2,721. That’s how many miles away my son Riley will be when he goes off to college at Saint Joseph’s this fall. It’s a number that has rolled around in my brain a lot over the last few months, especially when someone asks the inevitable questions: “Why Saint Joseph’s? Why so far?” I usually respond with something like, “It just felt right when we visited. They have his major. His admissions counselor, Sue Chen, was amazing.” All of these things are absolutely true, yet somehow they don’t seem to satisfy the question.
We are a California family. A beach family. Riley loves to surf and has loved the ocean ever since I first dangled his tiny baby toes in the surf. We love where we live and feel blessed to live there (especially in February when the rest of the country is shoveling snow). So why was my son going to the other side of the country for college? Why SJU?
The night before orientation, the differences in the two places began to become apparent. At the news of an approaching thunderstorm, we hunkered down at our hotel, shaking our heads at all the people heading to an outdoor concert – didn’t they know there was a storm coming? Everyone was so nonchalant, that we realized an evening thunderstorm on the East Coast is not a big deal. In Southern California, they never happen. Never. So my college bound 18-year-old son and his 16-year-old sister ran up to our hotel room, turned out all the lights, opened the curtains wide and sat giggling like little kids watching the lightning show outside.
The next morning, as we walked, jet-lagged and groggily following the balloons towards Hawk Hill, the first Red Shirt hit us. “Woohooo!! Welcome to Saint Joseph’s!!!” he said, with so much enthusiasm that there aren’t enough exclamation points to properly demonstrate. He obviously had had a cup of coffee – or four. Then we were hit again. Another caffeine-pumped, clapping Red Shirt yelled “WELCOME!!” And then another, and another. Their energy was helping us climb the hill towards our son’s future home, and helping me not just wake up, but feel less anxious and more excited about his future at SJU. The friendliness was contagious and everywhere.
Splitting the students and parents happened quickly. Parents went to Doyle Banquet Hall for a light breakfast as their student walked off toward the dorms to put their bedding in the room and start their own orientation. There’s a fork in the balloon-lined path and just like that, they’re gone. I didn’t get a photo, or a hug. These SJU people know what they’re doing. Like a band-aid — they rip it off quickly. No time for hugs or tears. Smart.
The rest of the day was filled with helpful people giving us all of the important and reassuring information we parents need in order to let go. I took pages of notes, collected piles of handouts, and met lots of friendly parents, administrators and staff. We learned about housing, dining, student services, the impressive security team and much more. Occasionally we passed by the students on our way to the next session and I would get a little nod from my son. I even got a smile and wave at Mass. Praying and singing together at Mass was the perfect ending to our day. Hearing the Red Shirts passionately sing “We Are Called” as they rocked back and forth, arms around each other, filled my heart with joy and reassurance: What a great environment this is. Riley will be fine.
The following day we picked Riley up from his second day of orientation and found him in a mixed state of complete exhaustion and overwhelming enthusiasm. As we walked to our rental car Riley talked on and on about his orientation experience. He told us about dinner at Reading Terminal Market, where music and delicious smells filled the air as he got to know his color group and his amazing leaders. After dinner they ran up the Rocky steps to be rewarded by a view of the setting sun shimmering on the Philadelphia skyline. There was the Black Light Dance later that night, and more information sessions the next day, ending with the Field Games and a BBQ. Riley had such a great time at Orientation and couldn’t wait to be a Red Shirt himself someday. As we continued to walk to the car Riley talked about all of the great people he’d met, including his roommate Ryan, and then he stopped suddenly. “Mom, take my picture in front of Barbelin!” I couldn’t get my camera out fast enough. I got my photo, I got my hug, and I got my answer to why SJU – because of the people! Riley was going to be OK, 2,721 miles away.
The Callahan family is from Southern California. Riley is a member of the Class of 2018 at Saint Joseph’s University and his mom, Stephanie, is a proud Hawk parent!