normal. Unlike the first half of my undergraduate career this year, and by extension my senior year, I chose to bow out of having any roommates and have my own single room instead. So between the years I’ve gone from a floor of 60+ residents, to one of 24 or so, to now these last two years one of 13 counting the FR (Faculty Resident) for the upper half of the building. There are probably very few quieter residential floors on this campus besides the one I’m part of, and 2 of those others are in this building as well. When discussing matters related to the floor the term roommate simply doesn’t pertain, with the term neighbor being what replaces it. The peacefulness and definite anytime-desired privacy of living in such an arrangement is part of what attracts me to it for my final years here (and in part the reality that the building is attached via a skyway to the building that has many classrooms, administrative offices, and the dining hall also has attracted me to staying in Benet). Some of my classmates may turn against a situation where one of your single closest neighbors (approximately 10 feet between doors) is your FR and one of the monks here at the abbey, Br. David Paul Lange. But I actually enjoy having one of the monks as a neighbor, regardless how much or little he is around, to be able to get to know one of them well and through that connection feel connected to the longstanding tradition of the Benedictines here in Central Minnesota.

That brings me to one of the single best decisions I made at the tail end of the Fall semester. Instead of studying or relaxing the first part of the final weekend with normal classes on either end of it I was one of 4 SJU students who participated in the monastic plunge that was held that weekend. This is an experience open only to the men of Saint John’s where we get to spend a Friday evening, overnight, and first half of Saturday in the monastery. There is absolutely no better way to take a break from the daily grind of academic work nor a better way to learn what the Benedictine monastery we’re all so close to all the time is like than this experience of following the daily schedule of the monks and spending time in the monastery. Every moment I was there I spent soaking in the way the monks live their lives and how truly internalized the entire Rule of Saint Benedict and Benedictine Values are for this monastic community. Personally I think that all Johnnies, regardless of what they’re thinking their future may hold, should try and take advantage of this mini retreat opportunity. Naturally you’ll get far less sleep than you’re used to for a weekend night, but that is far outweighed by the peaceful serenity that the insides of the monastery (what one could easily argue is part of the same building that Benet is) emits.

Right at the start of this Spring semester one of the first things I felt was the presence of those who’d been gone on study abroad in the Fall and the absence of those who went abroad this semester. My own former roommate, Dana Hicks, was among the many students I knew who were away in the Fall (he was in Salzburg, Austria). One of my neighbors here on the 2nd floor of Benet was in Kolkata, India this semester. When only 13 people live on your floor you get to know all of them better than you knew almost anyone except your roommate living on any other floor, so his absence was definitely recognized. Perhaps some of you are wondering why I never really considered studying abroad myself. The primary reasoning there is that I already had, effectively, back in my freshmen year of high school when my entire immediate family lived with my (now deceased) great grandmother in Vienna, Austria for 7 months. A few weeks into the Fall semester it almost felt like being in that Intercultural Communications course was a semi-equivalent anyways, especially alongside my many experiences in Vienna, so I don’t feel like I really missed out on anything. Besides, CSB/SJU has far too many great course opportunities to skip out on an entire semester’s worth.

In large part because of how much I had enjoyed the philosophical readings of the Ethics class I’d been in the previous semester one of the courses I was in this semester was a true philosophy class, Philosophy of Human Nature. This class alone ended up providing the bulk of the academic blog posts I’ve posted this whole semester. A fun aspect of that course was that two of the Japanese exchange students I’d been in class with the previous semester were in this class as well. That, though, made that class ending earlier today just a little sadder with them heading back to Japan after this semester. Actually, the sheer number of seniors and graduating juniors I’m friends with has made this entire past week quite bittersweet. What is the nature and meaning of our humanity? We spent the entire course looking at a series of questions that can be summed up in that question, and we read all sorts of authors’ work on aspects of our humanity. The course asked more questions than it answered, like any philosophy class does, but grappling with such questions provides a solid experience to draw on in all aspects of life, both academic inquiry and the daily grinds of life. I have no doubt that in the courses I take next year (maybe most directly Philosophy of Violence/Nonviolence) and my personal and professional life after graduation I will find myself drawing on the readings and discussion of that course.

Especially once Pope (Emeritus) Benedict XVI announced and then exercised his historic papal resignation the Catholic Church Today class I’ve been in was really fun and beneficial. Once we covered the historical foundations we spent the last portion of this semester discussing contemporary issues of the church, and naturally covered the overturning of the papacy as it happened. As a Roman Catholic taking the time to study the church’s pendulum swinging throughout history and in our contemporary times was enlightening. I’m pretty sure it was also the first time I’d actually read any of the documents that came out of the Second Vatican Council.

But that class would not have been as fluidly interlaced to my studies and life had it not been for the fact that I was also taking the Theologies of Violence/Nonviolence class. In this class we looked at the history of the church, one that really had no connotations of violence, and how it evolved into a church of conquest and atonement. This class showed me just how completely the rituals of the church, and where we see the church coming from these days, are based on the crusading conquests of territories of what we’d now call pagans. The Celtic Tree Circle behind Cobenzyl above Vienna is a remnant example of places like the sacred groves Saving Paradise talked about in relation to this Christian takeover of, well, human worldview existence. The very symbol central to Catholicism today, the crucifix, is a direct decedent of this tradition, and whose very first incarnation was carved from a pagan holy tree. We don’t always see it, but our religion is based on deeply riveting violence.

The other class I’ve been in this semester was Freedom of Speech (the class I’ve just finished the final exam for), a class where we studied the issue of free speech in this country through looking at court cases and the legislative acts that led to those cases. This is the class that didn’t pertain as much to the other three, which themselves continually pertained to one another, but was nonetheless very interesting and an important topic to learn something about. Though I truly enjoyed all the classes I was in this semester this was the one I enjoyed least. Learning all the history behind today’s freedoms of speech was interesting and a useful exploration into what can and cannot be said, and why that is the case.

As yet another extension point of the peer mediation project I’d worked on with a friend, Patrick Buller, a year ago the two of us presented that paper at CSB/SJU’s annual Celebrating Scholarship and Creativity Day. The audience was mainly filled with people we either directly invited, Peace Studies faculty, or students of classes in which extra credit could be gained by attending our presentation. It felt good to actually present something on that day for once, but otherwise I still did feel glad for the presentation to be over with. By the sound of it there were more students presenting this year than any previous year in recent history of the event.

Given the massive changes we’re on the doorstep of for the new academic calendar the stability that can be assumed given that I chose to live not only in the same building next year, but also the very same room will be nice. When everything else around us is totally different the three of us who will be living on this floor again next year at least have that as a common similarity. But at the same time, given the mold issues for which I vividly remember two of last year’s RAs (Resident Assistants) discussing the first day I was ever a resident of Benet as the starting kernel of this whole mess, the entire building will be off limits this summer while construction crews tear out the bottoms of the soffits from every single dorm room, insulate the pipes for the first time ever, and add removable bottoms back to the soffits. So every dorm room will have changed slightly, meaning that technically even the residential side of life here will be different (I actually do know exactly what minor cracks shouldn’t still be in the ceiling of my room come August), but only what we’ve termed veteran residents will really know it has changed. Well, that and the fact that the residence halls will be locked with ID card access only 24 hours a day starting in the Fall.

So, my summer has just begun. But, I think quite thankfully, it isn’t more than maybe 4 or slightly more weeks of true lazy vacation time. As part of the Peace Studies major we are required to do an internship. I looked at one option, but when that fell through my mom reached out to a former colleague of hers and within a matter of less than an hour after I sent the person at this organization an email asking about a possible summer internship I was guaranteed an internship at the Saint Paul Area Council of Churches. While on Spring/Easter Break I met with the organization, and am now all set to start as their Web Development Intern on the 27th of this month. So a good chunk of my summer will be taken up, very willingly, with that whole learning experience.

As it stands, I’ve just gotten out of the final academic element of my junior year. I have some final packing to do, will see some friends who are graduating one last time, go eat a real meal for the first time today, and by mid-afternoon bid CSB/SJU farewell until close to the end of August. In reality these academic years are much like roller coasters in that a huge amount of very important (indeed life-centering) events happen in a mere 9 months, or 258 days, and afterward we wonder how it all happened in such a short span of time. So, I’ll leave you here for the moment to process all of what these nearly 3,000 words have laid out and await any replies you choose to leave below. We’ll see when across this summer I find myself posting here, and what. For now, if you live somewhere with as good weather as we have, get outside and enjoy nature.