Reflection: A rector finds community in an empty residence hall

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“Are you still a rector if there aren’t students in your hall?” I remember asking a fellow rector a few days after receiving the news that all in-person classes would be suspended and our students would not be returning for the end of the semester.

“Is a priest still a priest if he doesn’t have a congregation?” she replied without skipping a beat.

For a priest, the sacramental seal is still present. The mission remains in his heart, and the work will always continue. The work of the rector is also a unique ministry. Our mission is to serve our students as we live among them day in and day out, but our vocation to live, work, and eat beside them as we care for and help them to grow has been altered. 

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The students are not on campus, so given our current circumstances, this calling seems obsolete; however, it has simply taken a new form.

At present, I, like so many other rectors, am living on an empty campus that weeks ago was filled with the sights and sounds of students. They left for spring break a break that will now last until the upcoming academic year. No one was prepared for them not to return or for the whirlwind of change that lay ahead for the entire campus community. 

In the immediate days following the news, rectors, student affairs staff, maintenance workers and building services staff came together to ship boxes of study materials to students, and to empty refrigerators and remove trash from rooms all to prepare residence halls for the unknown length of this intermission. 

Despite packing boxes and cleaning out rooms, I felt aimless. My work with students gave me daily direction, but now, my work felt nebulous. In the absence of students, the usual day-to-day tasks were also gone. I was left wondering how to walk beside those who are not within walking distance. How was my in-house presence meant to serve students who were now states and even countries away from the hall? I wasn’t sure, but the rector of Carroll Hall, our brother hall, presented a simple and focus-shifting idea:  Make individual calls to my students. While I was at first overwhelmed with the thought of calling more than 200 women, I decided to simply start.

This simple gesture took hours and days, but with each student voice, my purpose was renewed. As rector of Lyons Hall, my care for the women reaches beyond the physical walls of the building, and much farther than the boundaries of campus it spills into their homes. 

Many women were surprised I reached out in such a personal way,  and I was humbled by how eager they were to talk. I then followed up with emails to every student I wasn’t able to reach on the phone. They shared how they and their families were doing. Some offered stories of hectic, unexpected journeys back home from abroad only to be quarantined to a bedroom until it was clear they were virus free. Others spoke about being displaced, unable to return home, but finding refuge with friends or distant relatives. Some even opened up about their fear for the health of family members in the weeks to come.

Despite the unique situations, there was a common theme to the calls and email responses: Each student yearned to be back on campus, taking classes and seeing familiar faces that for now could only be reached through a digital screen. From my perspective, campus was not the same without them, and it will not be until their return. Yet, we are still connected even though we are physically apart.

As we wait for their return, I’m doing what many others have done. I’m making the best of my home office. In my free time, I’ve caught up on Netflix shows and taken books off my shelf that I’ve always wanted to read but hadn’t had time to. I’ve also set an ambitious workout goal during this time of quarantine: abs! We’ll see how that one goes.

And I’ve spent my time staying connected with people while observing social distancing. I make calls, just as I did with my students, to friends across the country and down the street, holding a Zoom meeting with my family twice a week, and taking long walks at a six-foot distance with rectors still on campus. Somehow I am sustained by the most important things in life, which happen to be the parts of life that I couldn’t quite squeeze in time for before.

But there are many things I miss. I miss sitting in a pew as we gather together for Mass that I’m now only able to watch online. I miss simple hugs with friends that allowed me to show my care and feel theirs. I miss running into friends or strangers and stopping to talk without fear of spacing or age. I miss the simplicity of a life where physical distance was not on constant alert or a daily barrier to connection. I do not know how long we will wait for our prior sense of normal to return, but I do know true evangelization is taking action to make God’s light shine even as we wait.

Realizing this has been a turning point for me has helped me refocus my ministerial efforts. I have spent the past month looking back to make sure the students have what they need from what they left behind. Now, we move forward. 

Presently, I spend my days preparing for room picks and I hold virtual meetings with student leaders preparing for the year ahead. These are all seemingly simple things, but they help our students (and me) look to the future. It gives them hope.

Though we do not know the outcome of the next few weeks, months, or even a year, the goal is to gather together again, hopefully to hug, shake hands and enjoy impromptu hang-out time things I took for granted before the virus. We just need to take it one day at a time, keeping our hearts filled with a little hope and a lot of love for each and every one of our students.