The Shortest Month Brings Moments of Awe

Dear Saint Mary’s Friends,

February is the shortest month, and I have just a day left to get this monthly letter out! So it will also be a brief letter, and I’m sure some of you will be grateful for that.

A few weeks ago, I was delighted that one of my favorite podcasts—Krista Tippett’s On Being—returned to the air after a lengthy pause. And her first guest in this new season was Dacher Keltner, the founding director of the Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkeley. Kelter has been involved in researching emotions—particularly happiness—for several decades. His most recent work involves the science of awe: “moments when we have a sense of wonder, an experience of mystery, that transcends our understanding.”

Two of the topics he covered in the podcast were surprising and edifying—and actually illuminated some of what has been happening in recent weeks at Saint Mary’s. The first was Keltner’s finding that when people are asked about their experience of awe, they do not generally speak of the wonders of our natural world. Rather, they talk about other people’s “courage, kindness, strength, or overcoming.” Wow! Our primary sense of awe involves the actions of other people–-and what Keltner calls “moral beauty.”

The second topic is known as “collective effervescence”—a concept introduced by sociologist Emile Durkheim. Durkheim argues that in religious experience, as well as elsewhere, humans who come together around a shared purpose feel a sense of “energy and harmony.” Of course, when we read this today, we are all aware that during COVID, we were deprived of the immediate sensation of “shared experience.” But we seem to be turning a corner.

Three things have happened at Saint Mary’s in the last several weeks to give me optimism. The first is related to our awe about the courage and kindness of other people. A clear example of this is the work our students do to raise funds for Riley Hospital for Children. Creating a build-up to their annual Dance Marathon in April, they are giving themselves fully to the cause with joyful enthusiasm. I love knowing that our students are so willing to commit their time and their spirits to the wellbeing of others. They are exemplars of “moral beauty.” Stay tuned for how you can support their work.

The second is the incredible response of the Saint Mary’s community on Donor Challenge Day. It was an amazing thing to witness: 4,026 friends of SMC coming together to contribute financial support to our College over a 24-hour period. I think everyone involved—alumnae, friends, faculty, staff, students, parents, and others who rose to the occasion—felt the excitement of the day as a collective effervescence.

And finally we have an effort underway to create a “signature experience” for our undergraduate students. We undertook a research project last year that brought us a number of recommendations—based on the input of prospective students, current students, and students who withdrew from the College for one reason or another. Faculty and staff are now engaged in drafting a unique Saint Mary’s experience, grounded in our mission as a Catholic women’s college, that will speak to student expectations around a number of essentials: career preparation; experiential learning opportunities; accelerated opportunities for graduate education; the development of diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice skills in the curriculum; and a lively and exciting campus life.

There will be more to come from this work. But the important takeaway from all of what has been going on in this shortest month of the year is that the SMC community is truly a collective! And if we bring the right attitude to the work, we can create collective effervescence, a spirit that can animate us and propel us forward through the next few weeks of Midwest winter. . . and beyond!

Warm regards,

Katie Conboy, Ph.D.

February 28, 2023

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