Branch Out and Stay Rooted

September 2, 2021

Dear Saint Mary’s Friends,

Over the past few weeks, I was delighted to meet our first-year students and their families as they arrived at Saint Mary’s and began the exciting journey of college life. At one of our formal welcome events, I told these newest members of our community that I was struck by how so much of the advice offered at this time of transition might be summed up in just two short phrases: branch out and stay rooted. This idea had occurred to me one evening as I contemplated the stately trees that line The Avenue and the many other majestic trees on campus that make this place a kind of sanctuary. What can a tree teach us? In the most simple sense, a tree communicates that we can stand tall, feet planted firmly in the ground, while we also reach for the heavens.  

In every culture, people have invested meaning and significance in trees: they stand for life, abundance, hope, peace, renewal. And particular trees often assume specific meanings: oak trees are associated with wisdom, power, and courage. Wisteria with romance. Birch trees with new beginnings. Elm trees with intuition and inner strength. Some trees, like the baobab of sub-Saharan Africa, manage to grow in places where little else can survive. The baobab tells a story of adaptability: It evolved to collect and store water in its trunk during the rainy season, enabling it (improbably!) to thrive and produce fruit in the long dry season.  

While my thoughts about trees were directed toward our new students, I’ve continued to think about how we might all benefit from the idea of branching out while staying rooted, and I must say: the opening weeks of this academic year have shown me that the spirit of adaptability and resilience is alive and well at Saint Mary’s.

This year, I am so grateful to experience—in person—many of the rituals and traditions that make Saint Mary’s the amazing place it is. Not only did we joyfully receive 382 members of the Class of 2025 (and their families and friends), we also welcomed—and welcomed back—all our upper-division undergraduates and our new and continuing graduate students. We greeted and oriented a group of new faculty members as they joined the College, and the entire faculty convened to reflect together on effective pedagogy at their annual Faculty Development Day.  The full faculty and staff community assembled for the College Forum—our traditional opening of the academic year—and on that same evening, we congregated in the Le Mans “backyard” for a wonderful community picnic!  

Before their families left, our newest students attended the Matriculation Ceremony in O’Laughlin Auditorium, where they formally “signed in” to the College, indicating their readiness to step into our circle of learning and growth. From there, they assembled in an enormous circle on the Le Mans Green. With their families standing behind them to offer a blessing, the students “closed the circle”—taking one step forward as their families took a step back. And their opening ceremonies ended with a new tradition: as their loved ones lined the road, ringing bells and waving pom poms, the Class of 2025 walked up The Avenue and into the College together.

Seeing colleagues and students full of hopes and dreams for the year ahead, I couldn’t help but think of another kind of tree—what in Ireland is called a “wishing tree.” I told the new students that, back in 1998, in a remote area of Donegal, my family had stumbled on a wishing tree, a hawthorn tree that had become a place of supplication. If you’ve ever seen one, you know that these trees are covered with personal effects left behind by visitors—ribbons, notes, photographs, and devotional items—each a memento of someone’s prayer, hope, wish, dream.

In some ways Saint Mary’s College has become—for all of us—a kind of wishing tree. We pin dreams and aspirations to it, personal ones and collective ones, theories of how we and the College should branch out, ideas of how we should stay rooted. And those dreams are connected, leaf and branch.

I encouraged the Class of 2025 and our transfer students to pause sometime during the early weeks of the semester and write down a hope, a promise, or a dream for their Saint Mary’s experience. Perhaps we could think of these as the leaves on our tree. They remind us that students come to us with their own goals and plans. They count on us to keep a compact with them, a compact that looks back to our history and forward to their future. Some of them might wish to keep their hopes, promises, and dreams private, but I invited them to send these to me if they wished. If any of you has a hope, a dream, or a prayer for Saint Mary’s that you’d like to share with me, please do so: I am sure these will inspire my thinking over the coming months.  

My own wish is that we work together to nourish our mission, foster learning, and encourage community—in other words, that we till our soil, tend our common tree, and branch out while staying rooted. 

Warm regards,

Katie Conboy, Ph.D.

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