I recently attended my eye-opening 5-year reunion at St. Olaf College. I say that it was eye-opening because so much changed over the course of one weekend. Before the reunion started, people were posting on Facebook and Twitter all kinds of comments about why we didn’t really need a five-year reunion. Nothing had changed, right? We were all still basically the same people we were just after graduation. Sure, some of us had gone on to other schools, or into jobs, or travelled abroad for awhile. Many of us were married, some had kids. Everybody had grown up, but just a little bit.
Re-connecting with a lot of people, however, I realized that our similarities were exactly the point. St. Olaf is a weird place. The college talks a lot about community, and it really tries to live up to the ideal image it presents. The campus is incredibly open, we don’t have locks on our mailboxes, and people leave their bags and belongings lying right out in the common lounge when they go up for a meal at the cafeteria. There’s trust on campus. That’s the community they’re talking about.
After graduation, a lot of people experienced a vastly different kind of life from that on the Hill, as we called it. Terrible jobs, bad breakups, moving to new cities where it wasn’t so easy to make friends. A lot of people at the reunion had a little bit harder edge to their personalities. A lot of people had had reason to turn cynical. The thing was, we all recognized it, and we all knew it was a problem. I know I'm generalizing here, and I apologize to anyone who disagreed, but being back on the Hill brought it rushing back to us. We’d lost something of the community that we had loved and lived for four years, and we wanted it back. Badly. That, I think, became the vision of success—for me and for many of my classmates. Bringing back and living into the type of community that we would really want to be a part of, and to do so wherever we go. You can’t go back to the Hill, after all. Let’s bring the Hill down to us.
If we had waited until the 10-year mark, I don’t think that St. Olaf would have been able to accomplish its mission of instilling the value of community in us. And that failure would then have gone on to destroy any hope we all had of succeeding in this powerful and truly transformative way. Building communities is no small thing, and until now—or at least more recently—I had no idea how to do it. After this weekend, though, ah! Clarity! I am able to build communities, I should almost say Community, singular with a capital ‘C’, through the written word.
I’ve been fortunate to have accomplished one of my life goals. I’m a teacher of writing. Game, set, match. Complacency is a creeping menace, though, and if there’s one other thing St. Olaf is good at teaching its students, it’s that living is more than a livelihood. I’m happy to have a job. But what I need, what I really require to be happy and successful in life, is for that job to do something. Something worthwhile and powerful. I can build communities in my classrooms. I can write and encourage others to write about what they want in life, and how they plan to get it. I can bring that word out of my class as well. Talking about, writing about, the community I find around me at any point in my life extends and keeps alive the community of the Hill. What between us alumni started with moving to the same wonderful place, and was brought back this weekend through a wealth of shared experience, is now continued with effort; individual efforts of like-minded people who want this Community to grow.
The world isn’t a place where we can leave our doors unlocked and not fear for our property or safety, but can’t we get somewhere closer to that? It’s not about the world we have. Rather, Oles like me and others will help shape it, and in so doing come a little closer to our unique visions of success. I want to write success, and teach it, and live it. How are you going to succeed? What do you want your community to look like?