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My Time at Aquinas

This Saturday, my time as a student at Aquinas College will come to a close. I wish I could adequately express all the emotions I feel about this reality: happiness, relief, sadness, nostalgia, but most of all—gratitude. No matter the the amount of homework I have received or the levels of stress I have experienced, at the end of every day I am reminded that choosing to attend Aquinas College was the best decision I have ever made. What’s a better way to honor my last blog post than to talk about this? I couldn’t think of any better way. Here is a reflection of my time at Aquinas College and the many things that have happened to me here. Some things are great, other things are ugly, but in the end it makes me super grateful to have been led to Aquinas College and to call myself an AQ Saint.

For a long time, I had no intentions of attending Aquinas College. I had been on the campus a number of times for field trips and for my aunt’s music recitals, and every time I went I remember thinking the same things: I don’t like it here…it’s too boring…it’s too small…it’s too close to home. My thoughts were no different in Fall of 2010 when I came to Aquinas for a college fair, where it seems like I grabbed information from every table except Aquinas’. Little did I know I was standing on the grounds of my future alma mater.

As my junior year of high school progressed, my Dad started to press me about looking into Aquinas. For awhile, I was too stubborn to listen to him. I thought I had everything figured out and I thought I knew exactly where I wanted to go. Soon, however, I learned how quickly I can change my mind. In early 2011, I received something in the mail from Aquinas about a Leadership AQDay—a day of events for learning about leadership and how to hone your leadership skills. My Dad thought it’d be great for me to learn about leadership and get a day off from school. I figured, why not? So I signed up. Soon enough, I would find out one major detail my Dad didn’t tell me about this Leadership AQDay: that there was a tour of campus involved. As a student ambassador, this is a story I tell to prospective students all the time now—about how my Dad tricked me into touring Aquinas, about how I fell in love with Aquinas’ beautiful campus, and how I ultimately decided to attend school here. Aquinas simply clicked with me—whether it was the friendly people, the beautiful campus, the great academic programs, the scholarship money, or some combination of these things—I don’t know. All I did know was one thing, and that was I knew I was going to be taken care of here.

Fast forward to August 2012, and I was now a student at Aquinas College. I learned quickly during my first day of orientation that the community I felt during my tour hadn’t gone away; in fact, it only felt stronger. I quickly bonded with my roommate and suitemates, my orientation leaders, other people in my orientation group, and other fellow first years. During these three days, I was amazed at how everyone took the time to get to know each other and help each other out. In these three days, I was again reminded: I was going to be taken care of here.

Fast forward even further, with many hours of class, homework, hanging out The Moose, working at Admissions, the Library, and the Phone Center, volunteering at Campus Ministry, going on service learning trips, planning Code Blue for Autism, going to Mass at Bukowski Chapel, going on runs in East Grand Rapids, working out at Sturrus, studying abroad in Ireland, and spending time with the greatest of friends, and I’m here! I’m graduating. In some ways, all of this has come too fast; in other ways, it has taken forever. Either way, it is still bittersweet. As I prepare to receive my diploma this weekend, I can’t help but feel nostalgic, emotional, and grateful—not only for all the great things that have happened to me here (there are so many), but also for all the struggles I’ve experienced. Why am I nostalgic, emotional, and grateful for all the struggles, you ask?  At Aquinas, it doesn’t matter if you got the job/internship of your dreams, if you’re on the verge of tears studying for a test, if you just passed a difficult class, if you’re struggling to find your career path, if you’re going through a personal struggle, if you’re celebrating a birthday or if you’re simply looking for a place to make great memories and even greater friends. No matter what, there is a community here to support you and help you grow, for you to lean on in hard times, and to celebrate with you in all the good times. At Aquinas, you’re always taken care of.

Through all the triumphs, struggles, and changes, one thing has always remained constant for me during my time at Aquinas: I have always been taken care of here. Here at Aquinas, community goes a long way. I believe it is the community here that has made me a happier person and better student. But most of all, I believe the community here has given me a better education. To me, that has been the ultimate value of my Aquinas experience. I toured Aquinas by accident, but I can honestly say it was the best accident that has ever happened to me.  Although I am excited to graduate this weekend, saying I am going to miss this place would be an understatement. I love this school, I love this community, and I am so proud to call myself an AQ Saint. My years at Aquinas will live in my heart forever.

Welcome Home

Well, we have made it to Ireland! After a flight to Newark, an eight-hour layover, another flight to Shannon and a bus ride to Tully Cross, we have finally finished our journey over here. Despite our many hours of travel, it didn’t feel as long or as  bad as I thought it would. The Newark Airport had plenty of good food and coffee to choose from, while the flight to Shannon had free movies and food, and the bus ride allowed us to enjoy our first Irish sunrise. When we first arrived in Shannon, the Irish customs guy looked at my passport, noticed my Irish last name, and looked up to me with a smile and said “Welcome home.”

Despite the long hours of travel and the sleep deprivation, it feels so good to finally be in Ireland. As we rode from Shannon to Tully Cross, I couldn’t help but smile. I can’t get over how beautiful it is here. Everywhere we go, there are hills upon hills, mountains upon mountains, and endless bodies of water to look at it. No amount of sleep deprivation could stop me from admiring this beauty. It was a struggle for the rest of the day trying to stay awake and adjust to Irish time (not even coffee was helping me), but our staff advisors Dan, Kate and Duane kept us busy to keep our minds off the jet lag. After we arrived, the owner of a local bar called Anglers welcomed us with a free lunch. Then we went on a short hike to the Atlantic Ocean, which was absolutely beautiful. Once we returned from our hike and had an orientation meeting, we were free to do whatever we wanted. It was recommended that we stay up until at least 9 PM (4 PM Michigan) to adjust to Irish time, so my cottage mates and I looked to keep busy until then.  We went back to Anglers where we all had our first Irish Guinness (which, we all agreed, is way better than American Guinness) and just hung out. Since Anglers had stopped serving food for the day, we went to the other pub, Paddy Coynes, to see if they had some food. To our dismay, they weren’t serving food again until Saint Patrick’s Day, so we went back to our cottage and made spaghetti for dinner. From there we just talked, tried to keep warm, and waited for 9 PM to come. Once it did, we all went to bed, where I proceeded to sleep for twelve straight hours. I hope I’ve adjusted to Irish time now!

It is definitely adjustment living in Tully Cross, but it is all so worth it. From the beauty I can see just from my cottage window, to the simple schedule displayed in the study cottage, I can tell this is exactly what I need right now. There is so much time to run, write, cook, read, hike, and hang out—all things that I love, but some of which I neglect because of my insane schedule. A few days in, I can already say I’m enjoying this trip, and the adventure is just beginning! I’m so excited to start enjoying the little things in life again and to learn about myself and Ireland. I will write more when more happens, but until then, I hope you’re all enjoying the snow :)

Making a Difference in the World

This past spring break, I had the opportunity to travel to Granada, Nicaragua with seven other Aquinas students for a service learning trip. In the months leading to our departure, I was super excited, but also a little nervous for what was in store for us. I knew this experience would be nothing like what I had experienced on other mission trips–so I tried my best to keep an open mind and go in with no expectations. It was a good thing I went in with no expectations, too, because nothing could of prepared me for what I experienced that week.

After two flights, a car ride, and little sleep, our group arrived in Granada late on Saturday. One of the organizations we would be working with, International Samaritan, generously provided a retreat center for us to stay at for the week–allowing us to live somewhat comfortably, even if it wasn’t as comfortable as our conditions at home. The following day, we dressed up and went on an excursion all over Granada. It was our opportunity to experience the culture and the geography of the city and its surrounding areas. During the day, we got to see some volcanoes and a lake, and we had the opportunity to go on a boat ride and go shopping at the market there. Later on, we even went to Mass that was all in Spanish. Hearing it in a different language really tested how well I knew the Mass.

It was nice to take our first full day in Nicaragua to relax and experience the way of life there, but I didn’t come to Nicaragua for a vacation. I was ready to serve. The next day, we woke up around 6 AM, enjoyed a breakfast of beans and rice (something we’d eat everyday) and then we went off to visit the local garbage dump. Many citizens in Granada and the surrounding areas make a living working at this garbage dump, sifting and sorting through heaps of trash for money. To say that the working conditions at this place were miserable would be an understatement.  Our group had the chance to meet some of the women who worked at this garbage dump, who told us about their families and how many years they had been working there. Some of these women were older and had been working there for over twenty years; others were much younger–some of whom were even pregnant. One lady we met even told us she went back to work four days after giving birth! It was such a sobering experience to visit this garbage dump. It made me want to never complain about work again, but it also made me eager to help in any way I could. Thankfully, we’d receive an opportunity to help a family employed by this garbage dump soon thereafter.

After we visited the garbage dump, we went off to a local grocery store to buy groceries for two of the families employed there. I don’t normally find grocery shopping to be difficult, but this proved to be a challenge. I was so accustomed to being able to go to the grocery store whenever I wanted and buy whatever I wanted in whatever quantity I wanted (to an extent), but that wasn’t a luxury this family shared with me, or anybody else on this trip. During this shopping trip, our budget was an amount similar to what these families spend at the grocery store–an amount much smaller than what many of us are used to spending. It wasn’t a simple task to buy a nutritiously balanced amount of food with this money, but eventually, with good teamwork, we managed to do it. After we finished shopping, we delivered this food to these two families, and had the chance to talk to them with the help our student leader Zoey and her translating.

During these visits we also learned more about the Children’s Wellness Fund, one of the organizations we’d be working with for the rest of the week. The Children’s Wellness Fund is a nonprofit organization that aims to promote the quality of life for children and families in need in the United States and the Americas through healthcare, education, and enrichment activities. In Granada, the Children’s Wellness Fund’s main objective is to help fund the education of children in families employed by the garbage dump, so these children don’t have to work at garbage dump when they are older. The Children’s Wellness Fund also builds homes for these families, many of whom live in poorly constructed shacks that don’t provide much protection or privacy. For the rest of the week, our group would be assisting with the construction of one of these new homes. We got to work immediately the next day, and for the rest of the week we helped mix cement, move bricks, paint beams and construct the frame of the home–all in ninety degree heat. Although we didn’t get to see the house get finished, it was still an emotional experience when, less than a week later, I got a picture of the finished home sent to me via email.

 nicargua

In a way, I actually dislike it–to an extent–when people ask me about this trip. There is no way I could ever fully describe in words, let alone a blog post, the experiences, feelings or emotions of this trip to anyone. Not only did I help change the lives of some people in need, these people in need changed the life of someone else in need–me, a person who always needs to be reminded to check his privilege. I find that to be one of the most valuable lessons I learned during this trip, and I hope and try to apply that lesson in my everyday life.

 

Code Blue for Autism

I am the oldest of four children, and being the eldest child has come with a lot of unsaid responsibility. Everyday I try my best to be a role model to my two younger sisters and my baby brother; from my academics, to my faith life, to my everyday life choices. It isn’t always easy. I’ve come across many challenges in my role as the big brother, but the fact that I love my family always gives me the perseverance to live and learn through every struggle. One challenge in particular I’ve had, and my whole family has had, is centered around something called Asperger’s Syndrome–a high functioning form of autism that my baby brother struggles with everyday, and something that shapes my role as a big brother everyday.

Asperger’s symptoms, and autism symptoms as a whole, vary from person to person; which is why experts have classified it on a spectrum–it doesn’t have an absolute. Symptoms most common in people with Asperger’s include difficulties with social skills, eccentric/repetitive behaviors, unusual rituals, communication difficulties, limited/narrow interests, but most of all–it includes being exceptionally skilled and talented. For my brother, he has always struggled socially. In the past, and even still today, he has even been bullied by peers. He knows everything about Marvel, he has this “thing” about playing with his hands, he’s a super picky eater and he has his bedtime ritual that he refuses to change. He’s also the smartest thirteen-year-old I have ever met. I can’t believe some of the stuff he already knows at his age!

My family has been shaped in positive light by my brother having Asperger’s. While we will always have lessons to learn, so far it has taught us how to be more patient, to be more understanding, and to increase our capacity to love–to think that was even possible! For me personally, it has taught me to be more selfless of a big brother and more compassionate of a human being. Ever since my brother was put on the autism spectrum, I have been eager to help people become more aware and understanding of Asperger’s and autism in hopes that  ultimately people like my brother can live a normal life like the rest of us. I hear far too many stories about autistic people getting bullied at school, struggling to make friends, battling depression, or not getting the help they need. It made me realize something needed to change. People need to be more aware of autism and the struggles people with autism face. People also need to be more understanding of autism and the struggles people with autism face. But most of all, people need to help people with autism and the struggles that they face.

My brother inspired me to become a catalyst for this change, and in 2011, I organized two benefit concerts called Code Blue for Autism to raise money for organizations that promote autism awareness. I had plans of making the cause much bigger, but planning for and going to college put those plans on hiatus for awhile. However, thanks to the generosity and helping hands of AQ Special Saints, our special needs club here on campus, Code Blue for Autism is becoming a reality again. Only it’s not just a one day event this time–it’s a week long event! AQ Special Saints will be hosting Autism Week from Monday October 27-Saturday November 1st to promote autism awareness on campus and raise money for the Autism Alliance of Michigan, an organization dedicated to improving the quality of life for everyone affected by autism. Here’s what we have in store during this week:

  1. On Monday, October 27, we will be planting a tree in the Aquinas community garden to honor those with autism
  2. On Tuesday, October 28, we will be tie dying shirts. Students will have the option to buy a shirt or they can donate a shirt to the Autism Alliance of Michigan.
  3. On Wednesday, October 29, we will be having an Autism Talk at the Cook Carriage House. Anyone is welcome to come up and speak about their experience with autism. I will be talking about my experience having a brother with autism.
  4. Since blue is the color of autism, we want everyone on campus to wear blue on Thursday, October 30. We will be taking a picture of everyone in front of the Academic Building at 4:30. Everyone is welcome to take pictures of themselves in blue, and if we find you wearing blue, we’ll give you candy!
  5. On Friday, October 31, we invite everyone to tweet pictures of themselves in their Halloween costumes to us @AQSpecialSaints. Children from the Autism Alliance of Michigan will be picking their favorite costumes, and the winner gets free tickets to the show on Saturday!
  6. On Saturday, November 1, Code Blue for Autism will come off its three year hiatus. Join us from 5-8 at the Wege Ballroom for music provided by Aquinas students. To get in, you can pay $2 or donate unused school supplies; all of which will go to the Autism Alliance of Michigan. Different autism organizations will have booths at this event, where you can learn more about autism awareness and how you can help the cause. All are welcome!


Autism Week was one of my many ideas I came up with while I was working this past summer. I didn’t think this would become a reality, however, my passion and the passion of many other Aquinas Students have made this something remarkable. Aquinas College makes all the difference in the world, and this is one of the many examples of our students making a difference. Everyone will have their own reasons for being part of this cause, and for me it’s being able to show my brother all the Aquinas students wearing blue and having the opportunity to say: “Buddy, THIS is how much I love you.” Seeing and hearing what my brother goes through makes me eager to trade places with him and free him from the struggles he faces. I want him, and all other people people who struggle with autism, to have a better life. What is your reason for supporting autism awareness? Come show us during Autism Week 2014–coming soon to an Aquinas College campus near you!

A Hat for Service

Through the years, I’ve done many activities and worn many different hats. I’ve played six sports, I’ve played one musical instrument, I’ve been a cast member of eleven different theater productions, I’ve held nine different jobs and, believe or not, I’ve been to quite a few metal concerts! I think it is natural to grow in and out of hats as we go through life; however, I also think it’s natural to keep a special few. I’ve come to realize a special hat I can never seem to take off: my hat for service. I can’t remember a time in my life where I haven’t been serving; whether it be in Cub Scouts, for rank advancements in Boy Scouts, high school volunteer clubs, or mission trips with my parish. I thought I knew everything about service when I graduated high school; however, I quickly began to see service in a different light when I arrived to Aquinas.

Here at Aquinas, we live by the four charisms of prayer, study, community, and service–but those charisms don’t stop outside our campus entrance. One of the many opportunities we have to live out these charisms outside of Aquinas  is through our Service Learning program. Service Learning allows us to go out and volunteer in the Grand Rapids community through programs like Into the Streets and Heartside Cleansweep, and it also gives us opportunities to volunteer in other cities, states, and countries through our Fall Break and Spring Break service learning trips. Since I came to Aquinas two years ago, I quickly found my niche in all the opportunities this program has to offer.

I first found out about this program during freshman orientation, when my Orientation Leader told our group about these trips; in particular, a trip to Acadia National Park in Maine. As an avid traveler and Eagle Scout I knew how much I loved nature and how this trip would be the perfect fit for me, so I applied. I didn’t think I was actually going to get accepted into the trip, so imagine how pleasantly surprised I was when I got an acceptance email in my inbox! In just a few weeks I would be off to Acadia National Park in Maine with thirteen other Aquinas students and one staff advisor to do a week of service in the park.

Acadia was beyond anything I could’ve imagined, from the car rides, to picking up lobster traps on the Maine coast, to building a new trail, to the countless mountain hikes, to nights of laughter and reflection with the other participants, to the free lobster meal provided by the park rangers. My heart was full by the end of this trip, and it put so much into perspective for me. I realized service wasn’t just about the work you do; it’s also about the lives you touch and the lives you’re touched by–even if it’s the people you’re doing service with, not serving for. Getting to know my fellow participants and their unique interests, personalities and stories opened my heart up more to the beauty of human beings, and these wonderful people reminded me of the beauty inside of me as well. I also learned that to do meaningful service, you don’t always have to serve people; sometimes you need to serve your planet and preserve it’s beauty. It’s just as rewarding as serving people. I never saw service this way until this trip, and I’m grateful that Aquinas gives me opportunities to discover this and share our charisms with the world. I’ve made an effort to go on a service learning trip every Fall Break and Spring Break since Maine, and I couldn’t imagine spending my breaks any other way! Service Learning has made feel at home here at Aquinas, and it’s one of the many reasons I am proud to be a Saint.

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