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The first last lunch
Hi, I’m Bill, and I’m a member of the Iowa-Nebraska Luncheon Club.” So began the introductions at a lunch held May 7 in the Francis Thompson Room of the Burns Library. “Bill,” sitting at one end of a long table, was William Neenan, SJ, vice president and special assistant to the President of Boston College. At the other end sat John T. Butler, SJ (“Fr. Jack”), vice president for University Mission and Ministry. Seated between them along either side of the table were five young women and seven young men who would be graduating in exactly two weeks. The Thompson Room is imposing, with a wall of towering stained glass windows, a vast Oriental rug, and ornate wooden bookcases housing leather-bound tomes, but the mood was informal, and the students were casually dressed, it being, in fact, a pre-exam study day.
The noontime gathering was the idea of Karen Kiefer ’82, associate director of the University’s Church in the 21st Century Center, which cosponsored the lunch with the Office of Mission and Ministry. A chance reminiscence with Mary Caliendo Rather ’82, her college roommate, got Kiefer thinking about “the number of students who go through Boston College without getting to know either of these two men.” She e-mailed the senior class, inviting all to sign up for the chance to win “one last lunch before graduation with two of Boston College’s living legends.” Within a day, there were 140 applications. Kiefer wrote out the names on strips of paper and put them in a box, and Neenan drew 12. The winners hailed from throughout the University—five from the Carroll School of Management, one from the Lynch School of Education, and six from the College of Arts and Sciences—and from around the country (Colorado, Georgia, Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota, Missouri, New York, Pennsylvania, and Texas).
Neenan believes in the power of lunches, having founded the Iowa-Nebraska Luncheon Club (he is a native of Sioux City, Iowa) in 1981 as a way to provide Midwestern students an occasion to gather with others who root for the same sports teams and speak the same language. He has since helped launch 14 additional regional support groups, from the Peach Club (a secessionist offshoot of the Pecan Club) and the Sooners to the Salmon Club (Alaska, Washington, Oregon, Montana) and the Rocky Mountain Club.
This gathering began with a prayer led by Neenan: “Life is a journey. . . . This is a way station; we ask that You walk with them as they walk with You.” Lunch was a buffet of sandwiches, salads, chips, soft drinks, and Boston cream pie. Over the rustlings of sandwich wrappers and bags of chips, Neenan and Butler spurred the conversation, asking the seniors to share a particular memory from their four years on the Heights.
A number of recollections concerned sporting events—Andrew Steichen, a finance and accounting major (headed for an investment firm), remembered being in the stands at Conte Forum his freshman year when the Eagles beat Duke in basketball.
Seth Woody, a theology major (with a double minor in faith, peace, and justice and environmental studies) who will spend the coming year as a monastic intern at an Episcopal monastery across the river in Cambridge, cited the view from the top of St. Mary’s Hall, “seeing all the way into Boston.” Grace Horner, a French and environmental studies major who has joined a nonprofit social justice advocacy organization in Denver, and Tyler Schenk, who majored in finance and marketing and now works for UBS, both mentioned the Dustbowl—the grassy expanse between McElroy Commons and Fulton Hall that will be reduced and reconfigured by the construction of Stokes Hall—drawing nods from others around the table. Schenk recalled walking across the wide-open space at 4:00 a.m. as a freshman. “It was totally quiet; that’s when I started liking being here.”
At a pause in the conversation, Butler asked Neenan if it would be okay to make the students do some work for their meal (to which Neenan deadpanned, “Well, they’re going to have to wash the dishes”). In a few days, Butler told the seniors, “You will become trustees, as it were.” He wanted to hear what each of them thought the school did well and where it needed “to step up, to improve.”
The ensuing conversation ranged widely, but several subjects recurred. Matthew Vigliotta, a political science and philosophy major (headed for a tech start-up in New York), praised the University’s efforts at “educating the whole person—mind, body, and spirit,” from the core curriculum to “the presence of the Scriptures,” and he cited the Jesuit concept of cura personalis (care for the whole person). Woody, referring to the recent deaths—unrelated—of two students (Franco Garcia ’12 and Michael Gannon ’14), said the school is “great at community, at mourning and grief and the celebration of death.” Boston College, he added, “handles these things with grace.” Another student echoed this saying, “You never feel like you’re not cared about, especially in times of need.”
Others commented that they liked the open presence of religion at Boston College. “In high school, we tiptoed around religion,” said Sarah Wickman, a marketing major with a minor in human development who will join a social media company. Christine Miecuna, an accounting and marketing major, agreed, but added, “Religion is not forced on you.” A couple of students, including Wickman, praised the opportunities for reflection offered by programs such as 48 Hours, Kairos, and Arrupe International Immersion. “The school thrives on its volunteer opportunities,” commented biology major Tom Murphy.
When the discussion turned to areas needing improvement, these same spheres reappeared along with new ideas. Four students mentioned a need for more opportunities to participate in the fully subscribed programming of Kairos, 48 Hours (designed for first-year students), and Arrupe International Immersion. John Kelly, an accounting and theology major who went on a Kairos retreat as a senior, said for many students it is “easily one of their best weekends here” and provides an important network. “It can be hard as a freshman to find a community,” said Kelly, who will join DeLoitte in the fall.
The disconnect between students’ daytime and nighttime lives concerned a number of the seniors at the table. English and philosophy major Aaron Staudinger, who was a resident assistant in Walsh Hall, said that students have “a great ability to go to class and volunteer” and then, come Friday night, “completely forget” that side of themselves. He wanted more effort expended on building a sense that “you are this person all the time, not just Monday through Friday, nine to five.” Matthew Vigliotta noted that it’s important to “grab hold of [students] early.”
Andrew Steichen asked Fr. Neenan how a Jesuit institution such as Boston College deals with the high cost of education, which poses an obstacle for many who aspire to college. Neenan replied that the University remains committed to its need blind admission policy and to meeting the full need of students through grants and loans. One goal of the current capital campaign, he noted, is to increase the endowment and “take the pressure off tuition as a contributor to financial aid funding.” He went on to say that “Boston College is poised to be a national and international leader,” adding, “and Ignatius would say, ‘Go for it’.”
Before offering a closing prayer—”We ask You to continue to bless them for they have blessed us”—Butler thanked and praised the students for their comments and their critiques. “It’s a messy world with messy answers,” he said, “but as long as you keep asking the questions, we’ll move forward.”
Read more by Thomas Cooper