By Eric Immel, S.J., Midwest Province of the Society of Jesus
Eric Immel, S.J. is a Jesuit regent of the Midwest Province of the Society of Jesus. He works at Arrupe College in Chicago and writes for The Jesuit Post. This article was originally published by the Midwest Province and is featured in Connections with permission from the Province.
Jerome had tired eyes, yellowed with age and fragmented by red, angular veins. His rich mahogany irises reflected the harsh fluorescent light of the subway tunnel, and his pupils were minuscule, adjusting from the darkness of the street above. Tears sat gently in the corners of these eyes, and when he blinked, they ran down his stubbled cheeks. Still, these eyes met mine with brightness and warmth. They energized me, tired after another long day at Arrupe College in Chicago, my full-time job for the next few years. He outstretched his clenched, trembling fist in a gesture of brotherhood, and as our knuckles collided, he began his sermon.
“I can see you’re a man of God,” he said. It was late, and I still had on my clerical shirt, white tab undone. He continued, “I want you to know something: Your gifts will carry you far, but your character will define you.”
He went on, paraphrasing parables and quoting Scripture. He told me he believed in me. He asked me to pray with him right there on the Blue Line. Then, we rode together in silence until my stop and said goodbye. I walked home across the college campus near where I live, and after trading my clerical shirt for an old Badgers tee, opened a new document and began typing a lesson plan for the next day, ten hours before I would teach it.
Arrupe College is new for everyone. Part of Loyola University Chicago, it is the first Jesuit two-year college in the country, and it offers a liberal arts education to diverse students, many of whom are the first in their families to go to college. They face judgment about whether they are prepared or even “gifted” enough to succeed in higher education.
Through little fault of their own, our students face significant challenges in accessing and succeeding in a traditional four-year degree program. Their average high school GPA and ACT scores are lower than the typical Loyola student, and most of them qualify for state and federal financial aid. They commute from every corner of the city and return home each day, often facing the very worst that Chicago has to offer — systemic racism, violence and poverty. Some are undocumented immigrants seeking education in a country deeply divided over whether they should be here at all. They stand at the foot of a mountain of injustice, and they continue to climb with us at Arrupe.
Our students are hungry to learn. Their grit in facing the realities of a world often pitted against them shows relentless determination, perseverance, strength and wisdom. As one student said, “We aren’t going anywhere.” They are not defined by the adversity that often surrounds them but by how they respond to that adversity and sustain unwavering hope. Time and again, I am struck by how generously they lift one another up with a word of encouragement, a hug, or a prayer.
Jerome knew it on that train, my students know it at Arrupe, and I am learning: That which we are capable of means nothing if good character isn’t in place. And so I stay up, soft light shining across my little desk, memories of Jerome and my students settling in my mind. My eyes are heavy but open and ready to face the night.