The Journey to Messina

Incoming students begin their living learning journey this fall at Loyola, but it all began back in 1548 in Sicily

By Rita Buettner  |  Illustrations by Malia Leary

When St. Ignatius of Loyola founded the Society of Jesus, he didn’t want his Jesuits to be teachers. He wanted them to be nimble, unattached, and able to travel the globe on a moment’s notice.

When he traveled to the Holy Land with the men who would become the first Jesuits, however, the Franciscan protector there sent them back to Europe. Back in Europe, St. Ignatius spent time in prayer, trying to discern what God had in mind for the Society of Jesus. Meanwhile, more and more people started seeking out the Jesuit education for their children.

It was then that St. Ignatius realized God had a different mission in mind. In 1548 the former soldier opened the doors to the first Jesuit school for lay students, choosing as its site a Sicilian city, Messina.

Messina became a launching-off point, a place of beginning, a site where the Jesuits and their students accepted a new approach, a new focus, a new calling—an entirely new perspective that would still be shaping people’s lives hundreds of years later all over the world.

As Messina’s namesake living learning program at Loyola begins this fall, it will be designed to offer students a similarly transformative experience, a foundation that will set them on a journey of self-discovery through college, but also prepare them for the lifelong journey ahead.

First Taste of Messina

Coming to Baltimore last year from Sea Cliff, N.Y., on Long Island, Victoria Carter, ’16, didn’t really know what taking Messina courses meant. She just knew that Loyola was offering a pilot Messina program to first-year students in the Honors Program.

But it wasn’t just part of her schedule. It defined her Loyola experience.

“It ended up becoming my favorite part of the Honors Program,” she said. “I realized how important a sense of community was to me in college, and Messina gave me an even stronger sense of community.”

Living in Flannery O’Connor Hall near other students in her Messina classes, she started recognizing people and making friends even more quickly than she expected. And she discovered those friendships were deeper and richer.

“Because we had classes together we were able to build these stronger friendships,” she said. “This fall I’m coming back to school with a really nice set of friends I’m really comfortable with,” she said. “We’re all similar and different in really interesting ways, and that’s why we all connected so well.”

Carter and her classmates would gather outside of class for regular, spontaneous discussions about the reading.

“I lived on the second floor, and there were a lot of people on the third floor, so I would walk upstairs, and say, ‘Hey, did you get that part?’ and we’d sit down and talk about it together.”

As a mathematics major taking Human Drama in the Ancient World, taught by Martha Taylor, Ph.D., professor of classics, and Human Drama in the Medieval World, taught by Trent Pomplun, Ph.D., associate professor of theology, Carter found the whole experience new and unfamiliar. “I’m a very step-by-step person,” Carter said. “Dr. Taylor helped me use that logic to write my essays, break down my reading.”

She was certainly not alone.

“From business to psych to engineering, we’re all different majors,” she said. “For most of us—at least in my class—none of us were classics majors, so we all felt removed from it by the same degree, but not everyone had the same thing to say. Everyone’s reasoning why Homer wrote something a certain way was different.”

Think. Think Again. And Again.

Carter discovered that her Messina courses were pushing her to think in a new way.

“It’s different from a normal history class because you’re not just told this is what happened,” she said. “It’s almost like you’re living through these texts. It was completely different from anything I had done before. I went to class and entered Ancient Greece, and this is the play I would see if I were going for entertainment there.”

As Carter prepared to return to Loyola for her sophomore year, she was looking forward to being an Evergreen student supporting students in one of the Messina course-pairings. In fact, she spent time at Loyola’s Summer Orientation telling incoming students how much she benefited from her Messina experience.

“You come to Loyola because we’re a relatively small school and you want that sense of community. Messina just makes it even stronger,” Carter said. “I told them, ‘You have to do Messina. This is the best thing about Loyola.”

Infusing a Jesuit Vision

As a concept, living learning is not new. Neither was teaching when the Jesuits first accepted that mission and began opening schools.

What will make Messina different and distinctive will be the Jesuit nature of the program, the holistic approach to each student’s experience.

It is academic, social, and spiritual. It will help students find their places as vital members of a community—at Loyola, in Baltimore, in the United States, in the world.

Messina offers connection—among students, between students and faculty, and across disciplines. Each student chooses a course pairing within a theme: “Stories We Tell,” “The Visionary,” and “Self and Other.” In future years, additional themes will be introduced for students to be a part of. By 2015 all first-year students will be participating in Messina, and former Messina students will be invited back to events with the newest students.

But more than that, Messina is designed to help students revel in intellectual discovery, to ask big questions of themselves, their peers, and Loyola’s expert faculty, and keep on asking. Messina will encourage students to think of their future not just by considering a future career, but to discover their intellectual passion and grasp a true love, and hunger for, learning.

“As talented and committed as Loyola students have always been, they don’t always see this university—classes, office hours, out-of-class and residential experiences—as a connected learning environment.

Changing that and achieving a more thorough integration of their lives at Loyola is the newest and most exciting advantage of Messina,” said Douglas Harris, Ph.D., associate professor of political science and co-director of Messina. And they’ll bring their own personality and experiences to their coursework, as well. “Who they are as individuals is something they’ll want to bring to the classroom.”

Perfect Timing

The launch of Messina comes at a moment when Loyola University Maryland has fully established itself as a university, but one that wants to maintain its liberal arts feel.

“As we’re exploring new directions for the University, we didn’t want to lose sight of aspects of the first-year experience and the Jesuit commitment to higher education that have always defined Loyola,” Harris said. “Messina offers a dual impact of intellectual formation and academic excellence.”

And the program speaks directly to the hearts and minds of the Millennial generation, as it offers student leadership opportunities and more residential spaces where students can gather. Each group of students will not only connect with the two professors teaching their course pairing, but also a student development administrator and an Evergreen student leader who will help them navigate college life.

“They have reached this moment of emerging adulthood,” Harris said. “This transitional moment for 18- to 22-year-olds comes with its own challenges and new opportunities in the 21st century. Messina really is the new way to do an old thing very well.”

Messina will also help students practice patience, navigate conflict, and acquire other skills—including reflection and discernment—they will use throughout their lives.

In short, Messina will take the best of what Loyola University Maryland offers and ensure that incoming students experience all of that immediately, improving the overall Loyola experience not just in the first year, but through graduation—and beyond. Still, the question was, when you present students with a new option, will they recognize its value?

Enter the Class of 2017.

The goal for the first year of Messina was for one-third of the class to participate. Before the registration deadline, more than 400 students had enrolled and there was a waitlist.

“This never happened with other first-year programs,” said Michael Puma, co-director of the Messina Program. “Every class had more demand than we had seats for.”

Connecting the Thoughts

Take a look at the theme descriptions, and you’ll know why—especially when you delve into the names of the courses. Each student signs up for a course-pairing, one course taught in the fall and another in the spring—and the faculty teaching them are collaborating to make sure the courses complement each other.

Some are not too surprising—a theology class paired with classics, political science paired with economics. Then there’s theology paired with engineering, writing with statistics, and English with computer science.

“That one started with my suggesting to an English professor that she might like to partner with someone in philosophy or history,” Harris said. “She thought that was boring because she knew where those connections were and wanted to find new ones.”

Why not—especially at a time when Loyola is growing interdisciplinary programs in global studies, American studies, and medieval studies?

“We have always defined academic excellence at Loyola as being able to integrate learning across disciplines,” Harris said. “If you can find God in all things, you are likely to find connections between all fields.”

More about Messina:

Why there’s a waitlist for Messina

Define Messina: \me-’se-nä\

Donors enthusiastically support Loyola’s living learning initiative

President’s Message: Why Messina matters

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