Friday, April 25, 2014

The Bennie Experience

My college celebrates 100 years of educating women this year.  This particular weekend is the celebration gala, and sadly I won't be in attendance.   Although I am disappointed to miss the event, I have had Bennies on the mind lately so I thought I would use my tiny platform to talk about my Bennie experience. 

Right before moving, my uncle, Paul, found a copy of a speech I had given at a donor event in the spring of my senior year.  My god-parents came to the event and had saved the speech all these years.  Although my writing has changed a bit during the years since this event and my perspective even more. . . . I thought I would post it as a way to honor my experience with CSB and in hopes that any Bennies or Bennie-minded folk out there might consider a gift to the college-- an institution that did so much for me.

By some standards, I would consider my college experience to be ordinary; I had my late night papers where five am rolled around and I saw the first light of dawn,  I had my heart to heart conversations with my floor mates and I felt the rush of walking out of a test that was well prepared for.  This is what the ordinary college experience is.    However, the ordinary for St. Ben's goes far and above the expected.   The gifts that the College of Saint Benedict have given me shaped who I am as a woman now.   The ordinary that St. Ben's offers is filled with sacred interactions, moments of beauty and the graceful growth of girls into women.   I feel honored to have the opportunity to thank you for the extraordinary gift you have given me and the rest of the student body. 
It is in the daily ordinary acts of love that I can best demonstrate to you how CSB aids in the personal development of women, and how blessed we are for your generosity.  I came to St. Ben's to be around women.  My mother passed away when I was fifteen and since I have had an increased appreciation for the way women interact.  The women of St. Ben's have taught me and pushed me to grow.  Again, the growth process can be quite ordinary but what I can share from my St. Ben's experience is far from.
Sister Janice Wedl more than anyone has embodied the St. Ben's experience for me.  In the fall of my sophomore year on any old day I was running and stopped at McGlynns for water and a snack.  On the way out of the atrium,  a sister stopped me-- Sr. Janice.  She attempted to sell me a plant from the sisters' annual plant sale.  I politely refused stating that it wouldn't work out well for the plant.  Domestic ability have never been a personal strength and I didn't want the plant to bear the weight of my inabilities.  She tried a few more approaches and when I explained that I really wasn't capable of caring for another living thing nor did I have the meager three dollars to purchase it, she took a small plant in a blue pot and handed it to me-- saying 'take this, water it and you will be be fine.'   The plant had one leaf barely peaking above the soil and I again tried to refuse it-- she looked me straight in the eye, smiled me and firmly told me that it wasn't polite to refuse a gift.  Sr. Janice doesn't remember meeting me at the plant sale-- a memory I have held throughout my college career- yet, just an ordinary part of her daily routine.
Thankfully, she does remember how she became a constant in my life.   I contacted her while on senate about planning a new event-- a 'Bennie' day during homecoming.   Sr. Janice is the head of the Benedictine Friends mentor program and I wanted to combine the opening event for the mentor program with the first ever 'Bennie Day.'  Thankfully, she agreed.  At the event, she came up, tapped me on the shoulder and said that 'we girls' should hang out more often.  I smiled and said yes. . . she then asked me if I had a Benedictine friend and I said that I didn't; adding that I didn't really have time for one.  In true Janice style- she didn't take no for an answer and the next week I got a postcard in the mail from Texas-- where Sr. Janice was apparently on vacation.  The friendship has grown since and in so many ways was a mother or grandmother figure for me during college.
She once hugged me and slipped ten dollars in my pocket.  It's not unusual to find a special pencil or some stickers in my campus mailbox. She has brought groceries to my house for my roommates and I. She took me out for margaritas on her last birthday.  Recently she even called to tell me that after a funeral of a friend that she picked out some things that she thought I might need after graduation-- plates, silverware, a microwave and a few pairs of socks.  I told her that she reminded me of my grandmother and now Grandma Janice jokes about the possibilities of grandchildren while living a celibate life.  
Grandma Janice gave me a plant once and taught me more about beauty and personal growth than I could have ever learned in a classroom.
1 Corinthians 3 states "So then neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but it is God who gives the growth for we are God's co-workers."  Just as the plant in the blue pot had the ability to grow under the right circumstances, I too have been mentored by many grace-filled people in such ordinarily beautiful ways. That is the root of the St. Ben's experience.  
There are many examples of how the ordinary day to day actions foster women's growth.  My college experience is in a reality a series of the simple interactions that were laced with meaning for me-- many of whom are in this room.  Sr. Emmanuel who had me over for dinner last week and asked me what it meant to be Catholic and catholic and didn't let me out of the conversation until I stumbled out of my own circular argument.  President Mary Lyons who once came to a senate meeting unannounced to talk about the raw nature of women's leadership, Kolleen Kellom who invited me to come to Christmas Eve mass with her family at St. John's, Babs Koch who asked me mid-lunch how my prayer life was going, Anne Ford Nelson who taught me how to shake hands in a more powerful way.   These women may not even remember these conversations, but that only exemplifies how the extraordinary can occur in the ordinary-- simple acts that reinforce the community's ability to foster women's growth.  I have been asked if I chose CSB as a way to seek out women's role models and I don't know how to answer that accurately-- yes, I am attracted to strong women, but as a student at St. Ben's I have never had to seek them out intentionally.  The community itself has provided ample opportunity to learn from the ordinary acts of extraordinary women.   Thank you for your part in making this institution more than a place of classrooms and curriculum---for me it was much, much more. 
As a way of post-script, I think it's important to note a few things as to how my perspective has changed over the years.  As I read the above I have the natural cringe that happens anytime you read something you wrote as a young'un and although the sentiments remain true, the complexity has increased.   Three things come to mind:

Joan sent me a picture of the plant after I posted this.  Growing strong since 2000.
  1. My relationship with Janice grew in the years after I graduated.  My favorite memory was the many Easters we spent together at the monastery with her and her friends playing cards at 9:00am after day-break mass.  She passed away three years ago but I am glad to say that she met infant James and proudly declared him a great grandson.  I still have the plant-- and 15 years later, its enormous. Joan-- you are still watering it right?
  2. Students in my situation* generally don't make it through college.   I didn't have a FAFSA to file which meant I wasn't eligible to apply for government grants or loans and my entire family contribution during college was the $20 that my dad gave me when he dropped me off on day one.  There were several times where I thought I would have to leave and I remember sitting in the financial aid office while they helped me come up with a game plan-- including borrowing a college car to go down to St. Paul get a copy of my birth certificate so that I could apply for private loans,  initial help with getting on medicaid so that I'd have health insurance and a bridge loan to help me pay my first month of rent after I graduated from college. These 'services' aren't needed by all students but the humanity they showed me meant the difference between me getting an education or not.** St. Ben's fought for my future even when I didn't have a lot of fight left.
  3. As a senior, I wrote about the women leaders I found at St.Ben's.  The group that is entirely absent is the friendships that I made while I was there.  As a student I was focused and determined, fearful and dare I say that lead me to be a little prickly--- my Bennie friends taught me a lesson that I never anticipated-- community.   I thought every task was Dana vs Goliath and they helped me learn to take help and give help in return.   I have so many wonderful Bennies (and a few Johnnies) in my life to this day that I get a little emotional writing about it.   They are the ones who stay with your kids when you need to go to the doctor,  let you borrow a car when you don't have one****send flowers when the 'sense' you are down, offer a couch when you are in-between housing,  help you set up your new apartment at 3am when you leave a bad relationship and cheer you on no matter what is going on in life.  In all the struggles college and after, I learned that I didn't have to do it alone and I am a better friend in return for it.  These are my sisters  (and brothers). 
  4.   
Everyone has a different Bennie experience****-- which is what makes that place so special- and why I give today to the future Bennie.   I wish I could join the gala tomorrow-- but maybe I'll wear something special like pearls, yoga pants and a Bennie sweatshirt while I raise a mocktail in your honor. Congrats to the college-- here's to the next generation.



*I don't talk much here about my family life prior to college, and I won't go into a lot of detail now either. I was an non-traditional student who came from a seemingly very traditional background.   My dad believed in true independence once you graduate from highschool-- I haven't spent a night at home since I left nor did he visit during the four years of college.   We aren't close now-- for a variety of reasons but I have come to peace with his parenting choices during this time. Grief does a lot of funny things to people and as I have aged, I am more and more empathetic about where he was at that time of his life.

**I did have a reasonable degree of grit and street smarts at this point in my life but no amount of waitressing was going to cover the jump between where I was (my spending budget was $100 a semester including my new insurance!) and where I needed to be in order to be a college student.  CSB invested in my future and made the necessary moons align so that I could be who I am today.  No amount of thanks is enough.

***I didn't have a car until I was 24.  Long live the Saturn!

****This is my rare personal post. 

7 comments:

  1. I so loved reading this and whole-heartedly agree with everything you said. It is a magical place. Love you!

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  2. Thanks ladies, I still miss it-- as I am sure you do too. Glad to have you both as friends these many years later. That's the real gift.

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  3. Beautiful post. You are one resilient woman!

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  4. Dana - thank you so much for sharing.

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  5. Thank you for sharing this part of your life! (I had no idea!) I wish I had made better attempts to get to know you more in those few years we were in Rochester together doing theatre... You are a gem and I so enjoy being able to to get to know you now through your writing...you have grown into a beautiful and strong woman!

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  6. Thanks for the comments-- I have been one lucky cat! Thanks for the awesome friendships along the way.

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