Speech by Jacqueline Leary-Warsaw
Dean, Rome School of Music, Drama, and Art
Class of 2023 Convocation
Upper Church, Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception
Sept. 11, 2019

Jacqueline Leary-WarsawWelcome Class of 2023!  Welcome to The Catholic University of America! Earning a place in our community of scholars is something you should be commended for, and we are delighted that you are here to continue your academic journey.  Since the moment you first arrived on campus to begin your new adventure, you have probably felt many different emotions and there may have even been a few times when you asked yourself if you made the right decision to come here.  So, let me tell you right now – yes, you did make the right decision to come to Catholic University. Being a student at The Catholic University of America is worth every sacrifice that you and your family may have made in order for you to be here; and NO, you were not accepted because you were an admissions mistake.  Each and every one of you are here by God’s design. You deserve the endless opportunities that will come your way from having made the choice to attend this exceptional institution; and our community is that much better because you are here. Each of you brings something unique, exciting, and special to this university.  You have just started down an amazing road of discovery and achievement that will help you to understand and navigate the world around you. The next few years of your life will be a time when you will grow in ways you may have never before thought you could, while charting a path to achieve your greatest potential; and it is your new adventure that we are here to celebrate today.

I feel honored and privileged to have a few moments to speak to you.  You see, your class is actually extra special to me, because Catholic University’s Class of 2023 is my daughter’s class.  Now, I promised my daughter that I wouldn’t embarrass her, so I won’t point her out; but she does sit among you as a first-year student.  She was most curious about the topic of my talk today, and she was particularly thrilled when I told her it was not about her; and as any good daughter would do, she even offered her advice saying, “don’t try to be too funny or sound too smart, just be yourself.”

As the Dean of the Benjamin T. Rome School of Music, Drama, and Art, I work in a world where art in all its various forms resonates, reflects and intersects with life in many different ways.  We often speak of art and life as a metaphoric relationship; one where art is associated with the constructs of an external, public world or as one where art blossoms within one’s personal, private existence.  For our purposes, today, we are going to examine a work of art that teaches us much about what it means to be a student at Catholic University. I invite you to take a moment to look at a photograph that I believe profoundly depicts some of the principle components of life here at Catholic University.  You will find it in your program for today’s Convocation. It is a photographic image entitled “Football in the Snow” by the American photographer, Fred Maroon. Maroon was an internationally renowned photographer, whose picture topics ranged from fashion to politics. He was one of our very own, having graduated from Catholic University in 1950 with an undergraduate degree from the School of Architecture.  In 1996 the University recognized his exceptionally distinguished career by awarding him an honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters. Today hundreds of his original photos and thousands of his slides are housed here at the University in the Fred J. Maroon Photograph Collection at The American Catholic History Research Center.  

Students playing football in the snow
“Football in the Snow” is a photographic image of Catholic University students bundled up warmly in winter clothes playing a game of football amidst the familiar snow-covered grounds of Catholic University.  Maroon used to say that “every picture tells a story”. So, what is the story here? What does this photograph, that captures a mere second in time over thirty years ago, teach us today? Let’s first look at the group of friends playing football, which likely originated from someone’s impromptu idea to go out and play in the snow.  As we look at Maroon’s photo, we are drawn to the happiness of these students. We can almost hear their laughter. We are witnesses to a friendship and bond that formed among this group of students while here at Catholic University. Like them, you will have many, many people enter into your life during your next few years at Catholic University.  The relationships that you develop here will be your best investments during your college years. It may be your friendships with other students or your relationships with your professors and advisors. It may be the relationships you establish with the research librarian who assists you on that challenging paper, the undergraduate peer tutor who helps you in the Writing Center or that caring professional in Student Health Services who is there when you are not feeling well.  Step out of your comfort zone and take a moment to get to know that person. Challenge yourself to go up to someone that no one else may be talking to. You will be better for having done that, and so will that other person. The friendships you make between yourselves are very important not just for today, but for tomorrow. The guy you met at Orientation or the girl you sit next to in Calculus may one day be in your wedding party or they may be the godparent of your child someday or even the person you call on for a job in the future.  Go out of your way to get to know your professors. These nationally and internationally renowned men and women are your teachers and your mentors. They can open doors for you to internships and jobs. So, build relationships with them not only for assistance in class but to help you in your long-term goals. Expand your network even wider and join a team, a club or an organization. This is always a fun way to build friendships while trying something new or further developing something you may already have experience in. Here at Catholic University you can build life-long relationships, so take advantage of every opportunity you have to get to know someone new.

Let’s take another look at Maroon’s work and behind the students we see the historic and stately Gibbons Hall.  Seeing this image of Gibbons Hall, which was dedicated in 1911, can be a reminder to us of Catholic University’s long history of academic excellence and student success.  You are now a part of the outstanding history of this University. Each day that you are here, you will walk in the footsteps of hundreds of thousands of students who came before you.  As of today, Catholic University has graduated nearly 112,000 students, and in a few years you, too, will become part of that very special group of alumni. While that may seem far in the distance, these years will go fast.  Cherish every day and find inspiration from those who walked these same hallways. Generations of students have worked extremely hard, challenged themselves academically, and then went on to live fruitful lives applying what they learned at this institution.  Hard work is inherently good, and Catholic University stands as a symbol of what can be academically and professionally achieved when one works hard to earn a degree; but always know that you are never going at this alone. Every one of us wants to see you succeed.  When you need help, don’t be ashamed to ask for it. This University has all the resources that you need to achieve academic success. We want you to reach your full potential, and at Catholic University you have a built-in support system. Make use of it. Your academic success will be achieved when you explore new disciplines, develop your creativity, hone your skills to develop a keener sense of the world around you, work hard, and most importantly, ask for help when you need it.

On the left side of Maroon’s photograph stands a beautiful, lone tree with its branches open wide.  When I see this tree, I think of Psalm 1, verse 3: “He is like a tree, planted near streams of water, that yields its fruit in season.”  Now, perhaps more than ever before in your life, is the time for you to stay grounded, rooted in your strength. For without firm roots, a tree will break and collapse, shattering its fruit upon the ground; and like this tree, it is time for you to grow as an individual, reaching for new heights while always turning over a new, more colorful leaf than the one before.  Like the tree in this image, you are unique and beautiful; and there is not another one like you.

Lastly, there is one more component to Maroon’s work that we actually do not see in the image, and, yet, we know that it is there.  Had Maroon moved his camera just slightly to the right, we would see the Basilica that we are in at this very moment; the largest Roman Catholic church in the United States and North America.  We cannot see it, but we know it’s there. That is what faith is: knowing and believing in what we do not see. Hold on tightly to your faith, and do not let go. Sometimes our faith requires us to believe in the impossible, and that is when miracles occur.  You will have difficult days. You are only human, but on those days and every day, turn to your faith [that which you do not see, but you know is there], and that is the confident assurance of God’s love.  

When I graduated from Catholic University in 1988, I felt such love for this institution that I acquired a print of Maroon’s “Football in the Snow”.  To this day, it hangs on my wall in my home. It is a reminder of what this institution is; of who this institution is.  You see, it is the people that make a university what it is.  Maroon’s work may tell us a little about the story of a few students who once attended Catholic University, but now it is time for you to go and make your own story.  Catholic University is a place where you will discover the love, support, and compassion that each of us has for you. We are excited to know you, to help you, and to watch you become the person that you are meant to be!  You are now a part of the picture. You are now a part of the story. Class of 2023, welcome to Catholic University!