I first heard about Nancy a couple years ago at a Saint John’s senior dinner. At the dinner, seniors that are so moved, get up and share the things that they are most thankful for about their SJU experience. The lists usually include what you might expect: friendships, the monks, social times, great academic experiences, study abroad and relationships with faculty.
But on this particular evening, a senior included an unusual appreciation: “I am thankful to have met Nancy, the custodian on my freshman floor.” Shortly after this dinner, I heard about a custodian in a frosh dorm who had purchased a dozen haircuts from the old Razor Hair Styling shop in Mary Hall and asked that they be given to random students, ideally freshmen, who seemed to need a little emotional pick-me-up gift–not necessarily because they were looking shaggy.
I realized this was the same woman the senior had praised.
I decided I needed to meet this woman. It turned out Nancy was nearing the end of her time at Saint John’s, with a long-planned retirement coming this past spring, but we had coffee this summer, and I got to hear her story.
She told me that a number of years ago as she was preparing for her annual performance review she decided to add a new goal: to get to know the students on her floors better. Nancy did just that during her remaining years at Saint John’s.
There was a young man from Bosnia whom she befriended who shared a Bosnian family wedding video with her. Another young man visited her family farm where Nancy’s husband taught him to drive a skid loader. The couple subsequently got to know this student’s hockey teammates and took a group of them out for dinner. There were multiple students whom she helped with textbook costs, and she even chipped in on an airfare to a New York job interview. Some of her Johnnies told their young brothers to look Nancy up when they matriculated, and she has attended several Johnnie-Bennie weddings of students she got to know.
Nancy had a policy that if you needed her to unlock your door after you wandered down to the shower without your key, you had to commit to saying “Hi” to her whenever you saw her. Nancy was eating at a restaurant in St. Cloud with her family when an unfamiliar young man came up the table and greeted Nancy. She did not immediately recognize him, as he was now 7 or 8 years older than when she knew him at SJU, but he told her she had let him into his room back in the day, and he was fulfilling his part of the bargain.
Most improbably, she developed a relationship with a Chinese student who was often awake in the lounge when she arrived early in the morning. He told her of his loneliness and complicated relationships with his parent. He surprised her by making Chinese tea for her one day. She gently admonished him when he started skipping classes. He took Nancy and her husband out for Chinese food. In the end, this young man decided he needed to return home, but Nancy insisted that he text her when he got to Beijing to assure her he was safe.
In some ways Nancy is clearly exceptional—caring deeply for the young men on her floors and making the effort to reach out to dozens of them during her time at Saint John’s. But in other ways, Nancy is just like everyone in this room. Each of us is capable of being a mentor to the students in our care, students who are all in need of human connections as they make their way through these important formative years at Saint Ben’s and Saint John’s.
Nancy did not use the term mentor, and I suspect she would not characterize what she did as mentoring, but I would beg to differ. A mentor is one who cares about an individual student in the present and is concerned about that student’s future. Research has shown that this simple human interaction is exceedingly important for the well-being of students on campus and for their thriving in the future.
I would hope that each of us recognizes our ability to be a mentor, but I worry that this is not always the case.
After a presentation on mentoring at the Liberal Arts Illuminated conference this summer I overheard a young staff person say, “I had not thought of myself as capable of being a mentor to students.” In another context, when discussing our increasingly diverse student body, I have heard faculty wondering about the challenges of teaching and guiding these new students on our campuses. One senior faculty member noted, “My experiences are so different than those of this generation’s students.” Students themselves sometimes believe they must find an adult whose experiences have paralleled their own in order to connect.
We can sometimes think of mentoring too narrowly, focusing on the guru model which has students at the feet of an academic master. While I certainly do not want to diminish our students’ academic needs, young people’s needs are typically broader and require only empathy and wisdom from a caring adult.
Though they may sometimes be hesitant to reach out, all students want a connection to another person and to a community. Faculty and staff at CSB and SJU have done this for years, and even with an increasingly geographically, racially, religiously and culturally diverse student body, we can all continue to provide that invaluable human connection, as Nancy did for so many students.
Clearly our 21st century student body is different, and they bring new and unique life experiences to campus, but that is true of every generation. Yet for many of us in this room, we found mentoring, guidance and connection from what we surely thought at the time were unlikely sources.
If the Benedictine monks and sisters, who publicly made a more counter cultural life choice than any faculty or staff member today can boast of, could serve as powerful and long lasting mentors for earlier generations of students, everyone of us is capable of connecting just as deeply with today’s students.
As you meet our students in your classes or offices or elsewhere on campus, just ask yourselves, “What would Nancy do?” You might be surprised at the relationships you will develop.
Best wishes for the beginning of the school year.
*Presented at the CSB/SJU All-Community Forum on August 21, 2018.