A part of Mount Marty College’s (MMC) new Benedictine Leadership Institute (BLI) is to have students learn about themselves.
One way to accomplish this is to give the student’s perspective on their place in the world. BLI Director Joe Rutten chose the perfect place to do this: the Grand Canyon.
During a three-day holiday weekend in early October, 115 MMC freshmen and faculty drove in three busses to the national landmark through scenic Utah and Arizona.
This is the first MMC class that is taking the BLI and the first class to make the trip to the Grand Canyon. Future freshmen classes will also have the opportunity to make similar trips.
That this year’s class was the first to experience this wasn’t lost on them, chaperone and MMC theology professor S. Terry Lafferty said.
"They seemed aware that they are the first to get to take such a trip, and that their experience would influence the plans for future programs for themselves and upcoming classes," she said. "Their maturity and respectful attitude toward each other, the park, the faculty and staff who journeyed with them spoke volumes regarding who they are as virtuous leaders."
The journey to the destination was a bit rocky, as the group was forced to take a detour in Utah and had a bus breakdown just an hour outside of the Grand Canyon National Park.
Freshman Abby Thomas said to pass time, people took naps, watched movies and chatted. At one point, Rutten had the students do "speed friending" where the students acquainted themselves with all their fellow passengers on their respective busses.
She was able to see the bright side to the unplanned circumstances.
"We got to see the more scenic side of Utah, which was beautiful," she said. "When the bus broke down…the stars were amazing. The bus ride did get long, but was totally worth it."
The group reached its destination Friday evening, Oct. 5 and visited the canyon the following morning.
For most, it was the first time they had seen the Grand Canyon in person.
"The students were very animated and awestruck when they got their first glimpse of the Grand Canyon," Lafferty said. "It was obvious that the 24-plus-hour bus ride was soon forgotten once they saw such a magnificent view."
Students were encouraged to explore the area on their own time, allowing them to see more of the canyon and marvel at just how large and deep it was. Lafferty recalled overhearing one student say, "I’m not gonna lie. I thought it was, like, 10 feet deep."
Thomas was also overwhelmed.
"I thought of how amazing God is that He can create something so beautiful," she said.
Most of that Saturday was spent focusing on personal identity, during which students were told to reflect on questions such as: "Who am I?" "What does it mean to be me?" "What are my strengths and weaknesses?" "What are the values I live by?"
Thomas said she hadn’t previously thought of those kinds of questions.
"One of the things we had to do was make a list of 50 things we wanted to do with our lives, which I’d never thought about much," she said. "I knew I wanted to be a criminal justice major, but I never thought deeper than that, like what made me want to do that."
Pondering these questions is a major part of the BLI, Rutten said.
"We believe all leaders ought to know who they are," he said.
One of the trip highlights took place Sunday morning when the group had Mass on the rim of the canyon. Father James Keiter, pastor of St. John the Baptist parish in Fordyce, Nebraska, led the service.
Lafferty said Keiter summed up the trip beautifully during his homily.
"He spoke about the three ways we think of ourselves as our mission, our identity and our relationships, but in that order," she recalled. "He thinks that we should turn it around and think of our relationships helping to inform who we are (our identity), and our mission is something we do, but doesn’t determine who we are. He spoke about a basketball player losing his ability to play due to an injury. If this player has good relationships and knows who he is (identity), there are other people and things that can help him determine what else he can do (mission) with his time/life."
Learning about this at the Grand Canyon added to the experience, Thomas said.
"Having the opportunity to be there made a huge impact on the whole message of the leadership program," she said.
The ride back to Yankton was less adventurous than the trip there, but was nonetheless part of the adventure, Rutten said.
"In life, it’s not all mountaintop experiences and epic encounters," he said. "A majority of life is very boring and mundane. In the midst of these two long bus rides, we had this encounter with the Grand Canyon, a masterpiece of God’s creation. That says how life is lived — you have great moments in the middle of normal day-to-day activities. I want to encourage young people to see the great encounters in the mundane. You don’t have to go somewhere else to have that."
Next year’s freshmen will also go to the Grand Canyon while the sophomores go to the Rocky Mountains, which will focus more on teaching the students about being involved with a community.
"I’ve been hearing buzz from older students that they wished they could’ve done the trip," Rutten said. "We’re excited to continue doing it as we move forward."
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