Experiencing College: A Crash Course

Chair, Clinical Psychology

Professor Helen Marlo, Notre Dame de Namur University

Psychologist and educator John Dewey once said, “We do not learn from experience…we learn by reflecting upon experience.” I’ll begin by reflecting on an experience from my own education.

It’s 1982 and I’m an eighth grader at St. Joan of Arc Catholic School in St. Louis. It’s my good fortune to have as a teacher Mrs. Marilyn Hummel. She shares that she’s turning 40 and that no student has ever figured out her birthday. Turning 40 seems like a really big deal, and never having a party feels wrong! So, how can I pull this off? There’s no Google or internet. It dawns on me: if I get Mrs. Hummel to reveal her maiden name, I can search the St. Louis phone book and call her mother, who would surely remember her own daughter’s birthday, right? My plan works. And here I am, on the phone with Mrs. Hummel’s mother. With audible emotion, her mother responds, “You really love my daughter, don’t you?” Her mother’s empathy in naming my experience teaches me to understand my experience, which feels magical. She shares the coveted birth date and I throw the party. I’ll always remember the look on Mrs. Hummel’s face.

Upon reflection, I feel this story illuminates the transformative power of education. Our relationships and experiences matter. Joy, fun, love, and connection are profound teachers. The alchemy between an influential, loving, and talented educator, and a receptive student who feels loved and respected—that matters.

Fast forward to college. Experiences that were not necessarily “big” remain in my memory: returning home at Thanksgiving as a freshman—feeling independent and homesick; discovering with my roommate that gummy bears really do stick to dorm ceilings; asking my professor, as a sophomore, to take his Intro to Clinical Psychology class for seniors—facing my fear of rejection or failure paid off: he became my most important mentor; the fun, long conversations at The Chez coffee house; taking classes that were not required like The Creative Process. Was I wasting time and money? They turned out to be my most memorable courses! And lastly—OK…this one was a big moment: meeting my husband at a happy hour. We didn’t stop talking till 4:00 a.m.

I have heard countless stories of choices made during college:

  • The classmate who did not get caught cheating—who got the best grade? He did. But many years later a board denied him from progressing professionally after discovering he had lied about his credentials.
  • The friend whose mother ranted to the administration, demanding special treatment, including changing her daughter’s failing grade. This student came to see how always being treated as special was destructive. She wound up creating a profitable college tutoring service.
  • The graduate who now enjoys his marriage, children, and career? His archenemy in the dorm responded with empathy by taking away his car keys when he was intoxicated.

Artist and poet Brian Andreas expressed: “Anyone can slay a dragon…but try waking up every morning & loving the world all over again. That’s what takes a real hero….”

When I began college, my dad shared: “If you want to get something done, give it to the busiest person you know.” He also admonished me in every phone call to “be good.” I returned home last December to be with my dad in his final days of life. Most people from my childhood were long gone. On returning to St. Joan of Arc parish for his funeral, any guesses who was at my side, providing me moral support and love?

Yes, Mrs. Hummel. Experiences and relationships in education are unique, and can forever change the fabric of our lives, if we are receptive.

Dare to experience. Dare to open yourself to the goodness. Dare to be vulnerable enough to develop life-changing relationships and experiences.

In the words of philosopher Henri-Frédéric Amiel: “Life is short and we have never too much time for gladdening the hearts of those who are traveling the dark journey with us. Oh, be swift to love, make haste to be kind.”

May your college journey be full: rich with presence and reflected-upon experiences; marked by meaningful relationships; filled with kindness and love…and yes, be sure to throw a party or two!

Professor Helen Marlo directs the Clinical Psychology program at Notre Dame de Namur University. This blog is adapted from the speech she gave at NDNU’s Convocation at the start of fall 2018 semester as part of her accepting the Keller Teaching Excellence Award.

For more information on applying to NDNU as an undergraduate, please visit the admissions page. For information on the Clinical Psychology program, please visit their webpage.






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