August 27, 2013

Keilah Johnson Story

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Whenever I would walk around my house with my coat or shoes on, my parents would say "relax and stay awhile." Or more commonly, "where are you going?" The year leading up to my high school graduation, I was all about leaving. I would leave any place or event whenever I felt inclined. School, my house, church (which didn't pan out so well) or anything that was considered mandatory, was fair game for my exit. Little did I know that when I came to SLU, I would learn the lasting impact of leaving.

An unexpected turn of events led me to SLU. I mean, who would have thought higher education would be expensive? You can only imagine my hesitation to leaving my house when I committed to SLU. I'll give you a hint, there was a lot of hesitation.

Coming from a public school I had no idea what the Jesuit Mission, much less the Jesuits, was. I literally didn't know if I was going to a Mass or class or if I should curtsey whenever I saw a Jesuit or nun.

In my quest to make SLU more enjoyable, I joined the Micah program, a faith and service-based learning community. In other words, I lived with 60 other first-year students. We did weekly service, as well as having weekly full-group meetings. Experiencing my first year at SLU as a Micah was great. On move-in day, I made 60 friends who would eat, play, study and even wear matching shirts with me. It was so easy then, to be a community. In our shared fear of the unknown first year of semi-adulthood, it wasn't difficult to band together.

At one of our early community meetings an upperclassmen Micah advised, "The difference between being living in a community and living with other people is that you cannot leave a community. Even when the relationships become challenging, you cannot leave, that is what sets us apart." After hearing her speak, I began to put on my sweater and look for the nearest exit. I took her comment as a challenge. I could leave whenever I felt like it. I could even leave in the middle of this speech. If nothing is legally or physically binding you, what makes you stay, especially when things are difficult?

Sure enough, challenges did arise. I found myself slowly becoming very aware the distinct mannerisms of others, the scarcity of silence on my floor and conflicting personalities community members. All of which are signs that you are spending a lot of time with someone. At the time, however, it felt like I just didn't belong.

I took a several steps back and began to build my community elsewhere: through my job as an ambassador, my sorority sisters, student government, Oriflamme, cultural organizations and, of course, service. My community extended far beyond the reach of my room in Marguerite. My community was where ever I was.

At SLU, we have three main ways in which the Jesuit Mission impacts students. The first is to educate the whole person. Rather that just learning facts in figures in class, we learn how to incorporate our academic lessons into our everyday life. For example, I would like to thank my public speaking class. Needless to say, that manifested well. Second, is academic rigor. At SLU I have been challenged not only to familiarize myself with the class material, but to form my own opinion on subjects. For the first time, my original thoughts weren't just used for bonus points, but were required class assignments. And the last goal is to develop students into leaders.

When I arrived at SLU, I was timid and kept my foot halfway out the door, just in case I needed to run out. I did not alleviate my apprehension of SLU on my own. It was through the help of campus leaders. My integration to the SLU community was personalized. It began with the Oriflamme leader who made me dance with a stranger at the Fall Welcome square dance and then had lunch with during the first week of school. It was the senior member of my sorority, who took the time to tell me how happy she was that we were sisters and always made time to ask me how I was doing. The Micah mentor, who, despite his "excitement," took me to see the latest Nicholas Sparks' movie on Valentine's Day. And it was my friends, who have made every birthday and celebration memorable and turned every tear or dramatic event to laugh.

Through these people who I admire so much, I understood the value of staying in community. It's easy to get in and it's easy to leave, too, but it's more difficult to stay when things become challenging. That is when leadership comes in. It is to vital inspire your fellow members to stay as well, a community is nothing with it's members. The experience is only made when all are included and valued. Every community member has the opportunity to become a leader. Simply look around, see who needs help, support — or in most college student's cases, food — and lend a hand.

As I enter my senior year, I have had the honor and pleasure of being considered a student leader. Which basically means people stop asking you if you are lost and ask you what you think. My favorite question to receive is why did I choose to attend and stay at SLU? I pause for — dramatic affect — and say, the community. There is nothing else like SLU's community. I invite all of you to feel the unique strength of our community. Don't look for exits, but, with consent of your neighbors, take off your shoes and stay awhile. I think this community will be well worth your time.

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