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In My Words/A Place of Friendship and Flourishing

Glancing around the room on this warm late-August day – faculty and staff gathering to prepare for a launch of our new academic year – I was struck by the sea of warm, attentive faces, heads nodding. It was almost as if I could hear hearts opening, each of us awakening in the profound message of Professor Emeritus Paul Wadell’s opening address.

Dr. Wadell, recently retired after a distinguished career, spoke of how each one of us is responsible for creating a culture of friendship and charity – essential work if we want everyone to flourish here. In Dr. Wadell’s words: “St. Augustine believed that human beings are not creatures who can go it alone, but radically social beings who, if they are to have a good life, need to learn how to live and work well together in all the various settings of their lives. He believed that the deep meaning of society is that people should live as friends together, and took this to be true not only in our personal lives, but also in our institutional settings. … For him, communio was not a nifty idea, but was God’s plan for humanity; so we’d better get it right, because not to get it right is not to have lived in any true and rich sense of the word. We are created for communio and therefore need to experience it across our lives. Communio comes into being in settings where people support and encourage one another, lift one another up and help each other along. Communio happens only when we flourish together.”

Flourishing is something I’ve talked about many times since arriving back here with Carol at our beloved alma mater. It’s a thrill to see the college experiencing uncommon success and pure joy seeing, day in and day out, countless examples of students thriving and flourishing, themselves achieving uncommon successes. When Dr. Wadell named one of the essential elements required for creating such flourishing – that of “cultivating the virtue of attentiveness” – something clicked for me. “I think one of our most basic callings as human beings – but also one of the hardest things to do – is to pay attention. With the virtue of attentiveness, we open our eyes to see what life might be asking of us each day.”

Indeed, at St. Norbert College, students flourish because of the very unique ways the faculty and staff pay attention to them. Across the generations, our alums regularly and eagerly name the professors, the coaches, the staff people who have shaped how they think and how they now lead their own lives. Like recent grad Molly Gallahue, currently getting her Ph.D. in earth and planetary sciences at Northwestern University: “The graduate school process was stressful, but it was reassuring to know that I had a handful of professors I could turn to for advice. I had several life chats with various professors as I tried to figure out what I wanted to do, where I wanted to go or what life had in store for me. Professor Flood connected me with several alumni of SNC who were in graduate school … so I could network and ask questions.”

Like 2019 grad Hunter Van Asten who just began law school at the University of Notre Dame this fall: “My advisor was Professor Charley Jacobs, and he’s been awesome. One, he’s really great in class. Then, he takes an interest in all his students, and when you sit down you feel like he is trying to make this the best for you and do what’s right for you.”

And recent grad Kelly Heniff who just this fall joined Teach for America in Memphis: “I received a lot of support and encouragement from Prof. Tynisha Meidl. She is a Teach for America alumna herself, and she spoke to me often about how emotionally fulfilling and rewarding it was. Prof. Meidl also played a role in bringing me to St. Norbert in the first place: When I was looking at schools, I sat in on one of her classes, and I found it so interesting and inspiring that it really helped me make up my mind to come here.” And 2018 alum Alex Sage, currently earning a doctorate at Kent State University’s School of Podiatry. “One of my references [for med school] was Father Jim Neilson, whom I never even had for a class. I just had so many conversations and other interactions with him during my time here that I asked him to be a character reference, of sorts, and he gladly agreed.”

When I hear these testimonies, I’m not surprised. The reality of communio – the paying attention to others and what matters to them – is more than rhetoric at SNC. It’s a reality lived out by each person who contributes to our collective friendship, and thus our individual and collective flourishing.

Oct. 31, 2019