February President’s Pen: Remembering What is Really Important

Our students and Campus Ministry department put on a wonderful Ash Wednesday service here at CRSM.  Based on the Taizé format, it was a prayerful hour of scripture, music and silence.  I really marvel at our students’ deep sense of faith and reverence so apparent during events like these and at our masses.  How gratifying to be among young people so spiritually engaged.

Lent is a time to “get right” with God, to cut through the noise and distractions and remember what is really important.  At CRSM, we bare our collective soul as a community every day.  If you have ever visited, there is a whole lot of glass in our building.  Every classroom, every office, every work area has at least one wall of complete glass visible by everyone else (except the bathrooms, of course!).  That transparency takes a little getting used to but it is certainly a reflection of who we are as a school.

Taking a walk through the building on any given day, reveals so much.  Walking by the Academic Assistance Program room, you see students and teachers working hard together to bring up their grades.  You see struggle but also commitment.  Each class in each classroom displays a unique personality… students in math class working on equations or graphing, helping one another solve problems; a teacher presenting the assignment for the day and taking questions; teachers walking around their room checking in with students as they work independently on a writing exercise; students making presentations to their peers and demonstrating competency.  In other areas of the school, you see college counselors working with students on applications or financial aid forms; meetings with a student and parent on some issue; new families bringing their prospective students in to discuss the admissions process; students meeting with Corporate Work Study staff to talk about issues related to their jobs or taking part in mini training sessions.

Everywhere you look, something different is happening.  Smiles, tears, laughter, seriousness.  At first glance it is overwhelming but after a while, you begin to see a continuity of purpose, common themes in the way people interact… and you realize that you are among people who like being together and are good at working together.  A teacher asking a student how her mother is doing because he knows she’s been sick; a work study coordinator complimenting a student for something his supervisor mentioned in a recent phone conversation; the Principal congratulating a senior on his recent acceptance to another college; a member of the administrative staff working with the art club to prepare for the upcoming show, joking about something and the students laughing; one student taking his other friends’ trays to the garbage as they finish lunch; other students giving up their study hall to help move furniture for Campus Ministry; one of our new Alumni Support Directors meeting with an alumna about her resume and job search since she is graduating college this spring;  students waiting together in the lobby at 5:00pm to go work at the Illinois Food Bank – these are all examples of little exchanges that demonstrate a much deeper level of care at the heart of CRSM’s culture.

A recent survey sent to faculty and staff included an open-ended question about what they thought was CRSM greatest core strengths as an organization.  When we categorized the answers, they were surprisingly consistent:

The top responses from faculty and staff were:

  • 53% of staff mentioned the culture of care/sense of community
  • 26% of staff mentioned our culture of excellence and commitment to improvement
  • 11% of staff mentioned flexibility/agility/and nimbleness as a core strength
  • 11% of staff mentioned leadership within and across the building as a core strength
  • 9% of staff mentioned the quality of transparency as a core strength

The top five responses from students were:

  • 65% of students identified the sense of care, community and/or support they felt at CRSM as our greatest strength.
  • 29% of students identified the CWSP as our greatest strength as a school.

Remember, these were responses to an open-ended question.  We did not provide a list of qualities and ask people to choose from among them.

At CRSM we talk about data; we often eat, sleep and breathe metrics.  How are we doing compared to other Cristo Rey schools? How are we doing compared to where we were last semester or last year? How do we compare to the national average?  For me the results of the recent survey are a great way to begin Lent.  To cut through the stress of metrics, to see beyond the daily activities and commotion of “doing education” and to remember what we are really, truly about as a community of adults and students:  We are people who choose to enter into relationships with one another to bring out the best in one another.  We are persons who believe in one another, trust one another, and look forward to facing an uncertain world together and to make our world better together.  We are about care and support and selflessness.

I read a quote from a Jesuit priest who died recently.  George Coyne, SJ said, “…we feed the hungry so that they may live and that they may live to encounter joy and truth, the markers of God’s presence.”  We are trying to do the same at CRSM.  We educate our students not just so that they will grow and prosper, but because by growing and prospering, they will be better off themselves and live lives that will make others’ lives better, too.  By doing that, we hope they will encounter joy and truth and spread that joy and truth wherever they go.  It starts with care – caring for one another is “getting right” with God.   When we remember that core strength, then maybe we can sense God’s active presence in our lives and share it.