From the Heart
of the University:
The Challenge of Life at Georgetown
by Elizabeth Fiore
When I was first asked to speak about student life and my experiences as an undergraduate at Georgetown, three things came immediately to mind: late nights, lots of caffeine, and many good friends. And while for each person, the experience of life as a student, at a Catholic university, will hold different memories, I hope that some of my experiences as well as a few observations that I will make will shed some light on the topic of student life.
While it is the topic of tonight's discussion, my student life didn't begin with college. I was born and raised in Yonkers, New York, where I attended public school for 8 years. I attended Catholic high school and am a graduate of The Ursuline School in New Rochelle, the place where I first experienced "community" in any meaningful way. It was there that I first learned and witnessed what it means to maintain Catholic values in a world that may not share them or esteem them.
For instance: in biology class we learned about contraception: how it functions and what it is ... but in religion class, we learned about contraception in a moral context and understood why the Church teaches that it is intrinsically evil. No one pretended that contraception does not exist. No one skipped those pages in the biology textbook; but, by the same token, no one ignored the truth of its nature. Balancing a solid foundation and rootedness in Catholic values and, at the same time, keeping a level-headed approach amidst the changing tides of society is a delicate and difficult task. The Ursuline School made it look easy. And I took their work for granted.
I applied to Georgetown in November of 1994, not because of a flashy brochure or an impressive presentation at a college fair but because I decided 11 years before that I wanted to be a Hoya. I am the youngest of four children and the youngest by far. I was six years old and visiting my youngest older sibling at Georgetown and, while playing games in the old arcade in the basement of the Healy building, I decided that, I, too, would come to study at Georgetown. And so, eleven years later, I reaffirmed my earlier decision. The fact that I did not go to a college fair presentation or write to the registrar for a brochure probably affected the degree to which Georgetown's internal struggle on the question of Catholic identity surprised me. I figured that a well-known prominent university, steeped in the Catholic tradition, would naturally be espoused to her Catholic values at all levels.
But I think the first shock came when I, like all other first year students, attended a mandatory peer education/health education series of talks organized by the Office of Residence Life: the students were not only instructed about safe sex (complete with a condom demonstration) but were addressed as though everyone in the room had made a decision to be sexually active.
It was this attitude -- an attitude which subscribes to society's shameless value system and projects it upon young people at a Catholic university -- that is, in my view, just as harmful as the counter-Catholic values which it endorses. In addressing us as though we were, or were expected to be, sexually active, Residence Life has made a decision for us: they have presented an image to which we are, in some ways, challenged to conform ... or not to conform. Abstinence, of course, was not discussed as an option. It was -- if even suggested -- presented as a choice that some people make, but not one which is generally encouraged or supported. At the conclusion of the session, the presenters snickered that they were not allowed to distribute condoms to us but that they would leave them on the table in the lounge ... in case anybody wanted to take one.
This incident, perhaps my first window into the struggle of Catholic identity, went far deeper than the condoms left on the table in the lounge. It was indicative of the university's painful struggle between popular society's expectations and Catholic values.
This opened my eyes to other situations which were caught in the crossfire of that struggle. Each was a small matter that signified a larger pattern: it might be easy to blame Marriott for serving three meat dishes on Ash Wednesday in the cafeteria, but when they served only fish in the Jesuit residence it becomes clear that the problem lies not with Marriott, but with whomever is responsible for attending to the needs of student dining services. For someone knew enough to tell Marriott not to serve meat in the Jesuit residence; but no one thought it important enough to do so for the students. The point is not that most Catholics were eating peanut butter and jelly for dinner, but rather that the lack of care and attention to the matter revealed an indifference to the needs of Catholic students.
There was, however, no lack of attention to the needs of our Muslim brothers and sisters when Ramadan came around and they were permitted to take food out of the cafeteria in specially provided containers -- something not normally permitted. And, there was no dearth of matzos during Passover. But, at the great risk of inconveniencing those who are not practicing Catholics, the cafeteria -- more often than not -- fails to offer a meat substitute on days of abstinence. Here again, the issue is not the peanut butter and jelly sandwiches or cereal that we end up eating, but, rather the attitude which underlies the action -- or omission.
As a further insight into the attitude which shapes many of the university policies, my time as a freshman Resident Assistant was very revelatory of many thoughts and feelings concerning issues which students face ... and how the administration handles them. A freshman RA is perhaps the first role model one encounters at Georgetown. The two week period prior to my senior year, when I, along with some sixty-odd other upperclassmen, were trained for this position, introduced me to many university resources which I had not previously had the occasion to encounter.
Here again, I saw the struggle between society's empty values and the university's Catholic heritage. During one of our last days of training, we attended a presentation by the assistant dean of student life; the presentation was about how to counsel students with questions about relationships and intimacy and other related topics.
The dean talked about motives for why people enter into relationships and motives for why people in relationships decide to become sexually involved with each other. She elaborated on how complicated it can all become when two people have different motives. Then she told us that we, as experienced upperclassmen, often don't know the motives of our sexual partners ... and therefore we should not expect our residents to know the motives of their partners. I wondered why she decided that we were all sexually active?
Again, I wondered if there would be room for a discussion about abstinence? I was reminded of the peer education/health education session from my freshman year; only, in this instance the presumption indicated something which ran deeper. This was not two upperclassmen presenting issues to a group of freshmen. This was a university official revealing a presumption and dare I say expectation, that by senior year, most of us are sexually active, without any consideration for another alternative.
If the general attitude of moral indifference stems from the administration, a student who looks to the university for guidance or for a model of how to live -- for what is right and wrong, acceptable and unacceptable -- this student cannot but come away with a watered down morality that more resembles Hollywood's values than the Church's. It is here, in the culture of residence life, where we mislead our students. It is here where the first domino falls. The administration is the domino that, when it falls, sends many rows of dominos falling, not just the one immediately in front of it. And we, as RAs, as students who interact with other students in a residential setting, who are the first line of defense -- or misdirection -- in many potential situations, we are affected by the university's attitude -- for better or for worse.
I should note that it was this same dean of residence life, who when several concerned students met with her concerning the policy of distributing condoms to freshmen at mandatory orientation sessions, was blatantly unsupportive of our efforts to end contraceptive distribution on campus. At that meeting, one student observed that the university has a policy, to which it adheres, that condoms are not sold in the hospital pharmacy or in the student grocery store. He added, that in light of this policy, to give them away to the students is tantamount to hanging a sign in the student grocery store that said: "We are not allowed to sell you condoms, but the nearest place where you may purchase them is at the CVS down the street." At that remark, the dean's eyes lit up and she said, in all seriousness, "What a great idea; I'll have my staff look into doing that."
Such an attitude -- that is so very opposed to Catholic values -- is positively unacceptable in an administrator at a Catholic university. It was disappointing to discover that in the three years since I was a freshman, the orientation programs had not changed. I was required to attend the peer education/health education programs with my residents, only to discover that the safe sex discussion and condom demonstration had not changed.
More disturbing, however, was the reaction of many of my residents, many of whom who were not Catholic. One student came to my room that night, holding a condom in her hand and said to me, "Why was I given this? Isn't this a Catholic university?" My heart sank. This student was not -- to my knowledge -- a practicing Catholic. How does one begin to explain the apparent hypocrisy? Do you apologize for the university? For the confusion? How do you sanction students who did not attend? "Gee, you missed the safe sex presentation, I'll have to report you to my superior." Was I being asked to do that? Could I do that in good conscience?
On a positive note, I was very impressed during my RA training period with the resources available for students. I was introduced to the counseling center, the center for minority student services, tutoring services and opportunities, the career center, and many other places which are rich resources for the students of Georgetown. In the vastness of these resources, I saw a genuine desire to provide for the needs of students ... not only on paper and in words, but in practice. But, a zealous attempt to serve students' needs and prompt attention to this matter is a little like putting the cart before the horse ... if we do not first establish the needs of the students. What students need and what university administrators want to provide are -- all too often -- two different things.
What students want
I think I was most struck by this with regard to what campus ministry provides and what students seem to desire. As a freshman, I was invited to participate in a small prayer group that, while not officially affiliated with campus ministry, enjoyed their support and resources. It was a group of about 9 or 10 undergraduates and graduate students who were interested in Ignatian spirituality and wanted something deeper than the campus ministry programs offered. We met once a week on Friday evenings and had a rather consistent turnout each week. Once a month, a Jesuit would address the group regarding an aspect of Ignatian spirituality; and in the weeks between visits, the group would practice and discuss the content of the Jesuit's presentation.
While many of the members of the group were friends socially, it was not a social group. We were committed to deepening our spiritual lives and enriching our prayer lives. These were needs that were not filled in the programs offered by campus ministry. Much of the success of the group depended upon the meeting time. Friday evenings between 6 and 7 is -- for the most part -- prime nap time for the college student. We did not conflict with any other major events on campus; we were able to accommodate the busy and different schedules of almost all of the members because we met when most students are having dinner or napping -- too late to conflict with class and too early to conflict with going out for the night. The time of the prayer group's meeting was key.
As of the fall of 1998 we were no longer allowed to meet in the evenings in the room where we had met for three years because we no longer enjoyed the support of campus ministry. We could have met in a classroom, but somehow the chapel-turned-prayer-room was more conducive to prayer and reflection than a classroom. To allow us to use the room on a Friday evening, we had to sign the key to the room out for the weekend. We had been allowed to do this since 1995.
All of a sudden in 1998 someone decided that we should no longer enjoy that privilege. We adjusted our schedule to fit the times when the office of campus ministry allowed us to sign out the key; we lost members. Not everyone could come on a Thursday; not everyone could come earlier in the day on a Friday. We lost the consistency of meeting on Friday evenings. Ironically, we lost the support of campus ministry because we were not sponsored as a campus ministry program. But, we existed because campus ministry did not sponsor anything that suited our needs; the least they could have done, it seems to me, was to support us in our efforts. For seven semesters, we met weekly. We did not continue to meet during the spring semester of 1999, as we were not able to accommodate the schedules of the members, as we had done so handily when we were permitted to meet in our prayer room. It shouldn't be that hard for students to attend to their own spiritual needs. Unfortunately, it is.
In a similar vein, I was approached by one of the residents on my floor sometime early second semester last year. She told me how most of the freshmen had gone on the overnight Escape program (a 24-hour non-religious retreat to give freshmen a chance to come to know each other) and wanted something more than that. She explained how the Agape retreat program is limited to sophomores and upperclassmen and there was no comparable program for freshman. She talked about having gone to a Jesuit high school and having had retreat experiences that were nourishing and positive. She mentioned that she was not the only person who felt something missing. I listened, concerned that she was going to ask me for a recommendation for campus programs ... knowing that there was nothing on campus to which I could refer her.
She continued and asked my advice about signs and advertisements. She and a few other freshmen were going to start an every other week spiritual program for freshmen. She asked me the best places to advertise and she asked permission to use our lounge. A couple days before the first Thursday evening of reflection, she dropped by my room to make sure she was able to use the lounge and to ask me to pray for them. I asked how many people she was expecting and she said that she knew five or six people who were going to try to come and they hoped that, having advertised, they would get a few more. As it turned out, there were in excess of 40 people in the lounge. I could hardly get 40 people in the lounge for a pizza party, let alone for an evening of reflection.
These young people are hungry for God. So great is their desire to come to know Christ ... and yet, we fail to nourish them. And when all else fails, they find a way to nourish themselves. There was no free pizza at the Thursday evenings of reflection. They were not giving away anything but spiritual nourishment; and yet it drew more people than most of my best advertised food-filled programs. The number of freshmen who attended these Thursday evenings of reflection touched me deeply. I was very moved to see the care and the enthusiasm which went into preparing the evenings. It filled me with great hope and reminded me that the Holy Spirit can work even in the dregs of a messy freshman dorm. But, at the same time, it filled me with great sadness and anger that the needs of these young people, who are so very hungry for God, are not being met at the university level, where the resources run deeper than the pockets of freshmen. What does this all amount to?
The "middle ground"
Three things stand out, in my mind: A desire, an example and a phenomenon. The struggle between popular culture and values -- or lack thereof -- and a fidelity to Catholic values is affected by a certain desire. Those responsible for making policies at Georgetown seem torn between the forces of popular opinion and the call to be faithful to the Church: they want -- so very badly -- to be one of the crowd: a major university which is largely accountable to no one but the prevalent standards of higher education. They seek to be unencumbered by rules, regulations, exhortations, suggestions ... yet at the same time they become defensive when their actions are incongruent with their professed Catholic beliefs.
There is no middle ground between fidelity to the Church and conformity to the world. I think this "middle ground" that is so greatly desired is really a desire for harmony; a desire for a place where, without compromising our values and our Catholic center, others who do not share those same beliefs can feel welcome. I believe this can be achieved without subscribing to the world's empty offerings. But it will take faith: faith in the fact that the same values upon which the university was founded are still attractive to young people today.
Jesus Christ and His Church on earth do not need Madison Avenue advertising to become attractive to our young people. And those who do not necessarily share these same values can often be far more respectful of them than we may think. We often compromise these values before they have a chance to be respectful. Thus we defeat our purpose. How this desire for "middle ground" is pursued is affected greatly by the example set by those in leadership positions in the university.
The poor example of administrators
Those who are able to affect policy decisions concerning the residential life and activities of students have more of an effect on students' lives and impressions than most would believe. The attitude I described earlier of the dean who was not supportive of tailoring the peer education/health education programs in accordance with the Church's teaching, is but one voice, but one that resounds ... because of her position as assistant dean of students. If the university administration, at the level of its policy making and policy enforcing in campus life, does not endorse and support Catholic values, then students are without support. This sends a subtle, but unmistakable message to the student body. Why trouble yourself even to attempt to live a life of Christian virtue when it's much easier to bow to the empty idols that popular culture offers?
This message is one of discouragement, not encouragement. For a student who might be struggling with an issue and tempted not to remain faithful to his convictions, this is all he needs to see: instead of an encouraging example of a community that, even when faced with tough issues remains faithful, he is, in effect, given permission to abandon his convictions. After all, the university authorities did, why shouldn't he? This is a dangerous example to give. This has to stop.
The bright side
On the brighter side of things, such a climate of half-hearted support for Catholic students and sometimes even blatant anti-Catholic sentiment in Residence Life has given rise to an interesting -- but not surprising -- phenomenon. Students who have to lobby for their rights as Catholics; students, Catholic and non-Catholic alike, who must petition the University to reflect moral values in their policies, to hang crucifixes on the classroom walls, to keep their beloved chaplains -- these students have learned the hard way that nothing worth having is without a great price.
And so, out of an environment where it is often a challenge to hold fast to one's convictions, has come many a young person who has paid dearly -- with blood and tears -- for his faith, morals, values. And because it has been so costly -- so very dear -- he will not throw them away; he will not be buried by the shifting sands of popular culture. These young people will cling to their convictions, their faith, their values, because they know how costly it has been.
As I reflect on the desire of the university to be a place that welcomes students of all walks of life, the power of the example that university officials and administrators set, and on the phenomenon that has come about amid the struggle between popular culture and Catholic values, I think there is only one way to approach this and that is with hope.
I am reminded of World Youth Day in Denver, when so many youth gathered to see and hear our Holy Father. Media polls revealed that many disagreed with some Church teachings; nevertheless, the millions of youth were filled with a love for the Holy Father, the Church, and Our Lord. Perhaps they will come to the fullness of Catholic teaching one day, as we hope our universities will.
I think it is important to remember that just because there is dissent and dissent that is harmful and destructive, it doesn't mean that, at the heart of it all, the university does not still love her students and the Church -- it is a just a love that needs to grow more perfect ... in time and with toil. And it can happen; as long as there are young people who desire more ... and who are willing to dig deeper ... it can happen. As long as there are freshmen like the 40 who gathered in my lounge last year, there is hope. And be they parents, teachers, politicians, or policemen, they will grow up to be adults who value their faith. They have the potential to affect the changes that they -- and we -- so desire to see.
Elizabeth Fiore is a 1999 graduate of Georgetown University and is currently a graduate student in Theology at the Catholic University of America. This article was originally delivered as a talk at the Cardinal Newman Society Conference in Washington, DC in October 1999. It is reprinted here slightly edited with the author's kind permission.
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