Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Mount St. Mary's College

Last Sunday, I went to Mount St. Mary’s College, the Chalon campus in Brentwood, with my niece. She is thinking of transferring there for the fall to be an English major.

I have a long history with the Mount, as the faculty, students, and alumnae call it. My grandmother took a degree in dietetics from the school in the 1930s, and sixty years later, my wife followed suit with a liberal studies degree.

There was a point in my life, when I was on the cusp of adulthood, that my grandmother and I made the pilgrimage up the winding roads of west Los Angeles to the hilltop campus to hear a concert. It was the dead of winter, and my grandmother was trying to open some doors for me. She wanted me to attend Mount St. Mary’s for a music degree. I wanted to go to Cal State Northridge. CSUN had a jazz program. The Mount was steeped in classical.

Sister Teresita Espinosa, the music department chair, met us at the concert. She told us about the programs and facilities, the practice rooms, the fact that the school was mostly all-female, but certain majors were admitting men. Then she led me to the stage after the concert audience had filed out, and I sat down and played the gorgeous, seven-foot grand piano. The instrument was heavenly to touch and to hear. The notes echoed off the walls, reverberated through the hall.

Sister Teresita told me there might be scholarship opportunities, since my grandmother was an alumna. I stood there on that crisp, December night, and I turned it all down.

In the car on the way back down the mountain, my grandmother said, “Whatever the scholarship doesn’t cover, I will pay it.” She tried to change my life, and I walked away.

Years later, I accompanied my wife to the school for her classes. While she studied and researched, I worked in the basement of the library, writing my one and only unpublished, or should I say unpublishable novel. It was a quiet room with a large table and a view of the ocean. Sometimes I left the writing and thought about what my life could have been, the turn I might have taken, the doors that I closed. What if?

So there we were last weekend, with Kristina, walking the campus and listening to speakers, including school President Jacqueline Powers Doud. How familiar it all was, and how refreshing to hear someone speak of ethics and morals as a first priority of education. I haven’t heard someone speak of such lofty ideals for a very long time.

I went into the library, remodeled probably a few times since I worked on my writing there. Students shifted about, lounged in chairs reading, studied at desks. Silence, golden and pure.

Outside the weather was cold, the wind blew, and there was a hint of rain. Walking into the building to get warm, I passed a familiar face in the hall. She smiled at me with welcome. Sister Teresita. She thought I was a prospective parent, which for that day, I was.

Somehow, what I believed in as an English teacher, what I valued most about my job, why I finally did change my life long after that trip with my grandmother, all of that has been lost. I do not hear those ideals about education anymore. The idea of a classical education, one where character counts for something, and morals, ethics and values run like fine thread through the silk of golden dreams, that is what’s missing in the contemporary debate about teaching and learning.

My grandmother rests in her grave now. Her house has been sold, her possessions disposed of, her life remaindered to memory. I realized far too late, as is my habit, what she tried to do for me. I hope that I might be able to rectify my blindness by helping my niece. In this day and time, so much is uncertain. But I am glad the Mount still stands.


  1. Wow. What a powerful story. I almost threw away my offer to attend the Mount, and reading this has made me (in yet another, unexpected way) appreciate the leap I took when deciding to go there.

  2. Great story, and what you say about the state of education in our day is so true.

    I am a Mount Alum (English, 1985) and I have been taking the college tours with my own children for the past 8 years, including the Mount's. My youngest and I have just returned from the preview weekend of one of the most prestigious technology institutes in our nation. On the long flight home we discussed all the different colleges and universities she has visited over the years and her impressions of them. She noted that the absence of that "fine thread" had been painfully apparent at the campus she had just seen, and she was not the only prospective student to notice that.

    I have hope for her generation, yet. Best wishes to your niece on her educational journey.

  3. I really hope your niece goes to The Mount. I graduated in 2005 and I had an amazing experience there.
    I was there on Saturday as well, I spoke on the Alumnae panel.
    Too bad it wasn't sunnier!

  4. Kristin Wennerstrom GuilonardApril 15, 2010 at 5:21 PM

    I am a Mount alum, class of 92, with a math degree. I do not exaggerate when I say with my SAT scores and my GPA and high school class standing, I could have gone anywhere in the country. Because of fate and circumstance that are too lengthy to mention, I ended up at the Mount. I loved it but had my reservations.

    Up until a few years ago, I always wondered what would have happened had I attended an Ivy League school, University of Chicago, University of Michigan, etc...

    And then I had a revelation.

    I can guarantee you this. I would not have gotten a math degree. I would not have had such a stellar liberal arts education, which makes me a broad and introspective thinker in my field of medicine. I would not have graduated in 3 years allowing me to pursue my Master's a year earlier.

    The friendships I made there are life-long. I consider those nuns to be probably the best instructors I have ever had. They taught me humility, grace, and kindness, even as I had some rather significant life changes while there.

    I am forever grateful for the education at the Mount. I hope your niece chooses to go.

  5. Thank you all for your wonderful and inspiring comments.

    After having taught almost a generation of high school students, one of the things I love about working with kids is how one experience can change their lives. Sometimes it is a friendship or love, a particular moment in time, but more often it is a school experience. I have seen kids come back a year or two after graduation and be devastated because they went to a university that was not right for them and they were miserable. Others, who find the right place, the right combination of community and education, have grown immeasurably. They are confident men and women. The change is so dramatic to be almost magical.

    I know that Mount St. Mary's is that kind of place, a school community where lives change and futures are made. I emailed Kristina at work (trying to earn the money to put her dreams into motion) and told her to read your kind and encouraging words.

    I appreciate your time spent reading my post and writing your thoughts.

    Take care.

  6. hi i found you through "recently banned books" site and love the discovery of your insights/poetic sensibilities!

  7. Thank you for the wonderful compliment. William Michaelian, the author of Recently Banned Books is amazing isn't he? One of my true heroes in the writing world.

    Welcome, and I appreciate your reading of my work.

  8. We too were there a few Sunndays ago, our daughter has been accepted at MSM but was not her first choice rejected by the Cal State system due to budget cuts, she is not sure she wants to go to MSM . I hope she does, I loved the smallness etc. Unfortunaly finances are not good and cant quakify for Parent Plus loans due to bad past credit. Should we make sacrifices to send her there, at this stage I really dont know

  9. First of all, your daughter will be transformed by her experience attending college at the Mount. Every kid is different, but I have seen this happen in my own family and in students I have met who have gone there. It is worth every penny and every sacrifice you must make. So please, tell her as I am telling you, this college is a special place, and going to class there, working within that community of teachers and learners, will change her life.

    As for the financial strain, I strongly urge you to make an appointment with a financial aid counselor on campus. If you have already done this, go back and talk to them some more. My wife and I were still paying off student debt from our first college experience at CSUN when she enrolled at the Mount. We were able to work out a payment plan to avoid paying the tuition in full up front. They spread the payments over several months and we were able to manage. Talk to them.

    I went to a Cal State college and then witnessed my wife's experience at the Mount. What a difference! This school cares about each and every student, and you cannot beat the education or the atmosphere of the campuses.

    By the way, my niece has elected to attend MSMC. We are overjoyed, and even though it will be expensive, we know this is a turning point in her life.

    I wish you the best with your daughter, and feel free to email me and let me know how things go.

  10. Hello, my name is Rezianne and I stumbled upon this blog post. I am deeply compelled with your writing about the campus, sir. I currently go to a community college in Walnut and I'm taking my pre requisites in Nursing. With my study habits and gpa, I know I could go to UCLA, CalStates and other prestigious universities out there. I heard about MSMC while I was searching for a really good school to transfer into.

    I came from the Philippines and the school I grew up in was strictly Catholic. If it was not because of the nuns and the faculty, I wouldn't be as polite, mannered and God fearing as I am right now. They contributed to a lot of my development as far as being a "good girl" and student goes.

    When I came here to the US, I was taken aback at how liberated students could be when it comes to values and ethics. I would rather prefer a private school like MSMC than public universities. Since I don't want to lose all the values my teachers back home instilled in me, I believe I have found the perfect place for me-- MSMC. It's quite intimidating to talk to a student my age who goes to famous universities because all their words are about excelling and doing good-- however I feel like there's still something vital missing. I'm glad I read your post Sir. I am now more convinced to attend here for a Nursing degree. Thank you very much.

  11. Rezianne, I think you will find the Mount a wonderful and inspirational place to study. The nursing program is first rate and nationally ranked. It is a Catholic women's college, so I think you will find the environment a plus as well. Please let me know how things go, and I wish you all the best with your studies. Thanks for the comment.


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