Kayla Keller in Europe during her semester at University of Mary’s very popular Rome campus.

Reflecting on the last four years of my life at the University of Mary is a little bit like looking in the direction of the sun: overwhelming, unattainable, and overly happy. My time here has transformed me in so many more ways than I can articulate, and it is one of the best undeserved gifts I’ve ever received. The education that I have received at the University of Mary is more aptly called formation – formation of the total person, formation for the whole of life. This formation occurs when knowledge gained through education is woven into the art of living well.

Admittedly, as an incoming freshman I was entirely unaware of the gift I was about to receive. I remember sitting in my high school auditorium as a senior, listening to an eloquent priest, University of Mary President, Monsignor James Shea, speak to us about our lives after high school. I specifically remember him saying, “Your life is not about you, and it will find meaning insofar as you find a way to give it away in love.” That was so curious to me then. Now, looking back, my time at the University of Mary has transformed me in such a way that I now understand that truth Msgr. Shea revealed to me four years ago.

Kayla Keller (center), with classmates in Rome: Kharissa Jacobson Nye (right), Ashley Salwei (left)

My participation in the first ever cohort of the University of Mary Gregorian Scholars honors Program has taught me this well. After meeting every month for four years, our small group of 15 students and three professors met for our very last colloquium recently. The dinner was truly delightful. The dynamics amongst all of us Gregorian Scholars students and professors was as formative, free, and familiar as ever.

I sat next to my dear friend Kharissa, whom I met through honors when we were both freshmen. The only time we spent together as freshmen was in the context of honors events because, as we would later discover, we were mutually intimidated by the scholasticism of the other. Fortunately, this discovery came about during our sophomore semester in Rome. We, along with four of our other Gregorian Scholars and 17 others, came back from Rome as transformed students of truth: as true friends, inspired scholars, and more integrated persons.

Over dessert we shared the overarching insights which we gleaned from reading all of Dante’s Commediathis year. Marianne, another treasured friend whom I would not have befriended outside of honors, highlighted the role of Virgil as Dante’s teacher and guide. Her sincere reflection on the significance and impact of ourprofessors as ourbeloved teachers and guides drew tears from the familiar eyes of both students and professors.

Our three professors who have been with us since we were truly awkward freshmen shared their own insights. They expressed how proud they were of us, for our intellectual growth in the last four years as well as how we all grew together in friendship and community. In Dante’s Purgatorio, there comes a time when Virgil crowns Dante, his student, because he has surpassed Virgil. Our faculty crowned us that night, and sent us out to bring the fruits of this most special community to others with the words, “We’ve crowned you; you’re Virgil now.”

What that evening did for me was to open my eyes to the reality of what this program means to all of us. These colloquia, the texts we’ve immersed ourselves in, the excursions we’ve taken, the relationships we’ve formed, and most uniquely the community which is the synthesis of all of these things is immeasurably transformative and valuable. I saw the pride, mentorship, and care which our professors have for us, and the authentic joy they have in giving of their time and their very selves to us, spending entire evenings and weekends with us in the pursuit of truth and the contemplation of goodness for the formation of our souls.

Following dessert we all went to Chesterton’s, our campus pub, for beers, continued conversations, strategizing for future honors cohorts, reminiscing, laughing, and enjoying a lingering glow of gratitude. We remembered how we came to value the pursuit of knowledge as its own end and discovered the true joy of learning. We learned how to learn well, think well, converse well. We dined with highly regarded guest lecturers in academia and found that our academic pursuits were not out of our reach. We formed true community with other scholars and faculty. We learned to see the whole of reality.

Kayla Keller with friends enjoying Homecoming festivities: Keller (second from right), Mariah Goetz (far left), Alexandra Poland (second from left), Ashley Salwei (far right).

My experience at the University of Mary cannot be reduced to one person, one class, one organization, or even a collection of persons, classes, and organizations. This is because the formation I have received here is itself integral. Each of these lessons taught me by Gregorian Scholars is connected to my entire experience of formation at the University of Mary, especially participation in Catholic Studies and living at our Rome Campus. Through all of these things I’ve learned that two of the most important things in life are integration and relationships. I’ve learned about reality – the reality of truth, the reality of God, the reality of others, the reality of the world, the reality of myself, and the reality that how I interact with and relate to each of these things is significant in an eternal sense.

Relationships allow for this integration. In his well-known prayer, Bl. John Henry Cardinal Newman says, “I am a link in a chain, a bond of connection between persons.”

I believe that this reality characterizes all of my experience at the University of Mary, a great tapestry of relationships interconnecting and all connected by relationship with Christ. The late Dr. Don Briel, the creator of Catholic Studies, one of the geniuses behind our Gregorian Scholars honors Program, and my professor in Rome, taught me about the curiously personal way in which Christ sought to change the entire world – by cultivating friendship with three men. Christ Himself was a link in a chain, a bond of connection between persons – between the person of God the Father and His beloved children. Christ redeems the world by his heart speaking unto our hearts in the context of friendship, by meeting us in our humanity and sending us to do the same.

How true and how powerful is this personal relationship and how much more potent it is when it is not a singular relationship, but an entire community of relationships which composes a true community of learning. This community in which I am immersed begets relationships for life – with my professors and with my friends who have become a second family for me and which has become integrated with my real family, so that my parents and brother also experience my beloved University of Mary community.

Kayla Keller, front row, at the University of Mary Rome Campus with faculty, clergy and classmates.

Now, I feel the weight of this gift that means the world to me because it has opened up the entire world to me. During my time here, I have received greater things than I ever thought existed. Because of that and as an extension of that, I will be able to give greater things than I ever dreamed. This reality is all because a great number of generous people decided to love me before they even knew me. My professors within Biology and Catholic Studies, the directors of the Rome Campus, our honors professors, and administration all decided to give of themselves to the noble endeavor of Catholic education long before they knew me or my classmates.

My time at the University of Mary has taught me the importance of service, has showed me what a life of service looks like, and has given me opportunities to serve others. What makes the joy of giving sweeter is that in it I become even more connected with the community of persons who are responsible with entrusting this gift to me. I become more like my mentors as I give to others, strengthening the bonds of relationship in this community that gives life. The more I give this gift away in love, the more profoundly I receive it.

I plan to spend the next year of my life in service, teaching at Brilla K-8 Charter School in the Bronx, NY.  After that, I plan to go to graduate school and eventually teach. Throughout my life, I will continue to pass on what I have received here – to my family, to my friends, and to any person I encounter who is in need. The goodness and truth and beauty I have received during my time at the University of Mary is a gift that must live. It cannot reside in my memory as a pleasant anecdote – “those four great years that were so blessed.” No, the gift of formation, the gift of mentorship, the gift of friendship, the gift of fullness of life that I have received here must live.

—Kayla Keller, Fargo, ND

2018 Bachelor of Science in Biology, and current Master of Bioethics graduate student

Summa Cum Laude and Gregorian Honors Scholar