Friday, December 16, 2016

Eat, pray, study: Holy Cross students learn the language of serenity

Prepping for college finals can be a pageant of miseries: staggering through the overheated library in search of study space. Scarfing animal crackers from the dorm vending machine at 2 a.m. Trying to sleep through the rager next door.

But for the three dozen Holy Cross students who spent last weekend on an “Eat, Pray, Study” retreat at the college’s new contemplative center, the pre-exam period was positively restorative. Ensconced in the hilltop haven — more boutique hotel than monastery — they curled up in armchairs to review class notes and sipped cucumber- and mint-infused water from mason jars. They prayed, meditated, and practiced yoga at twilight in the glass-walled chapel.

After living cheek-by-jowl in dorms, where showering might involve someone warbling in the next stall, the weekend was a world apart.

“It’s so quiet,” marveled Julia D’Agostino, a freshman, a few hours into her stay. “At school, you’re very rarely by yourself.”

The College of the Holy Cross, like other Jesuit schools, has a long tradition of sending students on five-day silent retreats to practice a short version of the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola. Ignatius, who founded the religious order in the 16th century, devised the regime of prayer, meditation, and contemplation of the Gospels to help foster a personal and intimate experience of God’s love and guidance.

Participation in retreats has more than doubled over the last dozen years, to about 500 students annually. The trend, college chaplains say, partly reflects students’ growing need for respite from a culture of frenetic overcommitment, digital distraction, and gnawing worry.

“Students are so much more anxious than they were when I first came here” 25 years ago, said Marybeth Kearns-Barrett, director of the chaplains’ office. Retreats — which the college now offers in a variety of themes and lengths — offer “the opportunity to step away, to experience the sense of being loved — because sometimes these anxieties are people grasping for something. There is nothing grounding them,” she said.

The experience can transform young lives, said Megan Fox-Kelly, director of retreats at the college. She still has a letter that her grandfather, Frank J. Kinney Jr., wrote to his mother after a retreat he made as a Holy Cross student in January 1929. His days in silence, he wrote, were “the three days of my life which, if it were possible, I would like most to live over again. . . . Many of the problems of my life have been solved.”

Jesuit retreat houses in Gloucester and Weston hosted the retreats until the opening this fall of the Thomas P. Joyce Contemplative Center, a 34,000-square-foot building set on 52 acres in West Boylston, a short ride from the school’s campus in Worcester. The new space — which cost $22 million, $18 million of which was raised through gifts — has allowed the college to create programs for alumni and faculty, too.

This past weekend’s 29-hour retreat was a bit of an experiment, designed to be a doorway in to Ignatian spirituality. The idea was to offer a quiet place for students to study and unwind during the term’s most stressful period and to reconnect with their sense of God’s calling for their lives. It was also meant to teach lifelong techniques for slowing down and focusing.

“When you’re stressed out, you don’t do your best work,” Kearns-Barrett said at the brief orientation.

As the students arrived in their hoodies and Uggs, they seemed stunned by their surroundings — slate floors, vaulted ceilings, spectacular views of the Wachusett Reservoir. “I’m going on every single retreat!” one student breathed.

Freshman Riley Benner, who handed out bundles of towels and sheets for students to take back to their rooms, said he was ready to start chipping away at three papers and studying for two exams.

“I get distracted pretty easily,” he said. “I figured this would be a good opportunity to get away.”

After an introductory gathering and prayer — Sarah Fontaine-Lipke, the retreat leader, urged the group to put their phones on airplane mode — they sat down to homemade calzones and fire-roasted vegetable soup. (The “eat” part of the retreat was no joke: The chef proudly displays a letter from a student who visited in October, thanking the staff for their “extraordinary cooking,” which she said helped her overcome her eating disorder.)

Each of the young men and women carried along a litany of stressors: Ameer Phillips, a senior Spanish major on a pre-business track, was thinking not just of the 35 pages due by the week’s end but of postgraduation uncertainty. Vidya Madineedi, a freshman, had to write a sociology paper and prepare for exams in biology and psychology.

“We experienced finals in high school, but it’s nothing like what we’re experiencing now, with papers, projects, presentations,” she said.

Social media only amplifies the stress, said her friend, D’Agostino.

A friend shared “something about how some school decided, we’re going to have a group cry. BYOT — bring your own tissues,” she said, half-laughing. “Is that how I should feel?”

After lunch, some headed to a half-hour meditation class in the chapel, sitting on cushions before the floor-to-ceiling windows. Then, they settled in to study, write — or, in some cases, take an overdue nap.

The afternoon sun quickly faded, and a few students ventured into the frigid air outside, crunching over the snow-encrusted lawn. Others gathered in the chapel for a slow-flow yoga class as the sky turned from lavender to indigo, amplifying the glow of candles set around the room and the constellation of glittering softball-sized lights hanging from the ceiling. The lighting is a reference to the stars Ignatius contemplated on Roman rooftops 500 years ago.

Late in the evening, Fontaine-Lipke led an examen — a prayerful reflection on the day and a renewal of intentions for the next.

A few students woke early enough to watch the rising sun illuminate the mist over the reservoir. At morning prayer, Fontaine-Lipke read a Gospel passage about Jesus retreating from the crowds to rest and talk to God. “If Jesus needed time to recharge, so do you,” she said.

Then a breakfast of eggs, freshly baked muffins, and coffee.

“I was able to concentrate so well in my little room,” said Jaqueline Alvarez, a first-year student who spent some of her time preparing for a political science exam.

Later, as the light in the sky began to fade again, the students collected their books and clothes and gathered for a final moment together.

Each wrote a word or a phrase on a small card to remind them of their respite in the stressful days to come: “calm,” “peace,” “a good night’s sleep.”

“It was great,” said Phillips, as he prepared to board a bus back to campus. Speaking for pretty much everyone, he added with a smile: “It would be even better it were two nights.”


Scottish pupils are failing in the basics, say teachers

New figures indicate that standards decline generally throughout primary school

More than a quarter of children in Scotland cannot read, write or count to an acceptable standard by the time they finish primary school, according to teachers.

In findings that are likely to anger parents and have heaped fresh pressure on the SNP government, a stark attainment gap between the rich and poor was also confirmed, with the gulf widening as pupils progress through the school system.

The figures indicate that standards decline generally throughout primary school, with 28 per cent of children not hitting the expected benchmark in reading by P7.

Meanwhile, 35 per cent fall short in writing, 32 per cent underperform in numeracy and 23 per cent do not make the grade in listening and talking.


Bank and major universities launch Australian-first employment program for PhD students

Westpac and the Group of Eight (Go8) have partnered to offer the first program in Australia for Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) students with a focus on Science, Technology, Engineering, or Mathematics (STEM) to undertake employment with the Westpac Group during their studies.

The STEM PhD program was established in recognition of the importance of the STEM fields to the future of Australia and offers students paid, part-time employment with the Westpac Group while they undertake their PhD research at a Go8 university.

This joint collaboration between Westpac and the Go8 is the first of its kind in Australia and aims to deliver both greater research outcomes as well as to professionally develop researchers who can make an enhanced contribution to the economy.

Westpac Group General Manager for Enterprise HR Strategy & Services, Shenaz Khan, said the partnership forms part of Westpac Group’s investment in innovation and commitment to diversity. “There are huge gains to be made by connecting some of Australia’s best academic minds with Australian businesses,” said Shenaz. “This is a unique opportunity to develop researchers from our top universities as well as to deliver innovative solutions to the challenges we face in the commercial sector.

“A key requirement for the success of this program is a flexible working environment, where students can work on a part time basis and balance their commitments between Westpac and their university. At Westpac, we encourage employees to take advantage of flexible working and development opportunities so we’re well positioned to be the first to offer such a program. I’m confident our collaboration with the Go8 will lead to increasing engagement between academia and industry to benefit all Australians,” added Shenaz.

Chief Executive of the Go8, Vicki Thomson, said the employment program had been an exciting proposition from Westpac and the Go8 was sure it would now become an exemplar for PhD training collaboration.

“We have seen the economic value of such collaborative programs overseas, and the Go8 looks forward to ensuring this first of its kind in Australia delivers two things – encourages other companies to follow the Westpac lead, and illustrates the commitment to excellence of both Westpac and the Go8,” she said.

The successful students will undertake two 24-month rotations within selected business units at Westpac Group from February 2017. Students will be matched with a mentor who will guide them through their experience, providing mentorship, introductions and advice on how to balance their commitments.

Students will also participate in a professional development program which will be tailored to their skills and the development areas they nominate.

Karina Mak, a first year PhD student at the University of Sydney, Faculty of Science, has been selected to commence the STEM PhD program with Westpac in February 2017. “I’m excited to start at Westpac in the New Year. This is a fantastic and unique opportunity for PhD students to graduate with practical, on-the-job experience.

It’s encouraging to see that a company like Westpac is supporting STEM disciplines and emerging research that align with their commercial interests,” said Karina.

Press release

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