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April 26, 2023

Everyday awe and other lessons learned

by Justin St. Charles, Student Success Summit Planning Committee member and strategic retention manager

The 2023 Student Success Summit, “Building Bridges and Cultivating Compassion,” is on May 15, 2023 from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. If you haven’t registered yet, there’s still time!

If you haven’t registered yet, there’s still time! Below, Student Success Summit Planning Committee member and strategic retention manager Justin St. Charles shares some of his own journey in cultivating compassion and building bridges and its value in our lives and work.

As it has gotten warmer out, I have been mindful to take advantage of the sun by going on walks between meetings. During my walks, I listen to a specific playlist on shuffle that I have been adding songs to for years – one of those playlists that is unsorted, chaotic, and an amalgamation of every (and any) beat, lyric, and artist that evoked a sensation or feeling. In my most recent walk, a song came up that I hadn’t heard in a long time and yet still has one of the most profound, albeit simplest, lyrics that has sat with me since I first heard it: “What’s the point of language if we don’t say how we feel?”

I’m going to be transparent, as well as vulnerable, here – I am exhausted. Physically, emotionally, spiritually. Since my dad died in September, I have felt disoriented. Whatever footing I may have thought I found in the months following was obviously lost on February 13. I could have never imagined, nor predicted, that this academic year would be one of such profound grief.

Now, I am no stranger to grief and bereavement in my life and work. I’ve seen it personally, I saw it when I was a hospice bereavement coordinator, and, like many of you, I see it in my work in higher education. Indeed, professionally, I’ve had a lot of exposure, but volunteering was my foundation. After my mom died sophomore year, I began volunteering for many years at Ele’s Place, a healing center for grieving children, teens, young adults, and their families, as a lead support group facilitator. I worked primarily with Pre-K and Elementary Education groups where we used arts-based, creative, and developmentally-appropriate activities to explore the incredibly complex emotion of grief. Whether we were watching The Land Before Time (which I still can’t get through without sobbing) or using long sheets of linen canvas to set up an indoor grief camp (yes, smores were included), the importance of connection, relationship building, and community was always centered.

Connection and story catching are, though certainly not the only, transformative tools for healing. Telling one’s story is healing, of course, but we cannot minimize the power that comes with being trusted by someone enough to receive their story. Over the course of this year, I have been fortunate to be in spaces of inspiration where I’ve received the gifts of stories and much needed wisdom from lots of individuals, including friends and colleagues across higher education. I’ve also been gifted a space where I felt safe enough to share my own story. This is what I’ve gained, along with questions I asked myself, as I navigated through what has been a very difficult, and yet cathartic, journey:

  • Awaken awe. Awe is one of those emotions that help us feel connected to one another and encourages us to think beyond our own selves. I always thought that awe had to be associated with larger-than-life experiences but what I’ve learned over this past academic year is that there are opportunities to witness everyday awe if we only give ourselves permission and feel safe enough to embrace it. Taking note of brightly colored murals, hearing passionate speakers, helping newly hatched ducklings from the Bessey courtyard to the Red Cedar – awe is all around us. When was the last time you felt inspired or moved?
  • Build bridges. I often tell the students’ I work with, “It never hurts to ask” and I’ve had to really lean into my own advice this year. Seeking support and asking for help requires us to extend ourselves out and practice vulnerability. It can feel like such a heavy lift at first but as our foundations with one another get stronger, it gets easier to trust that we can be supported. Being supported and supporting others offers us all an opportunity to experience reciprocal gratitude and expressing gratitude, as well as receiving it, nurtures wellbeing. Who is someone you are grateful for? When did you last tell them
  • Cultivate compassion. We all play a role in each other’s health, wellness, and success. There has been an outpouring of kindness for our community, and it will take all of us to embed humanity as part of our culture. Heart work is hard work and we all should feel empowered to examine the ways we can serve as a therapeutic presence for one another. Random acts of kindness, intentional acts of compassion, and the ongoing extension of patience can help to heal our minds and hearts. As my fellow social worker, the dynamic Kimberly Steed-Page, Director of the Student Parent Resource Center, recently said: There can never be too much grace. We all have the capacity to extend care and compassion outward. What is your super healing power?

My journey with grief is ongoing but, at this moment, I am sitting with a steady feeling: we are stronger together. Connecting and learning from other’s expertise and stories has been such a needed and positive experience for me that I am hoping that I can give that gift back to the community. When I was volun-told to plan the Student Success Summit in May, I never would’ve thought that it would turn into such a labor of love – I hope those of you who can join, will. With my committee’s blessing, the theme for this year’s summit, “Building Bridges and Cultivating Compassion,” is a testament to how much gratitude I have for each and every one of my colleagues, partners, and friends on this campus – I am in awe of you.