What a Difference a Year Makes
June 1, 2021
Dear Saint Mary’s Friends,
“What a difference a day makes, twenty-four little hours. . . .” I love that old jazz standard, but these days, I’m singing it times 365: what a difference a year makes. One year ago this past weekend, I got in a car and drove across the country from New England—alone, masked, gloved, and rather fearful. We were in the middle of a global pandemic, and I needed to show up at Saint Mary’s College for a job that looked quite different from what I thought I had signed on for. A year ago yesterday, I woke in Riedinger House and ventured out that morning to explore our beautiful campus. Today, I embrace the start of my second year at Saint Mary’s, and I am so grateful for the support I have received all year from so many quarters.
It was a tough year—full of principled questioning and difficult decisions involving all constituents of Saint Mary’s: not just administrators, but also, and equally, faculty and staff, students, alumnae, parents, friends of the College. The decision table was metaphorical because of COVID, yet everyone had a voice that was heard. Somehow, we did more than just survive. We truly thrived, and I chalk that up to the remarkable Saint Mary’s spirit that prevailed among all those constituents. I am privileged to be a part of this special place.
The culmination of all our hard work was the 2021 Commencement, which took place last weekend. Right up to the last moment, we were adjusting to make it the best possible experience for graduates and their loved ones. When the CDC announced new masking and distancing protocols less than one week before the ceremony, we pivoted, ordered more chairs, and allowed the Class of 2021 to welcome more guests than originally planned. It was a hot but beautiful day, marked in particular by Dr. Nancy Nekvasil’s moving commencement address. We are already thinking about next year, when we expect to conduct both a 2022 Commencement and to welcome back the Class of 2020 for their postponed celebration. And we are looking ahead to this coming weekend, when we will host alumnae at a virtual Reunion.
As I commence this second year in my role as President of Saint Mary’s College, I am thinking—as I have for many years—about the nature of work, about how we who are fortunate to have employment in a mission-driven context like Saint Mary’s have truly good work. I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating: unlike so much of the world’s work, our work in higher education is about more than just survival. We shape the future by educating students who will become the next generation of leaders. And the students’ work—their commitment to their studies, their research, their community engagement—dovetails with our work as educators. We all get to dream and to realize our dreams. We have opportunities to imagine, to reflect, to collaborate, and to pursue the common good. Our work is unusually—and wonderfully, richly—purposeful. We should be happy in it!
But, for many people at Saint Mary’s and elsewhere, this past year has felt like non-stop work. Even if it is “good work,” we all know you can have too much of a good thing! So, it felt like a sign when I read, over the weekend, an editorial in the New York Times titled “Working Less Is a Matter of Life and Death.” Not only does the article contain alarming statistics about the health risks associated with spending too much time on the job, it also points out (as others also have) that during the pandemic we have “blurred the line” that has usually separated home life and professional life, and we have forgone practices—like vacations—that actually contribute to our good health. We all know vacations felt mostly out of reach last year—but, nationwide, people have not even taken their paid vacation time to relax at home! “Staycation” may be a catchy label, but during the pandemic lockdown, it felt more like piling on than getting a break.
As we head into the summer months—months that are often associated with leisure and ease—I hope we can all begin to recalibrate the pervasiveness of work in our lives. This week, we welcome back to campus all employees who have worked remotely during the past 15 months. This seems like a good moment for a re-set of expectations—expectations for others as well as for ourselves. I have read so many suggestions this year for healthier living, and I know I am trying many of them—from planning a vacation to enjoying the beauty of the campus to spending time with family and friends (unmasked!) to practicing gratitude.
“What a difference a day makes”? Yes. Perhaps we can return to living and working a bit more by the light of day-by-day rather than within the seemingly endless tunnel of darkness we entered in March of 2020. Let’s all savor the brightening moment we are in now and move forward together with steadfastness, faith, and optimism. I look forward to sharing the 2021-22 academic year with all of you.
Katie Conboy, Ph.D.