College is a Bag of Beans

Dear Saint Mary’s Friends,

These days, I happen to be reading essays and books by Sister M. Madeleva Wolff, CSC, the third president of Saint Mary’s College. She left us with a lot of words! Some of those words are in poems—she was a well-known figure in the American literary landscape in her day. Many are words about the power of a liberal arts education, about how she hopes graduates of Saint Mary’s will “have learned to listen to the universe, to see it”: “We trust that they will love with wonder the mysteries among which they move.” 

Students often get introduced to those mysteries by their professors, and at Saint Mary’s, they also have opportunities to learn from some amazing visitors to campus. This was true in Sister Madeleva’s day, and it remains a significant element of the campus experience today. Recently, Ada Limón—the Poet Laureate of the United States—visited Saint Mary’s and spent considerable time with students and other members of our community. She came to deliver the 2023 Francis A. McAnaney Humanities Lecture on the evening of September 21, but she “delivered” so much more! Earlier in the day, she conducted a workshop for SMC creative writing students, as well as for selected area high school students. She also graciously attended a dinner with faculty, staff, and the advisory board that brought her to campus.

Many poets use these occasions to offer a reading of their own poems. Limón chose to write an original talk for Saint Mary’s—a talk focused on her own awakening to the power of words. She included several wonderful poems by other poets as guideposts for the evolution of her work. After she presented her talk, she moved into an on-stage interview with Professor Laura Williamson, Chair of the Department of Humanistic Studies. She answered Laura’s questions and questions posed by members of the audience. Upwards of 1,000 people packed into O’Laughlin Auditorium (and many others joined the livecast), and the line for Limón to sign books afterwards snaked down the long hallway adjacent to the Moreau Galleries and back toward the auditorium. How appropriate that this experience happened in some of Sister Madeleva’s signature spaces.

President Conboy and student Paige Parker' 24

At the end of the evening, a student sought me out to say: “Tonight was a life-changing experience!” I find this thrilling for so many reasons. First, here was a student who found a poet to be an inspirational guide to her life. And second, this is what a college experience should be—not only classes, but events that awaken inside you a world of possibilities that you couldn’t have imagined just a week earlier!

Since then, we’ve had other enriching moments. SMC Trustee Christine Swanson, a Los Angeles-based screenwriter and film director, offered a masterclass in filmmaking for our students and other guests. The next day, she screened a rough cut of Albany Road—a remarkable new film she wrote and directed. Keep an eye out for it in theaters or on streaming services! It was so heartening to see about 150 people come out on a beautiful fall Saturday afternoon for the film, which was followed by a Q & A with Christine—who was joined by her husband Michael Swanson, the film’s producer. Again, students spoke with me about the soul-stirring that comes from this kind of experiential learning.

Just a couple of days later, poet Camille Dungy gave an engaging reading of poetry and prose to a packed house in Stapleton Lounge. And this week, we will welcome Pulitzer-Prize-winning historian Annette Gordon-Reed to the College. The Carl M. Loeb University Professor at Harvard University, Gordon-Reed has also won the National Book Award for Nonfiction, the National Humanities Medal, and a MacArthur Fellowship, among many other awards. She will be speaking about her new memoir, On Juneteenth.

These are just a few of many stimulating events on campus this fall. There is so much to do, and there are so many ways to learn. I was struck by this imperative in Sister Madeleva’s book, Conversations with Cassandra: “Buy yourselves bags of beans. Plant them, raise beanstalks. Let them grow to the highest heavens. Climb to their tops. Bring back the wealth of the universe that you discover.” A college education is a bag of beans: it’s up to students to plant them, climb the stalks, find the treasures. The reward is a lifetime of sharing those gifts with the world.

Warm regards,

Katie Conboy, Ph.D

October 9, 2023

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