School’s (Almost) Out

At 12:55 a.m. this morning, I sent a draft of my dissertation to my advisor, who will send it along to the committee.  It was a small action, simple, and done without anybody else even knowing what was going on.  

Elena, starting to come down with a cold, was sleeping.  Faustina, Chiara, and Therese were all asleep in their rooms.  Karol had woken up at about 11 p.m. and was watching Trolls on the television in the front living room.

Starting at about 7 p.m. on Sunday, the enormity of me finishing my dissertation really started to close in on me.  Of course, for months, I had known that this time would come. It was the goal and I wanted to get it done with! It’s good, and I’m excited to reach this milestone in my life.  But at the same time, there’s a momentousness, a weight to this experience that I really didn’t see coming. Maybe that’s because I’ve been under so much stress just focusing on getting it done that I haven’t had the time to reflect on what it means.

But surely part of the experience is that, since August of 2002, with only the slightest breaks, I have been a college student.  I would not have believed anybody in 2002 if they told me I’d still be a college student in 2020. That would have sounded utterly ridiculous.  But how would I have known at that age? I was a kid!

Here I am, eighteen years later, finally finishing school.  I’m not doing what I said I wanted to do when I was in my freshman year at FSU.  Funny enough, I am finishing up my academic life at FSU. But not as a music major.  Life throws things at us and our paths change, but so do our dreams. I don’t want to be a musician anymore.  Even if I could play the trumpet like a pro, I don’t desire that kind of a life. Where I’m at now, both in terms of where I actually live, but also where I’m at in life…this is my dream, and I’m living it and loving it.

It is so weird looking back to my first days in college and now finally finishing, almost two decades later.  So much has changed. But much has stayed the same.

There was no wireless internet in 2002 in the dorms.  I didn’t know anybody in Tallahassee at that time. Now, wifi is everywhere, and I have a lot of friends in Tallahassee.  It really became a home to me over the last five years.

The biggest change is my age.  I was really just a child when I started college all those years back.  During this eighteen year journey, I’ve changed majors, changed schools, joined the seminary, met a girl, left the seminary, taught high school, got married, bought a house, had kids, got a master’s degree, worked for a church parish, had a house flood, lost my house due to foreclosure.  I got into grad school a second time with the intent of getting a PhD and hopefully becoming a professor. And yet here I am working for a fearless successor to the Apostles, as Director of Faith Formation.

I’ve published a book with a scholar from the UK who is now a friend and the godfather to my youngest daughter.  I’m making enough money for my family to actually survive.  

Thinking back on what college has been like, I think very little about what I’ve learned.  Maybe that’s because I forgot a lot of what I learned. More than likely it’s because what I learned is far less important than who I have become.

At FSU, on my first tour, I was a kid who just wanted to play music.  I had no real plans or dreams beyond that. It was all about me and the trumpet. God knew that wasn’t best for me and, in strange and mysterious ways, helped me learn that I needed to think differently about what life was all about.  Turns out, it wasn’t all about me or what I wanted. Still, there were good things about my time in Tallahassee. I met the Brotherhood of Hope. Brother Ted, Brother Allen and the others were always there as a model of what the Christian life looked like.  I met Tim and Jared, Patrick, Jason, and Ben. Those guys meant a lot to me back then and they still do. It was a real blessing to live with two Christian witnesses like Tim and Jared and I thank God for putting them in my path and in my life. The time we spent just forming friendships, telling stories, and playing games, are really some of the best memories in my life. 

I then went to the seminary and discovered so much more about who I really was.  There was good to this, but I also learned that I had problems, and that my life’s journey with God really wasn’t in great shape.  I had to learn to pray and to go to confession. I also met some of the best men I could have ever imagined. I met guys who knew how to be real, authentic men, but also knew how to love the Lord and who were examples to me of what holiness looked like.  While there were plenty of guys at the seminary who wound up dropping out or whose lives really got messed up later on, I managed to find a crew of friends who all went on to become great, holy priests. Kurt, Rusty, McCaughey, Alejandro, Garrett, Pat Arensberg, Colin Braud.  What an utter grace and gift for me to get to spend formative years with such awesome men of God. 

Of course, in the seminary I also met Elena.  I shaved my head for the bonfire game and so looked like Uncle Fester when I first met her.  But in that classroom in Covington, God brought me my wife. It took time for us to realize it, but what an amazing God I have who sent me such a woman for a wife and mother to our children. 

The master’s degree was done in fits and starts.  One semester full time as a seminarian who was also living a double life with a girlfriend.  It felt so dangerous and risky at the time and now it’s laughable. But that’s how things went.  After I left the seminary, my classes had to be done on the weekends. That meant a lot of homework and after-hours reading assignments.  Paper writing with kids running around the house. Somehow I would manage to get things done. Just barely. 

Grad school with a family was always a juggling act.  I had a wife and kids and a job for the first degree, and a wife and kids for the second one.  There was an isolation factor involved with this. I cherished and wanted to be with my family, and don’t regret that for a second.  But it was tough sometimes not being able to feel like I was part of a group of students. At FSU and St. Ben’s, I had other guys to hang around with and commiserate with about my assignments.  For the MA and PhD, it was a lot more on me to handle alone.  

And yet I was never alone; my amazing wife was there for me at every step.  In Tallahassee, I also had David, Nathan, Steven. They kept me sane and helped me know that there were other men like me, trying to take care of kids and also get their schoolwork done.  Also Stephen who, though he didn’t have a family, I always considered a part of my family.

I feel super nostalgic about all the memories of school over the years, and a profound sense of freedom that I don’t have to do this again.  But I also have this strange sense of sadness…school can’t be done, can it? Of course I want it to be done.  But it’s been part of my identity for so long that it feels strange to move past it. 

I remember so many late nights with Jared and Patrick especially.  Getting questionable food to “help me stay awake” at 2 a.m. Buying extra six packs of Jones soda to get through an all-nighter.  I especially remember the first time I had a ten page paper to write, for music history. Sitting in my apartment at The Exchange, listening to Jump by Van Halen on a loop for hours and hours while I pounded out sentence after sentence on the keyboard about some Italian trumpet concerto.  

I remember staying at the main library at FSU for finals week.  Studying from 8 p.m. to 4 a.m., coming home, taking a shower and a nap, then going back up there at 8 a.m. Learning a semester worth of music history or some other class because I had quit going to class toward the second half of the term and needed an A on the exam to keep my GPA on track.

At the seminary, the 3 a.m. club was a real thing.  Late nights reading philosophy, writing papers, going to the refectory for some caffeine.  Stopping to play NBA Jam T.E. on the Super Nintendo because I needed a brain break. The really neat thing about that experience at St. Ben’s was that there was always a crowd of us trying to finish our work.  Kurt, McCaughey, Buse, Luke Ordogne, Colin Braud, Cavaness. There were also other guys who finished theirs ahead of time and got to sleep. We all wondered how they managed to do it. 

For the PhD, the biggest memories are the late nights doing readings for coursework.  I could never imagine staying up for all of the football games every weekend, with the sound off, but often I read by the light of ESPN.  Early mornings at the library trying to learn German (it never worked, but somehow I passed the translation exam).  

Comprehensive exams were a real challenge.  I read so much that I got dizzy and had to take off three days and got several hundred pages behind.  So I just wound up skipping a couple of books and was terrified I would fail. Somehow, I wrote 40,000 words in one week and over 30,000 words in a week on three separate occasions. I to this day have no idea how I managed this, or how I passed those exams.  

Which then leaves me of course with the dissertation.  13 months of writing and editing and all to realize that, at the end of the day, I barely know anything.  I’ve written at home, at school, at friend’s houses, at co-op. Every time somebody asked how it was going I felt like it had to be almost over.  Countless things I’ve said I’d do as soon as I finished the dissertation, almost none of which I can remember except that I most recently promised Chiara and Therese that I would help them clean their room.

I want to write other books in my life, and I’m sure that I will do it.  But the late nights of school work are gone.  Once and for all, I’m moving on with my life.

The experience of being in college for such a long time, almost five presidential terms (!), through three popes, one marriage (over a decade!), seven pregnancies, I can’t imagine some other experience other than my marriage surpassing this one.  That is to say, from the time I started college til the time I finished, my life and the world around me has transformed completely. The only other experience I will have that will be a source of continuity whereby I can see the change of my own self and the rest of the world, will be in my marriage. 

College was fun, it was long, it was awful, it was challenging, it sucked, and now it’s (almost) over.  Deo Gratias, but also I will miss it. 

Posted by Luke Arredondo

Luke Arredondo earned his B.A. in philosophy from St. Joseph Seminary and an M.A. in Theology at Notre Dame Seminary. He is currently a PhD student in the Religion, Ethics, and Philosophy track at Florida State University, where he studies Catholic sexual ethics and Catholic moral theology with Dr. Aline Kalbian. He also writes at his own blog, at Ignitum Today, and Aleteia. His most important work, though, is as a husband to his wife Elena and a father to his three daughters.