Q: Would you please describe your relationship to Thomas Aquinas College?
A: My initial relationship began as a student. I attended from 1983 to 1987, and it was one of the greatest gifts of my life to be a student here. I have nine children now, and my oldest is a graduate of the College also; she is getting a master’s degree in theology at the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, D.C. Hopefully, there will be more coming in the next years.
For the past three years, I have also had the wonderful blessing of being part of the Board of Governors. I would say in general that it is one of my life goals to promote Thomas Aquinas College and introduce others to this amazing education.
Q: How did you first hear about the College, and what attracted you to it?
A: When I was in sixth grade in Anchorage, Alaska, I knew a family who was sending many of its children down to Thomas Aquinas College. I moved away, but when it came time to discern where I was going to go for college, a priest I met in Anchorage would continually say, “Just apply to Thomas Aquinas College.” At the time, I had a real passion for journalism and had received scholarships. But on Fr. De Dominico’s advice, I filled out the College’s application.
I fell in love with the education just with that process, and everything else kind of faded away. There were not a lot of essay questions out there on most other college applications, yet Thomas Aquinas College wanted to know who I was, did I want to learn, and about the role my faith played in my life. It was substantially different from any other application process that I had been through.
Q: What was your experience as a student?
A: If I were to describe it in one word, it would be “feast.” There was an “indulgence” on every level — grappling with the eternal questions feeds your mind and your soul, and the community was so amazingly faith-filled.
Growing up I always felt somewhat different from my peers. Whether at public school or Catholic school, they didn’t really embrace their faith, or even really know it well. But when I came to the College, my peers were authentically loving their faith as we were learning it. And we were not limited by any artificial barriers. The tutors were our fellow sojourners. In their humility they walk with their students. There is such a lesson in that for the students; and we learned from their example, their humility, and their true passion to know.
Even though students at the College pursue truth for its own sake, I think the education has a tremendous practical effect. It is like the feast, to use my analogy again: First, you consume the feast, but then you digest the feast, and you absorb the feast, and that is a lifelong process. I realize it all the time.
In addition to the strong spiritual life of the College, there is an incredible sense of the natural, of the natural law, and of the relationship between grace and nature. Every single day I see a manifestation or a practical application of that relationship. I think so much un-peacefulness in the world is a forgetting of that connection and of the good of nature and the natural law that is imprinted in each one of us. If we listen to that natural law, with that comes joy and peace. If only all people could have the gift, as we do, of recognizing that beautiful connection between nature and grace.
Q: Could you give an example?
A: Yes. You hear so often that in order to be strongly pro-women you have to see abortion as a good thing. But this is an obvious case of dissonance between the good of nature and of the natural law. And the fruit of abortion is a lot of anger and pain and hurt, not only for the child but for the women. I wish women could fully realize the gift of life, that even in hard situations it is a gift, a beautiful gift of life. It is natural and it is good. Children tether us to nature. They remind us that it’s getting down in the dirt, and there’s a beautiful rawness. They tether us to what is real and what is natural.
Q: What did you do after graduation?
A: Well, I ended up marrying Jon Syren, from that family I had known in Alaska. We dated while here at the College and graduated together in 1987. We were blessed with two children while Jon was in medical school at the University of Washington.
During his third year at UW, Jon was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. For me this was an opportunity to apply my education from Thomas Aquinas College in one of the most tangible ways. When everything is taken from you, and when you are in crisis, you know what the priorities are. You have a heightened sense of what is truly real, and what is truly important. What we had studied at the College, what we had feasted on, were the eternal things. And the highest things do not pass away.
Even though it was a time of complete surrender, of giving up everything not only for Jon ultimately, but for myself and for my little children, there was a pervading sense of God, and the Communion of the Saints, and the realization that the veil is very, very thin.
When Jon died, it was one of the most beautiful experiences I have ever had. I saw the effect that our education at the College had had on him. It was absolutely beautiful. And there was a ripple effect on the entire medical community and all that knew him and watched him suffer — in a way so beautifully, not dismayed or broken by it. His suffering was so faith-filled that it was just triumphant.
After Jon’s death, when I felt tiny and broken and knew that there was nothing I could do, I yet had an incredible sense of the presence of God, of being taken care of.
I had to go out on my own and develop a job. I had two little children. So using the College as a model, I developed a program in my parish for young adults between the ages of 18 and 38. We read encyclicals and had amazing discussions, and I had some speakers come in as well.
I found such a thirst for this among these young adults — to discuss, to wrestle with ideas, and to really own the Faith. One of my students (I like to call him my student) was Jack Connelly. He was such an interesting young man, an attorney with a deep faith. Although he had not had the benefit of a Thomas Aquinas College education, he nonetheless had read many of the great books. This was a real sign to me, that on his own he had chosen to read these books. It immediately told me, here is a like soul. God is so good. When Jack and I married, he adopted Catherine and Joseph, and we have had seven more children since then.
Q: As an alumna and a member of the Board of Governors, you are a real ambassador for the College. How do you go about sparking interest in the College?
A: I bring it up a lot. Somehow, all roads lead back to Thomas Aquinas College. One thing that we have really enjoyed doing is occasionally hosting seminars led by Dr. McLean and Dr. O’Reilly. These have been just delightful. We had 70 people come one evening. There is such a thirst for what the College does. It is embedded in everyone to find joy in learning together in a Socratic way.
There are also opportunities to talk about the College. People are always very interested because it offers such a unique experience, one that resonates with them immediately. When you explain that you have classes of only 15 students, that you don’t have textbooks, that you get to be in conversation with the original authors of mathematics, the sciences, and the greatest works ever written, that there are no lectures, that instead there is this participative, engaged experience of learning — everyone loves the idea.
I think the newly formed Boards of Regents are also very exciting. These are groups of alumni and non-alumni, putting on events together to promote the College in their various regions of the country. I would like to see 25 regional boards!
Our alumni, too, are making a tremendous impact, and I tell their story. Through them the College has developed a reputation that reverberates, even up in Washington State where I live now. Our alumni are known not only for the inspiring way they are raising their families, but even more, I think, for the way they are transforming the culture.
Our graduates do not fit into one mold. They go into a wide variety of professions — and some into the priesthood or religious life. Yet they all carry with them the same first principles. This love of the true, the beautiful, the good, and God — all our graduates take this with them from the College. And while they give this gift, of course, to their own families, they are also planting this good in all of their various professions and communities. I really think what they are doing can and will transform the world.
Posted: November 15, 2013
“I am so blessed and thankful to be in such a beautiful place, one that inspires me to inquire about, observe, and love God’s creation.”
– Michelle Lawless (’13)
“I am grateful to Thomas Aquinas College for educating new leaders for our Church, leaders who are grounded in their personal relationship and commitment to Jesus Christ.”
– Most. Rev. George Niederauer
Archbishop of San Francisco