Insights from Saint John's University President Michael Hemesath

Insights from Saint John's University President Michael Hemesath/

A Commitment to Something Bigger than Yourself

This story is about typical Johnnies.

Chris grew up in Wisconsin in an intact middle-class family.  In high school he was a good student and an avid soccer player.  He has an identical twin, Dave, who he loved and competed with throughout high school. 

They were not planning on going to college together but when their two different first choice colleges dropped out of consideration for various reasons, each happily opted for their number two that now became number one: Saint John’s.

Despite eventually earning a master’s degree in philosophy, academics were not a dominant consideration in Chris’s college choice.  He sheepishly admits that having a gym literally steps from his freshman dorm played an outsized role in choosing Saint John’s.

Dave, too, was much more focused on his love of soccer than on any of the course offerings that might prepare him for his eventual Ph.D.

First year was fine and relatively uneventful.  The twins wanted a little distance from each other, but fate would only allow them to get so far apart: Chris was on 3rd Tommy and Dave on 2nd Tommy.  With both being on the short wing, almost on top of each other, the rooms conveniently allowed for yelled communications out the window and the passing of clothes between floors. 

They both played soccer for Coach Pat Haws.  They made friends on their floors and settled into the academic routine.  They got teased as Cheeseheads by the Minnesotans.  They were happy to be Johnnies.  Typical stuff.

Sophomore year Chris found himself settled but not fulfilled.  Like so many Johnnies, once he had the time management down, he discovered he had time for other activities, some of which were social, naturally, but he was also looking for something with a little more meaning to engage his time.  He heard about the Big Brothers program on campus and decided to sign up.  Johnnies were paired with local boys, mostly in St. Joe, as cars were less common in the 1990s.  Chris got paired up with TJ.

TJ and Chris in 1993

A little younger than most Little Brothers, TJ was five. He lived with his single mom who had unexpectedly found herself pregnant.  His father was not around.  His mother thought that an adult male would be a good influence, and a young, fit Johnnie would be able to keep up with TJ’s energy.  With multiple siblings, Chris was game, even if none were as young as TJ.  They did the usual Big Brother, Little Brother things when a college campus is your playground: hiking, using the gym, going to athletic events, hanging out.

They became close and TJ’s mom expressed her appreciation to Chris for the role he was playing in her son’s life.  But, of course, college life moves on.  Chris became a senior.  Typically, as the Big Brother gets ready to graduate, the Little Brother (and his parents) decide if they want to continue in the program, and, if so, a new Big Brother gets assigned.

Here Chris made a bold decision for a footloose, soon to be 22-year-old college student: he made a lifelong commitment to TJ that changed both their futures.

Though naturally looking beyond Collegeville to his own future, it would have been understandable, easy and perfectly acceptable to allow TJ to get matched up with another random Johnnie.  But Chris not only felt close to TJ, he also saw that this 8-year-old might benefit from some special attention from someone who understood his background and needs. 

Chris recruited a sophomore that he had come to know and respect to be TJ’s new Big Brother.  Smart, fun and thoughtful, Chris knew his friend Matt would help TJ grow to be confident and kind.  Matt joyfully stepped into the role—both providing continuity for the boy but also a continued connection to Chris.  TJ’s mom was delighted as this odd little family grew.

For the next two years, Matt provided the fun, support and male role model for TJ.  Chris stayed in touch with both TJ and his mother but was not able to be physically present, save occasional visits to campus.  As Matt approached graduation, the same transition question arose though now two “surrogate” fathers had a stake in TJ’s future.

The solution was actually easier at this juncture.  The growing family stayed all in the family.

Chris’s twin, Dave, was returning to Saint John’s to work in Campus Ministry and coach Bennie soccer, so the now 11-year-old TJ got a third Big Brother, whom he had already known for years.  Dave spent several years in Campus Ministry and the three committed Johnnies got TJ (and his mom) into his early teenage years before other commitments finally took all three men away from Collegeville as their post-graduate horizons broadened.

Even as distance made TJ’s relationship to his Big Brothers more challenging, the emotional ties were tightened as the three Johnnies had their own deep connections to each other, one of which was love of this growing boy. 

The ties became more like blood relations, as TJ’s mom made these relationships a priority too.  Though on a modest income, she found a way to get herself and her son to England, Washington DC, El Salvador, New York and Spain on separate visits that showed TJ how to be adventurous and brave, and reminded him of how important it was to stay in touch with his Big Brothers, regardless of where they were working or studying.

When it came time for college, TJ’s path was more like that of a second or third generation student than that of the first-generation student he was.  Because he had spent years growing up on the Saint John’s campus, mentored by young men for whom college was an automatic next step and not truly a choice, TJ automatically assumed college was in his future, too. 

TJ’s college graduation w/his 3 Big Brothers in Marshall, MN in 2010

Again, his heroic mother made it financially possible, so TJ got a bachelor’s degree from Southwest Minnesota State University in Marshall and eventually a graduate degree, just like his three Big Brothers. 

None of the adults in his life think this outcome would have been likely without that fortuitous Big Brother connection at age five and the tripartite commitment that followed.

Each of these four men have attended the others’ weddings, including TJ’s, and this uniquely Johnnie family stays in touch now 25 years on, a tribute to the power of committing to something bigger than yourself, a beautiful atypical Johnnies’ story that has touched far more than five lives. 

And it is a story that the three Brothers believe was uniquely inspired by the Benedictine emphasis on community and service.

By |April 22nd, 2019|Categories: Uncategorized|0 Comments

“But it is so beautiful”

T. S. Eliot writes in the first line of The Waste Land, “April is the cruellest month.”

He was making an emotional argument, rather than a meteorological one. I suspect for most Minnesotans, March is often the cruelest month. Winter has been around for four months and the end is not even necessarily in sight. Temperatures are creeping up but often only enough to make for a grey, soupy, muddy mess. And storms still threaten from the Great Plains. The real possibility of flooding remains ahead. Baseball, golf and picnics seem remote.

I was thinking such thoughts over the past couple weeks when two separate encounters with non-Minnesotans brought me up short and reminded me  not to take the natural world around us for granted.

The morning after a recent snowfall I was walking in Flynntown and met another walker coming out of the Collegeville Institute driveway. He looked a bit perplexed, so I asked if he needed directions. “No, I am just going for a walk.” He paused and added, “This is amazing,” as he looked around. “Is it always like this? I am from Italy, and we don’t have scenery such as this.”

I explained that while we usually had a winter snow cover, the brilliant fresh snow surrounding him and blanketing the trees and buildings had arrived in the last 24 hours. What he was admiring was not typical.

Another day I was driving to campus from our home on Fruit Farm Road. I saw a student making his way toward upper campus, and I offered him a ride. We chatted, and I discovered he was a senior from Texas. The day was bright and quite chilly, like many days in the last couple months, and I said, “This winter must be especially tough for a Texan.”

The Johnnie looked at me, and said with genuine wonder, “But it is so beautiful.”

And so it is.

By |March 15th, 2019|Categories: Campus|1 Comment

What Will You Be? Who Will You Be?

We are in the midst of the college recruiting season, when schools are working hard to convince high school seniors to come to their institutions, students are weighing multiple offers and parents are just hoping it will all end happily and soon. 

Typically–and understandably–at the top of a student’s list of concerns when they are looking at colleges is the question of how this investment will help them in their professional life: “What will I become after going to college?”

College is an important and possibly even necessary stepping stone to professional success.  As such, students should look carefully at a college’s specific fields of study, as well as their general education program.  Institutions offer specific programs designed to be attractive to students and to meet the expected needs of the job market in the years ahead.  Colleges also emphasize the broad-based skills that will serve students not only in their first position but over a lifelong career that is likely to include multiple different jobs.  Schools emphasize critical thinking, good written and oral communication skills, the ability to work well with others, information literacy, and exposure to diverse cultures and ideas–all skills and experiences that employers report being important to professional success.

Students should also explore the learning opportunities outside the classroom.  The multitude of extra-curricular offerings on most college campuses are not only an enjoyable diversion from academic responsibilities but contribute significantly to professional success for college graduates.  Teamwork, time management and leadership skills are all necessary for student-athletes, student government leaders, service volunteers or writers on the school newspaper.  These experiences are directly transferable to the job market, both at the entry level and as a young person moves up in an organization.

It is obvious why a thoughtful student should be asking, “What will this college prepare me to be?” but in my role as president of Saint John’s, based on conversation with dozens of alumni, I have come to appreciate the importance of a second question wise prospective college students should ask as they consider their choices: “Who will I become by attending this institution?”

The years between the late teens and early twenties are very important for the personal development and growth of young people. When a student chooses a college, they are not only selecting an academic program, but they are joining a community.  That community will help mold and shape the young person for four years and develop relationships what will often last a lifetime.  What are the values of that community?  Are they consistent with the developing world view and morals of that young person?  How are individuals treated in the community?  Are the faculty, staff and especially graduates from this institution respected, admirable and worthy of emulation?  These are essential questions because they help answer the question of who the young person will become at an educational institution.

Understanding who an educational institution develops is certainly harder to determine than what graduates they produce.  Character is subtler and more nuanced than a job title.  But high school students (and their parents) should spend some time exploring both the “What?” and “Who?” questions as they contemplate their higher education path.

Choosing wisely will bring not only economic and professional success but personal growth and meaning for a lifetime.

Naturally, my thoughts here are influenced by the experiences of Saint John’s alumni.

Alumni certainly appreciate, and their successes attest to, how well the Saint John’s experience prepared them for professional leadership in business, the academy, the arts, politics, health care, public service, and many other areas, but just as often they have noted that Saint John’s made them who they are. 

I have often heard our alumni say, sometimes with surprise, they did not fully realize how important their SJU experience was in forming their character until they were some years beyond graduation. 

It often struck them when making a decision about their personal or professional lives or when facing an ethical dilemma: “I am relying on the things I learned at Saint John’s, those years ago.”  Sometimes it was their Catholic Benedictine experience.  Other times it was a friend’s counsel.  Often is was their relationship with a monk that had continued long past graduation.

For every Johnnie, you are part of Saint John’s and Saint John’s is part of you.

As on alumni succinctly put it, “I am because Saint John’s is.”

*A version of this column appeared in the St. Cloud Times (https://www.sctimes.com/story/opinion/2019/02/23/what-you-be-who-you-be/2930707002/)

By |February 27th, 2019|Categories: Higher Education|0 Comments