"A Journey of Opportunities"
Jo Ann Regan
Dean, National Catholic School of Social Service
Class of 2025 Convocation
Upper Church, Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception
Sept. 15, 2021
Good morning Class of 2025! It is such a privilege to be here with all of you to give remarks at your Freshman Convocation. Last year as I began my first year at Catholic University, I remember sitting out in the audience, socially distanced and most students participating virtually, and wondering what the Basilica would look like filled with students. So it is especially meaningful to be here in person and experience for the first time the ritual of convocation that marks the beginning of your college years! I know this has been a difficult past year and a half, especially ending your high school years during a pandemic, so today is even more special that we are gathered as a community to celebrate the start of your college journey.
When Provost Dominguez first asked if I would be willing to speak at this convocation, it made me think about my freshman year in college and what I could possibly share from that experience. But then I realized that it was so long ago and none of you were actually even born yet so there was probably little you would relate to except maybe my 80’s music! But I did realize that I have been on a journey that parallels your journey as freshmen here at Catholic University. So I would like to share three lessons I gained from what I am calling “A Journey of Opportunities” that I hope will be helpful to you as you begin your freshman year.
This past summer I had the honor of serving as a U.S. Fulbright Research Scholar where I lived and worked in the Czech Republic. For those of you not familiar with the Fulbright Program, it is an educational and cultural exchange for students and faculty that has been in existence for 75 years! In May, I flew to Prague to begin my Fulbright experience. Travel was just beginning to open up post covid so while there was excitement to begin this adventure, there was also some anxiety as I had not traveled for over a year and a half and there were still some unknowns about how everything would work out. When I arrived, I was immediately thrown into life in a new city with a different language, food and a new place to work and live. I suddenly had new people in my life that were not my family and dealing with new European covid protocols. Does all this sound familiar? This is very much what you have experienced as you moved here a couple of weeks ago to begin your college years. I know for many of you, this is a new city which may be bigger or smaller than where you come from. And while language and food may be similar, you are having to learn some new words like Cardinal Station, The Nest, LC’s (learning communities) and eating food that is not made by your family. You may also be living in a dorm room with new people and while all of this is exciting, there is a certain level of anxiety that comes with all of these changes and still dealing with a pandemic.
As I began to settle into my new life in the Czech Republic, I started realizing all this “newness” was creating different experiences for me to embrace. I started enjoying the beautiful city around me with all of its cultural and historical sites. I began to appreciate the different languages, food and European culture especially espressos and cappuccinos at every meeting and any time of the day! I also appreciated the opportunity to develop new relationships with colleagues from another country and begin to understand their history, culture and backgrounds. I learned a lot about what it meant to grow up in the Czech and Slovak Republics (formerly Czechoslovakia), especially pre and post communism, and enjoyed learning about people’s personal experiences and journeys related to this.
As you are now settling into your freshman year, I encourage you to enjoy everything about living in Washington, D.C., our nation’s capital, and being on this beautiful campus. I also encourage you to seek opportunities to study and do internships abroad. We have a wonderful Global Education Office on campus that can provide research, teaching and learning experiences throughout the world. I encourage you to seek these new experiences with some of the people around you as many of them come from different backgrounds and cultures that are important to learn about and experience. Some of these people will become lifelong friends and maybe even a future spouse. Enjoy the many new opportunities a college campus provides. I know in my short three and half months I was at a Czech university, I gained so many new experiences and lifetime friends and colleagues that made me think differently as a result of spending time with them. I know these next four years will bring the same for you if you are open to these new experiences.
My second lesson involved new learning. As part of the Fulbright experience, you are assigned to work at a university. I was actually placed with the Faculty of Theology as my discipline, social work, was housed in this school. Honestly, I was not really sure what I would learn about social work education while being in a theology school. But as I began to meet the faculty and students and talk about how they were connecting theology and social work, I began to understand that there was much to be learned from historical, religious and political knowledge for social work. They shared with me their knowledge of moral ethics, holistic health, social pedagogy, social and humanitarian work that included service learning opportunities. It became a transformative experience for me that helped further shape my understanding of my discipline and profession especially as I am called to lead the School of Social Service here at Catholic University. Articulating the connections between the mission of the church and university, Catholic social teaching and social work education became even clearer to me as a result of this experience in a theology school and am grateful for the opportunity to learn beyond what I had initially thought or expected.
As you embark on your First-Year Experience here at Catholic University, you may also be thinking about why you need to have a liberal arts foundation, take courses that may be outside of your major that are part of the core classes in Philosophy, Theology and English and participate in service learning experiences. But like me, I believe you will find that confronting some of the great questions and movements in these courses will give you even better tools and skills for the major and profession you choose. I encourage you to seek these new learning experiences and opportunities to help further understand the relationship between faith and reason which is part of the Catholic intellectual tradition.
Deepening of your Faith
The final lesson of my journey of opportunities was the most unexpected as I was really focused on doing my research as part of the Fulbright award. One of the things I came to love about being in Europe is seeing so many beautiful churches and symbols of Christianity everywhere. In Moravia, where I was located, the baroque architecture in the Catholic churches was so awe-inspiring. There was a beautiful Holy Trinity Column that I would walk by every day that was built in the early 18th century after a plague that gave me peace and comfort amidst this pandemic. I also appreciated that when you walked by the churches, they always had their doors open inviting anyone in. So I often found myself stopping in the church to say a prayer, light a candle or just take a few minutes to reflect, which to be honest I rarely have done during the busy work week. What I discovered was that in doing this, I was taking the time each day to focus on my faith and growing closer to God. In working with my colleagues in the Czech Republic, they used a term called spiritual sensitivity. I found myself becoming more sensitive to the beautiful symbols of Christianity around me that were helping to deepen my faith in a way I had not experienced before.
I encourage you to do the same as we are blessed to be on a campus with a beautiful Basilica. Take time to stop in some other areas of campus that include beautiful chapels and gardens to reflect on your day, say a prayer or just admire the beauty of God’s creation. I also encourage you to take advantage of the many opportunities our Campus Ministry provides throughout the year and participate in humanitarian service and mission work that will deepen your understanding of how to live a life of faith. I know I am committed to maintaining this same level of spiritual sensitivity that I gained from my experience of living in Europe this summer and I hope you will too.
For me, my Fulbright experience in the Czech Republic was a wonderful journey of opportunities for growth and learning. While each of your journeys will differ from mine, it is my hope and prayer that your journey of opportunities will be filled with new experiences, new learning and a deepening of your faith. Like any new journey, there will always be challenges along the way. But I do want you to know that you are now part of a community of faculty, staff and students here at the Catholic University that will be supporting and encouraging you along the way. We look forward to being part of your journey of opportunities and hearing your stories of what your journey looks like over the next four years. You are the present and future of Catholic University and I, along with my fellow deans, faculty and staff colleagues are so glad you are here! God Bless You in your journey and have a wonderful freshman year!