Joanna Gardner, a senior at The Catholic University of America, Washington, D.C. is pictured with her “Best Buddy” from Bethlehem House.
“We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.”
— T.S. Eliot, The Four Quartets: “Little Gidding”
I remember vividly the three hour drive down to Washington D.C. four years ago for orientation at The Catholic University of America (CUA). It wasn’t until I caught sight of the steeple of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, the huge basilica adjoining the campus, that panic set in. I had never wanted to run away from anything so much in my life, (not even the horror of middle school dances or high school socials).
Now, as a senior, my stomach aches at the thought of leaving.
College years are tough, there’s no doubt about it. There are panicky all-nighters, scrambling to pull five well-formed MLA-style pages out of the labyrinth that is Aristotle; economics questions that make you sweat bullets in the middle of the exam; professors who assign more reading than is at all reasonable; part-time jobs; lack of sleep; and caffeine headaches. There are strains on friendships, moments of utter embarrassment, love, heartbreak and confusion. And there is Life butting in from the left and right, out of nowhere, leaving its obstinate mark on four years that are supposed to be free of all that business of “real world” sadness and pain.
But there is a reason that we look back on college years with such nostalgia, and as the time of looking back draws nearer, I can begin to see why. In spite of it all, what a wonderful four years it has been. I have changed so incredibly much.
How amazing it was as a freshman to see that my professors, these brilliant men and women who were smarter than I could possibly imagine, had a deep investment in their faith. It came through in their teaching, if not explicitly, and they were willing to share their faith with me beyond the classroom. They opened up new ways for me to think about what it means to be Catholic, at times in words, but mostly by example.
For four years, I went to the same weekly “service site” through our campus ministry office, called Bethlehem House, a home for intellectually disabled adults. The joy that I’ve found at that house, the amazing memories and relationships I’ve made there, the patience and love of those who work there, the way I’ve seen it change the lives of the people who go once a week, astound me. If my professors helped me believe in God, the people who worked and lived at Bethlehem House taught me how to love him.
Then there are the friends I’ve made, people who shaped me in all sorts of ways and who make leaving school the hardest. They challenged me to see the world in new ways, to laugh at myself, to think about what I believed and why. For example, it’s my friends who have changed how I think about being pro-life. In four years of struggling with this identity, they’ve been the ones to push me to think more deeply about what this means for me as a woman, a citizen, a friend, a college student; to consider how I could reconcile this belief with the culture around me.
I went to college thinking I was pro-life. I’m coming out knowing what pro-life means for the first time. I went in thinking I knew how to serve. I’m coming out knowing what service means for the first time. I went in thinking I was Catholic. I’m coming out knowing what it means to be Catholic for the first time.
Or at least I know better than I did before; that’s probably the most I can, and ever will, be able to say.
Leaving CUA now there’s more than just apprehension about the future. There’s genuine heartache at the thought of parting with the campus, the friends, the cafeteria staff, the teachers and guides, the remarkable scholars in this place I call “home” (to the endless annoyance of my mom). The beauty is, I know that the experiences I’ve had here will keep resurfacing in my future, reminding me of what I’ve learned. So that in all those future adventures I’ll “return” to CUA and recognize the lessons it imprinted on me anew, as if for the first time.
Joanna Gardner will graduate from The Catholic University of America, Washington, in May with a bachelor’s degree in English. She grew up in St. Rose of Lima Parish, Haddon Heights, and St. Stephen, Pennsauken.