Authentic Eagles: On Spirituality

As Boston College students, it can be tempting to hide our struggles in the constant quest to appear perfect. Embracing our  truths can help us to understand ourselves and experience the world around us as genuinely as possible. Authentic Eagles is a series that gives a voice to the people who have experienced firsthand the trials and tribulations of being one’s authentic self at BC.

Jenn Howard, A&S '14

To me, God is not just an omnipresent person in the sky. God is us. God is my friends, God is my family, God is love. Being a Roman Catholic individual plays a major role in my life today. In fact, when looking back at my life, being Catholic has always played a major role. However, the experiences I have had and the people I have met at Boston College have drastically changed the way that Catholicism impacts my life, and I am utterly thankful for that.

When I entered Boston College as a freshman in 2010, I was scared. BC was familiar to me: I grew up 20 minutes away and, needless to say, my family is full of BC graduates. So, I was not scared of finding my way around, or of being far from home. Instead, I was afraid of the daunting prospect of finding a group of friends. I spent most of my freshman year hesitating to open up. I made surface-level friends, and I took advantage of these friendships to have places to go out on weekends. I told these friends what I thought they wanted to hear, and I went out with them because I thought that was what would make me fit in with their group. I joined 4Boston that year as well, but mainly because my cousin was on the 4Boston council and I thought it was something I “should” do. I enjoyed the service, and the reflection, but I realized that I was not opening up to my group members either. I was scared of the upperclassmen, I was scared that I did not really deserve to be in 4Boston.

For the entirety of the year I really did not feel like myself, and I spent most days waiting for the next time I could go home. My spirituality remained how it had been in high school: attending mass on Sunday and then never really thinking about God again until the next Sunday. I did not even try to develop my relationship with God; the thought did not even cross my mind because I was so busy trying to fit in. Going into sophomore year, I knew I was going to be living with these same girls who were my “friends” in a suite, but I also knew they did not even know the real me. I was doing a disservice to myself by living with them but not being real with them. That summer, I made a commitment to myself that I would become a more full and honest version of who I really was.

The theme of my sophomore year was fresh starts. Fresh starts with my roommates, fresh starts with 4Boston, fresh starts with myself. I came into the year with a whole new attitude: that the real me actually mattered, and it was my responsibility to show the real me to my friends and peers. I switched 4Boston groups that year, mainly because of scheduling, but in doing this I ended up meeting some of the most important people of my Boston College experience. It was through one of the older members of my 4Boston group that I learned about the concept of “Godwinks.”

A Godwink is when you see God come through an everyday experience. For example, a beautiful sunset, a thought-provoking conversation with a roommate, or even just a smile on a stranger’s face. In recognizing Godwinks, you are acknowledging your relationship with God every day. After I learned about Godwinks, I felt like I saw them everywhere: in the honest insights at 4Boston reflection, in the hard work of the students at Jackson Mann Adult Education who are working towards their GEDs, in my roommates, in my peers, in my professors, in my family. My spirituality became stronger and stronger.

I still went to mass every Sunday, but now when I listened to the homily I immediately tried to connect the ideas to my own life. I became attached to the 10:15 mass on Sunday nights in the Heights Room because the sense of community I felt in that room was a Godwink in itself. I also, slowly but surely, saw my relationships with my roommates grow. I started to share more of myself with them, and in return I realized that they started to share more of themselves with me. We became an extremely close-knit group of girls, and the memories I have with them are some that I will cherish forever. I especially saw my friendship with my direct roommate blossom. We barely knew each other going into the year, and now I can honestly call her my best friend. As I got to know myself and God better, I was more open to listening and learning from her. I cannot imagine my Boston College experience without her. Needless to say, sophomore year was a turning point in my spiritual journey, and the success I felt by the end of the year left me ready to deal with any problem at any time.

As we all know, life is full of ups and downs. I ended sophomore year on a major high. I loved my roommates, I loved 4Boston, I loved BC, I felt like anything was possible. My junior year it seemed was mostly about preparation to go abroad. All of us roommates decided to study in Europe in our junior spring, in different cities. I was going to spend four months in Venice, Italy. The prospect was exciting, but daunting. I had never been to Europe before, and never spent that length of time away from home. I was confident, though, that I would be able to use this experience as a way to further develop my academic, social, and spiritual goals.

About two weeks before I left, my family was hit with two medical bombs in a two day span. First, my dad was diagnosed with stage 2 thyroid cancer. I was shocked. He is one of the healthiest people I know. He had surgery to remove his thyroid, but then it was a waiting game to see how far the cancer has spread, and we would not know anything else until after I left for Italy. I was obviously afraid for the worst. The day after my dad was diagnosed with cancer, my fifteen-year-old sister was officially diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder. She had been dealing with anxiety problems for some time, and they only worsened with my dad’s medical problems. I will never forget how on the night before I left for Italy, she jumped in my bed with me and cried, begging me not to leave. It took all of my strength to get on that plane and study abroad. All I wanted to do was stay at home with my family and see them through this medical strife. I knew, though, that I would regret not going to Italy, and that my family would want me to take advantage of this opportunity. So I went.

At the beginning, it was hard to focus on the amazing city of Venice and stop worrying about my family at home. After a particularly hard day, I realized what I had not been thinking about was my faith. In all of the chaos leading up to leaving Boston, I forgot to consult God for help. So, I walked down to the local (and beautiful) church near my apartment and went to mass. This moment was key in my abroad journey, because I felt connected to God again and remembered to look for those Godwinks in my life. Throughout the rest of the semester, they came in various forms, big and small. I saw God in the boat rides I took every day to the Venice International University campus, in my roommates who came to visit me and experience the wonderful city I called home, in the other cities I was fortunate enough to travel to that semester, and most importantly, in the phone call I got on one March evening from my family in Boston: My dad’s scans had come back, and with the surgery and radiation therapy, the cancer was gone.

My sister’s journey to health was not as successful, and she still fights this encompassing mental disorder on a daily basis. In Italy, I prayed that God would help her with this fight, and I talked to her often to check in. Godwinks with her came in different forms, like when she was happy to have made it through a particularly hard day, or when she used her artistic talent to express how she really felt. While still difficult, it became more manageable for me to focus on my own semester while still giving her enough attention. There is no way that the freshman year version of Jenn Howard would have been able to handle this situation in the same way.

Senior year has been an absolutely amazing time in my life. After three of years of developing my own spirituality, I feel like I have been able to fulfill my potential as a student, peer, volunteer, sister, daughter, and friend. I am a member of 4Boston council this year, and the relationships I have created with each and every member of that amazing group of people are extremely valuable to me. My roommates continue to be a wonderful presence in my life, and we still share laughter, tears, and conversation. I see God in the kids I tutor at my placement, in watching my roommates succeed, in helping my oldest sister with her college decisions, and in my younger sister’s fight to defeat her illness. I have been able to share my thoughts on spirituality with all of the people in my life, and have learned so much more about how I can further develop my relationship with God. I look forward to the remainder of the year, and I look forward to deepening my relationship with God and seeing what the future holds.