By Sean Ross
[Editor’s Note: Graduation is over. The seniors are gone, but so many of us, even if we know them, don’t know their story. Welcome to “Why Newman?”, where every Spring we’ll feature a senior and ask them to reflect on their time in our community. This year, I present Sean Ross, a five-year Air Force Mechanical Engineering Major, and one of my best friends ever since I walked into Newman almost 3 years ago. Enjoy]
Right from the beginning, Newman was a source of comfort to me. I came to Tech in the Fall of 2012. The summer prior, I was excited to go college, and nervous about joining the Corps of Cadets. Very suddenly my family experienced a tragedy that left us all very hurt: we lost my aunt and my two cousins, her children. Father John Grace, the priest at Newman at the time, agreed to come visit us at the request of my mom since he was in the area. I remember vividly how he smiled at all our silly questions about the corps, and after, how he comforted my mom who opened up about the family tragedy. His kindness and encouragement towards us quickly earned my trust.
Ask and you shall receive
Fast forward to Sunday of New Cadet Week (the week before classes start): I’m bald and terrified. We are escorted to church and Fr. John is waiting, smiling, at the door. He manages to recognize me in the crowd of other bald, terrified kids, and it immediately gives me a sense of relief for that hour.
As the year progressed with all its challenges, I was at the Newman House every opportunity I had. It became my refuge, a place of rest. What really roped me in, though, was the welcome I received from the upperclassmen I met at Newman. I sang in the choir every Sunday, and grew to admire and love the students there, upperclassmen who accepted me as friends, who made me feel equal with them, not beneath. When I wasn’t allowed to attend the Freshmen Welcome Retreat, I emailed a senior catholic cadet, the cadet Wing Commander at the time, and he personally came to my room and tried to vouch for me to get me there. I ended up not being able to go until after my corps obligations anyway, but the care that that senior, Joe Dolan, showed for me, a lowly freshman, blew me away.
I joined a small group for freshmen cadets led by Hunter, and Allie, as well as 2 or 3 other bible studies and small groups. I was feeling lost. God felt far away when it took all my energy just to keep up with being new to college, engineering, the Corps, and the Air Force all at once. I remember talking to Fr John about how all the bible studies still weren’t enough. He smiled and told me that I was going to help fix that problem.
One thing I want to emphasize about Newman from this time-period is the idea that everything centered on the community. Nearly everything was conceptualized, planned, and executed by students. Fr John liked it this way, and he was always encouraging students to step up and make changes happen if they wanted them. The community was what we made it.
Receive, and you shall also receive opportunities to give to others
That summer I went with Fr John and 3 other students to a Cura Personalis retreat in Texas about CLC’s (Catholic Life Communities) which we were planning on implementing at Newman as a new small group model. Cura Personalis (Care of the Person), is still a foundational part of my leadership and life philosophy today. It means taking care of oneself in all aspects of your Person (spiritual, physical, and emotional).
I returned to school excited to be an upperclassman (i.e. not a freshman), and led the freshmen cadet small group with some other upperclassmen. I was excited about the opportunity to be a mentor and friend to the freshmen that were seeking God in the midst of their freshmen year. I was sad though, because this was the semester that Fr John left and Fr David came. I knew Fr David prior to meeting him at Tech, and I knew him to be a great priest, but the change of leadership was difficult. The change left a rift in the community, my community, the one I fell in love with freshmen year. A lot of my older friends stopped coming to Newman, there came about this phenomenon that wasn’t discussed in public: “Old Newman” vs “New Newman”. We stopped doing some of the things we used to do at mass. I was on the fence about Fr David and the new guy he brought with him (some guy who would later come to be a trusted friend named Chris Hitzelberger) for a good portion of the FA13 semester. Luckily, God didn’t give me a chance to run away, as I was discerned for the position of Christian Formation Minister along with Katelyn at the end of the term. [Editor’s Note: That year we had two Christian Formation Ministers, Katelyn and Sean. That was, as far as I know, the only time that ever happened]
[Sean and his partner in crime, Katelyn]
Building community takes work
Serving on the Servant Leaders (or Jedi Council as we liked to call it) was challenging in a lot of ways. I was serving with a lot of older students who were used to Fr John’s style of leadership. We disagreed with Fr David often. He was patient with us but firm in his decisions when he felt they were absolutely necessary. Katelyn and I worked hard to organize the CLC’s: we trained facilitators, checked in on them, planned and executed retreats. One obstacle to our CLC operations was the arrival of Andrew. Through an incredible amount of unfortunate miscommunication, Katelyn and I ended up in a series of unpleasant disagreements about retreats and small groups that could have been resolved rather easily if we had a better understanding of one another’s intentions. Because of this tension, Newman ceased to be my source of comfort, and became yet another source of stress during a very difficult semester.
I made it to spring break, and left for my first NOP trip to Lima, Ohio, led by a student named Mary Beth who had previously served as Student Campus Minister (SCM). I learned so much about what it meant to go and serve as part of a community, and to live and work in solidarity with another community. Towards the end of this amazing experience, I was dreading returning to the stress of school and Newman. I spoke to Mary Beth about how I was feeling and she offered to get lunch with me every week after to help me through. The troubles continued, but with my friends supporting me from then on, I was able to continue working the best I could for Newman.
Around the beginning of the FA14 semester, the beginning of my junior year, The Diocese declared that they wanted all parishes to include evangelization on their leadership councils (or similar structures). Fr David thought it would be fitting, therefore, to create an analogous position in Newman, and Outreach became an official part of the student leadership team. From there, everything fell into place. Andrew saw a great opportunity in working with that particular ministry, while Katelyn and I continued our work with our small groups and retreats. Just a year after his arrival, Fr David was settling in just fine, Newman was settling down again after a tumultuous year of change and hurt. Things were not yet perfect, but as that semester, and my time serving on the student leadership team, came to a close, I was optimistic about the future of Newman, and I was at peace with the change of leadership.
[Sean with some of the Servant Leaders and Staff in 2014]
Building community does not take special talent
The discernment of the student leadership for SP15-FA15 ended with an outstanding new group of students ready to continue the work of leading the growth of Newman. I was not a part of that group, and, for a time, I was unsure of how to continue. The military background of my college experience paints everything in colors of rank structure, and so I couldn’t shake the sensation of being demoted, in a sense. This was a time for me to re-learn what it meant to be a member of Newman. It is a great feeling, having the opportunity to serve the community in any role. But what I realized through the next year is that the few students who help Newman run, do not make Newman what it is. It’s all of you. Every single one of you make Newman more special, just by being a part of the community. You do not need any spectacular skills (though I know you all do anyway), you do not need to be a saint, or a great leader. All you need to do is share yourself with the community. Cliques happen, I think they are a natural part of making friends. But you need to fight the urge to get settled into your clique at Newman. When I first arrived, the welcome I received from the older students made a huge impact on me, and, later on, I knew it was my duty to do that for incoming freshmen in turn. As you all continue to enjoy Newman, strive to be that welcome for the new students, whether they are freshmen or graduate students.
[Newman students, old and new, gather at Fall Retreat 2014]
Newman: The Great Runway
I have graduated now. I still can’t quite believe it. I am not sad though, because this is how it is meant to be. I know I am not destined to stay at Tech forever, but to take the many blessings I have received from here and go out to the world with them. These five years have shown me how supportive and inspiring a catholic community can be, and Newman has prepared me to go and contribute to such a community when I settle into my new location. To those of you who are entering senior year, focus on graduating, but keep a sharp eye on that calendar. It will leave you behind if you don’t. Take time to grab coffee with your friends, old and new. To those of you who are aren’t going to be seniors and think you have plenty of time: every year gets faster, I promise. Thank you all for playing such a formative role in my college experience. You will all be in my prayers, and I’ll be back to visit as often as I can. Take care of Newman, and it will take care of you.
Sean Ross just graduated as an Air Force cadet studying Mechanical Engineering. He served as one of Newman’s 2014 Christian Formation Ministers, and he’s always singing, dancing, playing piano, or beatboxing. His name is Sean, but you can call him “Anytime” <Wink!>