As I look at this issue of Courier, I am struck by the overwhelming number of happy photographs from our two commencements and two reunions. Members of the Class of 2022 are captured enjoying all the expected pomp and circumstance connected to their Commencement. And graduates from the Class of 2020 wear irrepressible smiles as they participate in pre-Commencement rituals, don their caps and gowns, and take the long-awaited ceremonial march that COVID-19 denied them two years ago. “It was a commemoration and a reunion all in one,” Elyse Paul ’20 writes in her article on pp. 6-7: “Over the course of the weekend, we finally filled the gap in the Le Mans tunnel with our handprints, we opened our circle, we took our ‘final’ walk down The Avenue, and we personally thanked our beloved faculty and staff for all they had done for us.”
Reunion participants look equally joyful, whether laughing in small groups, reminiscing in circles around the fire pits in the Le Mans backyard, enjoying shared picnic tables under the big tent, or raising a celebratory glass at the banquet. It was, if you’ll allow me a pun, an occasion of “many happy returns!”
Indeed, the pictures and the words that fill several pages in this issue remind me of what truly endures from a college education. Yes, there is the deep learning and the preparation for work or for further study. But I have also been reflecting on something I heard journalist and higher education author Jeff Selingo say in a podcast I listened to recently: “We’re in graduation season, of course, when students leave college. And we know that years later, what they’re going to be talking about is relationships, whether those are faculty, staff, coaches, peers.
Those relationships that made a difference in their lives. Meeting people in college, developing those deep relationships, is so critical to success both in college and after college. We have volumes of academic research on that.” Those relationships are what bind our graduates—brand new, recent-ish, silver, golden, and more than golden—to this College. They distinguish us from other institutions. I have received many messages from 2020 graduates (and their families) thanking the College for bringing them back for closure together. I have talked with numerous Reunion alumnae who returned to campus to spend time with friend groups that have grown only closer over the years and the decades with faculty and staff who animated their college experience. Even those returning for their 50th, 60th, and—yes—70th reunions, who saw almost none of the faculty and staff they knew at Saint Mary’s, marveled at how those working at the College today bring the same commitment, care, and love of learning to their work as those here in earlier times. The spirit of even those long-ago relationships lives on.
While I am proud that we are a place that builds these relationships, I think we can be even more deliberate about this crucial aspect of college success. Students who see their parents and grandparents maintain college bonds over time absorb the expectation that they will go to college and create the same kinds of relationships. But over a quarter of our students come to Saint Mary’s as the first in their families to attend college. As Jeff Selingo noted in his podcast, at most institutions “too many students are really spectators to the experience.” If we want to guarantee that every one of our graduates will leave with sustaining relationships, we need to bolster our intentional approach to ensuring that they are full participants in “belonging.” Every student who chooses to come to Saint Mary’s belongs here. We want to be able to say to every graduate on Commencement Day and at Reunion Weekend: “We know you.”
Katie Conboy, Ph.D.