May President’s Pen: On being part of something bigger that is growing every day

Some mornings are better than others. A woman whom I worked with on the West side of Chicago whenever she was asked, “How are you?” would inevitably respond, “I’m blessed that I woke up this morning and was in my right mind.” If you have ever worked in a high school in May, then you know exactly what she means! Stress ratchets up as final exams, graduation, and summer shift from being distant blurs on the horizon to events right around the corner.

Just like the weather, some days in May run cold and stormy while others are nearly perfect in every way and still others are a mixture of both. Last Friday morning was one of those that ran better than hoped. It was awesome. The definition of “awe” in this case means standing before something far bigger and wonderful than imagined.

It started with a breakfast at CRSM hosted by Allstate. Three managers drove up from Glenview at 7:30am to bring a celebratory year-end breakfast to their student-workers complete with a special gift for their departing senior. When the students were asked what they enjoyed most about working at Allstate, there was a long pause as they considered their answers. Long enough, at least, that the Allstate managers started to fill the silence by asking, “Was it gaining a better understanding of the growing i-vantage unit and all its product offerings?” “Was it learning how to do a flood policy audit?” The students shook their heads, “no.” One finally spoke up and thoughtfully shared, “It was the people I worked with everyday. How those individuals made me feel welcome, were really interested in me and challenged me to get better at my job. They wanted me to be successful and made me feel like I belonged with them.” Relationships are really the key to any kind of learning. There are few, if any, jobs that someone can do completely alone that truly allow one to learn and grow. The conversation continued but I couldn’t stay because we had guests waiting in one of our classrooms who wanted to know more about CRSM.

One woman’s husband worked at Discover Financial while she volunteered with Roberti House in Waukegan. She brought a couple friends and colleagues to find out more. One reason for her interest? Several students work throughout the Discover organization while other students she met through volunteering at Roberti House regularly. Our visitors met with a couple of juniors and a sophomore. How inspiring to hear in just a few short minutes the varied work our students are doing out in the corporate world – demonstrating proficiency with technology, providing customer service, problem solving; all with a competency and maturity far beyond their years – while also hearing about their classes and activities. “How many AP courses are you taking again? Four?!” “You and some of your classmates decided to do your own play that opens tonight based on the short stories of Edgar Allan Poe?” “You are attending Northwestern’s theater program this summer?” “And you are working at your CWSP job this summer for pay?”

Most times when students are in the vicinity, the best thing I can do is sit back and let them take over the conversation with guests. It’s humbling, really, to see how completely our students are taking advantage of opportunities offered to them and how they are beginning to create opportunities for themselves and their classmates. We could have sat there for hours more but assembly was about to start so the students brought our guests over to the café-gym-a-chap-a-torium.

Every assembly has a few common components. 1) We pray. 2) We remind ourselves about our CRSM mission to get students to-and-through college, to make them competent and valued contributors in the world of work, and to encourage them to be “persons for others” who are committed to faith and justice. 3) We celebrate success because individual successes are also our communal successes. 4) We talk about “grit” and, 5) we have announcements.

This was our last assembly of the year with the seniors having finished their exams earlier in the week. There were only underclassmen in the room. Our Principal asked two seniors to come back on their day off to speak about their experiences at CRSM. The first student spoke about her academics and GPA. She said that her first two years here, she did not apply herself and was getting bad grades. After hearing Dr. Odiotti constantly tell students about the significance a strong cumulative GPA plays in college acceptances, and after hearing him repeatedly say that maintaining your GPA meant applying yourself with daily effort – doing your homework, asking questions, and pushing yourself; she finally realized that she was not going to be able to go to college and be a teacher like she wanted unless she changed. So junior year, she started doing her homework regularly and grinding out the work day-in-and-day-out. By senior year she had a 4.0 GPA for the year but it wasn’t enough to offset the poor grades from her first years. Her cumulative score was limiting her choices for college and she was clearly not going to get in to some of the ones she wanted. Still, she did get accepted with adequate financial assistance to National-Louis University where she will be attending in the fall. Her last comment to the students was this, “I regret not having applied myself and trying harder from the very beginning. I thought it would be impossible for me to get a good GPA. I didn’t think I was smart enough. But, when I finally tried, I discovered it was easier than I thought to get high grades. I am just glad I get to go to college and I know I will make the most of that opportunity.”

The other senior then spoke about getting fired from her job as a sophomore and finally figuring out that people at work want you to succeed but you have to make the effort. She talked about how important it is to be present and interact with people and not simply sit at your computer and fill the time. Asking questions, showing interest, paying attention to detail, finishing work earlier than people expect and asking for more – it wasn’t hard and it was more rewarding as she got to know people at work. They also began to give her even more interesting work as a result.

When assembly ended, I was helping students set up for study hall when I looked up to see the girl who spoke about her GPA experience hugging the woman from Roberti House. They knew each other from both volunteering there. Ours is really a very small world but it is a world hungry for more human connections.

That was why the morning was so awesome. At CRSM, we are part of something far bigger and more profound than any single person. It is something beautiful, with a life of its own, and it is growing! Awareness outside of Waukegan and North Chicago grows because of our students’ volunteerism and because of their contributions to area businesses though the CWSP. Our students’ belief in themselves and their ongoing discoveries of what is possible is also growing as older students serve as role models for the younger ones. It is profound to witness, it is happening everyday, and it is not stopping. Viva Cristo Rey!