The Onion of My Life

His college years were the best of times - and sometimes the worst

I have noticed lately that I am increasingly experiencing a phenomenon called “senior moments.” No, at age 21, I am not losing my vision or suffering memory lapses. Instead, I sometimes find when I walk out of a building or into a classroom or catch the eye of an old acquaintance or make a new acquaintance or discover new information in class or do any number of small, insignificant acts, I am deluged with a flood of memories laced with anxiety. These are moments of instantaneous reminiscence alongside pensive disappointment. They are realizations that it – this life I have built at St. Thomas – will come to an end shortly.

The anxiety, which sometimes results in excitement and sometimes results in panic, comes from a fear of the unknown. If my calculations are correct, my final day of class here at St. Thomas will be the last of an estimated 2,322 school days in my life. This does not take into account sick days, snow days and days when I just felt like playing Frisbee in the quad. When I graduate that string comes to an end and something must take its place. Minus the first six or so years of my life, there has never been a period when I did not know what I would be doing the day after Labor Day.

I know I will be doing something – I have my plans – but what that something will be exactly, I do not know. I do know, though, that whatever it is will be unlike anything I have known thus far. These “senior moments” that I experience are woeful but sentimental journeys through my years of education – the most significant of which were at St. Thomas. Describing my St. Thomas experience can be summed up in that oft-quoted line from Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” Of course, I am in no way articulating that the French Revolution is a metaphor for my life, but the line itself has application to what I underwent.

My years of college were turbulent – tormenting at times, gleeful at others. I still remember my first day of classes. It was a clear and vibrant September morning, and I walked out of Ireland Hall headed for Brady Educational Center at 8 a.m. I had that pit of nervous excitement rumbling in my stomach, and was fully awake and ready to strike out at something new. There was dew on the grass, but the sun was out. The squirrels were up, chasing each other around and rummaging through the garbage cans. And the students were up, following each other down paths, while the sound of nervous chitchat intermingled with boisterous laughter. It was a perfect scene; it could not have been scripted better. This image, something so mundane and daily, on university campuses nationwide, is an image I will always carry with me. I stepped forth knowing that moment marked the beginning of my life as a St. Thomas student.

The worst of times

During spring semester of my freshman year, my father left my mother after more than 25 years of marriage and three children. It was the beginning of a drawn out, messy and painful divorce – the ramifications of which are still prevalent in my life today. What made this situation worse was the fact that I was in college, thinking I ought to be having the time of my life. I relished the experience of my first true independence, but was stuck facing a torn family. I was under the impression that college is a carefree break from life, a time to fully prepare yourself for entering the “real world,” an opportunity to expand your horizons and meet incredible people. What I found out quite quickly was that, for me, this impression was a delusion.

Occasionally, I look through writing that I have kept over my years here and I find a poem or just a couple of paragraphs written in heavy ink and with an angry hand. Sometimes I remember where and when I wrote them – usually on a picnic table near the John Ireland statue, often in the freezing cold, occasionally at 2 or 3 a.m. I would write without gloves and my fingers would be numb by the time I made it back to my dorm room. The words convey my sense of confusion and disenfranchisement, my hope for a greater understanding and end to my seemingly insurmountable difficulties.

There were fights over money, fights over insurance, fights over ownership, fights over loyalty and affection. There were phone conversations I never want to have again. I’ve had to kick my father out of his own house on one occasion, and I’ve had to kick my little brother (who has had problems of his own) out of the house on another occasion. Obviously, these incidents and others like them resulted in a decreased emphasis on my studies and my own personal growth. I struggled with the lowest grades of my academic career, and was often severely depressed.

Outside my familial problems but not wholly unrelated to them, I faced an identity crisis. I came to St. Thomas confident of what I wanted from life. I hoped to be a computer science major, graduate as soon as possible, obtain a high-paying job somewhere in the Twin Cities, move to the suburbs and prepare for early retirement. As that first semester crept on, that confidence gradually, then swiftly, crumbled. I dreaded my computer science and math courses. I questioned my intelligence and was terrified of what would become of me.

I began to believe I might have a future as an English major, but trembled at the thought of admitting it to myself. All I knew of being an English major was that I could be a teacher, and I did not know if that was right for me. Quite simply, I did not know what I should do. Discussions with my mom often turned into tense conversations. She could not understand why I would give up on a path that would assuredly offer financial success and stability. After weighing the pros and cons over and over again, and talking to professors, I finally took the plunge.

That inner debate over my field of study, though, was really the first step toward the transformation of who I am. It is hard for me to describe this struggle within myself, as I imagine it would be hard for anyone, but I can try to draw a comparison. Imagine that the identity I had with me when I entered St. Thomas was what I thought to be a fully grown onion. It had all of these different layers and everything seemed to be put together quite nicely. This was a false assessment, however. As my time at St. Thomas went on, some of the layers began to peel back. I started to see things in myself, and understand things about myself that I had never fathomed. And, as more layers were peeled back, new ones started to grow in their place.

The best of times

I do not believe it possible to pinpoint my reversal of fortunes. I never woke up and thought, “OK, it’s all better now.” There was no magic antidote, no advice-giving scribe, no change in the stars’ alignment. But somehow, in some way, everything started to come together. All of a sudden, I felt comfortable in my classes and established friendships with professors. I started working two different on-campus jobs that I have come to love, both for the work and the people. I have maintained a close and expanding group of friends who are always there for me. I am confident in my chosen path, well prepared for the future, and can say without hesitation that my college experience was a success.

But how, you may ask? Right now, as I stare graduation in the face, I can tell you what I think caused this remarkable turn of events. Although I confronted difficult days, I promised myself that I would survive. I had set out after high school with a goal – to obtain a college degree – and I was going to achieve that goal. And here I am.

I attribute some of this success to my father, despite the turmoil he caused. He crushed our family, but I was not going to let him tear me down. Every good grade I earned, every article or paper I published, every compliment I received – I thought of as a secret snub. His absence in my life, and the hardship that followed, only inspired me to show everyone I could succeed on my own.

My identity crisis, on the other hand, accomplished something different. After fretting about where I was going and what I was doing, I came to the conclusion that it was perfectly fine to question who I am. Things happen, people change, and I am changing, too. I found that we all need to re-evaluate who or what we are from time to time. When I figured that out, I enjoyed my studies as an English major and my life at St. Thomas all the more.

What I really have learned here, though, seems quite obvious, but it is something I believe has been lost. I discovered that higher education is meant for the attainment of knowledge, not the attainment of a career. Sure, the knowledge that students gain here can lead to a career, but I do not believe that is the ultimate goal. Rather, the true prize is won through the search for information. Knowledge is not just about learning the tools of a trade or preparing for a future job. Knowledge is about seeking out new truths, learning about other sides of arguments, digging and pulling at the roots of humanity.

The times ahead

When I get together with friends I have made over my years here, it seems like we are already alumni. We reminisce about days and events gone by, and steer clear of graduation talk. We try to bask in the present, look back fondly on the past and ignore the future – at least when we are all together. Inside we are all thinking ahead, wondering where we will be in six months or a year or five years.

So, where do I go from here? The logistics seem frighteningly simple to me. In August, I will leave to teach English as a foreign language in Prague, Czech Republic; then (hopefully) I will attend graduate school. Finally, I would like to be an English professor. Having a broad blueprint for the future scares me a little, but I know for sanity’s sake I need to have some sort of plan. I cannot help but wonder, though, what my future really holds.

That is why if someone were to ask me today, “Do you now have a complete onion?” I would say no. I know there is no such thing as a complete onion, or person. Instead, we are all, no matter our age or position in society, growing new layers and learning new things and having new experiences – all of which add up to who we are as people. Without new growth we become stale, stagnant.

I want to challenge my boundaries. I want to break free from convention. I want to flee from the mundane. I want to live, grow, learn, explore.

During my four years at St. Thomas I discovered that people cannot remain static. The only way to know myself is to redefine, re-evaluate, and re-examine my life, my experiences, and my surroundings. I must – and will – continually challenge all that I have come to know. Without that, I cannot be me.

Also, I cannot overemphasize how much the University of St. Thomas has contributed to my growth and success. It allowed me the freedom to stretch out and escape from some of the turmoil. It offered pathways and educational stimulants for me to explore. It gave me mentors, through professors and staff members, who have both guided me in innumerable ways and handed me opportunities I would never have had elsewhere. It fostered lifelong relationships with some of the best friends a person could hope to meet. Even after my student loans are paid, I will still be indebted to this institution that has given me so much.

Andy Pieper ’03 is from New Prague, Minn. He is an English major, a student consultant at the Center for Writing, a news intern in University Relations and a former teaching assistant in the Academic Development Program. Pieper also wrote the MLA research paper that will appear in the next edition of the Harbrace College Handbook.