Sunday, May 18, 2008

Now What?

Fellow Catholic writer Pat Gohn just graduated from the Franciscan University of Steubenville with her Master’s Degree in Theology (Congratulations, Pat!). On her blog at http://writenbtween.blogspot.com/, she has a photo of her dressed in cap and gown, proudly holding her diploma with the caption, “Now what?” I think that almost every graduate can share that emotion.

You work so hard for so long to achieve that elusive diploma and then you are faced with an uncertain future. Even if a job is lined up and a five-year plan is firmly in place, graduates tend to have a mixture of both excitement and fear as they step out into the next stage of their lives.

Commencement speakers are given a bad rap. Most people don’t remember a thing that they say, and the success of a speech is based solely on how brief it is. Back when I received my undergraduate degree, my commencement speaker was Regina Noonan Hitchery. No, I did not remember her name. I had to go back and look it up. I do, however, remember one thing that she said. She told us not to be afraid to make difficult choices and to take ownership of our lives.

As I sat there on that extremely hot May day, I felt rather secure in my choices. I was engaged to be married the following summer and I was headed to the University of Massachusetts to earn my master’s degree in history. While I would get married, the history degree was not to be. I went to UMASS for exactly one day and knew it was not where I belonged. I withdrew before I had to pay anything other than a $5 parking ticket! Everyone I knew thought I was crazy. I actually wrote a letter of apology to the college professor who had encouraged me so much. I was scared and had no idea where the road would lead but I was ready to find out. I worked three part-time jobs for a while, including one working as a secretary in the Continuing Education office at my alma mater, Elms College. They would eventually offer me a full-time job a few months later. That job included the perk of being able to take classes for free.

By the following September, I was married and my husband was starting law school. I decided to enroll in the Masters program in Applied Theology. I had no great plan in mind when I did this. It was one of two Masters programs the school offered at the time and I knew I didn’t want the other one. Whenever people asked me what I planned to do with the degree, I told them it was just for me. I just wanted to learn. I took one class a semester for four years. I defended my Master’s thesis when I was eight months pregnant with my first child! I didn’t attend my graduation as my husband graduated the same day from law school. I received my diploma and put it into a box. It was something I had accomplished but didn’t really matter at that point. I was busy adjusting to life with a child! Everything else paled in comparison.

I never, ever planned to do anything with that Master’s degree. It wasn’t until over two years, and another child, later that I felt God calling me to start writing about spirituality and faith for other busy women struggling to deepen their relationship with God while taking care of their families. God had a plan all along. He just didn’t let me know what it was until He (and I) was ready.

There are still days when I say, “Now what?” There are still difficult choices to make and I never make them without spending a lot of time in prayer. I trust, though, that God has a plan, even when I don’t have a clue. Most of the time, the plan can only be seen in hindsight. So, like Regina Noonan Hitchery, whose words have stayed with me all these years, I encourage new graduates to take ownership of their lives. Don’t be afraid to make the difficult decisions. I would add to spend some serious time in prayer before making them, however. God has a plan for you. You just need to live it.

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