Lessons from the Pilgrim’s Road
by President Gregory Hess
On our first day in Spain on the Camino de Santiago with Professors Gilberto Gomez and Dan Rogers and their students, we stopped at a museum in Oviedo’s Basilica de San Juan el Real. Professor Gomez pointed out an inscription in early Galician, a language developed in the region from Latin more than 800 years ago and one we’d hear often in the coming days.
After we left the museum, Lora noticed Mitch Homan ’18 gazing into the basilica’s courtyard. He was so caught up in thought and wonder that I’m not sure he even realized Lora was photographing him.
To me that picture suggests the vital tension between experience and reflection so essential to immersion learning trips like the one we joined in May. Away from the daily grind of campus life and tests and papers due in multiple courses, students focus intently and take in deeply what they have seen. New textures of meaning have time to steep in mind and spirit, and, on this long walk, muscles too. “We lived in footsteps,” as Dom Patacsil ’19 writes so eloquently of his own experience of the trip in this issue’s Voices.
My daughters will tell you I’m overly fond of saying that there are only two things worth spending money on: education and travel. These immersion trips blend travel and learning exponentially—and at Wabash, they are available to all students at virtually no cost, a rarity in higher education.
So this signature program of the College is close to my heart. I couldn’t help but learn a few lessons myself as Lora and I walked alongside professors and students for 96 miles over eight days on one of the oldest pilgrimage routes in Europe.
• The beauty of the countryside is unforgettable. The camera can’t truly capture it. You see the world so differently when you are walking. Your other senses are so much a part of the “scene.” Sometimes it’s wiser to put the camera down and just pay attention.
• The older you get, the earlier you have to start. There were some pacesetters among the students, and some of us were, let’s say, guarding the rear flank. The pacesetters finished their daily walking earlier than we were and were getting a nice siesta. We finally realized we needed to get started earlier than the students! They still passed us along the way, but at least we, too, got a siesta.
• Place is a powerful catalyst for learning. The liberal arts classroom comes to life during these trips. You’re visiting sites where the literature that students have studied was set or written. We had heard that early pilgrims would sleep in the daylight for safety, which meant they walked by night. Walking through the dark forests on that path, it was easy to understand their fear, and imagine the courage and faith they must have had to continue their journey.
• You can’t always measure your progress in miles. Or kilometers. We had some pretty taxing days, including one during which we walked 53,000 steps. We found ourselves looking for mileposts or any other indicator of how far we had to go. Some signs were misleading, and some had been stolen. If you get caught up in that, it can be frustrating. On the Camino, as in life, not everything is meant to be so finely gauged. Enjoy the experience, not just the checkpoints you’ve passed.
• You need less stuff than you think. The students carried their belongings on their backs in packs weighing about 15 pounds each. One of the greatest takeaways from the trip was that we have a lot more things than we need, but we need others more than we often realize.
The professors and guides expertly organized our trip and shepherded us through. Guides were there to point us in the right direction.
We drew inspiration from our fellow peregrinos. One woman from Italy had walked most of the pilgrimage when we met her. She had fallen and was wearing a substantial leg brace, but she continued on.
Balancing that determination with the wisdom of knowing when to ask for help is a daily necessity on the Camino, and it’s equally essential on the Wabash campus. We tell freshmen when they arrive here that hard work is one of the ingredients to everything you want to accomplish in life.
Because people often feel stress in their lives when they feel trapped, we remind students that there is not just one successful path. One of the great things about the liberal arts education is that you don’t have to feel cornered. You can hit the reset button. We’ll give you enough tools to pursue a different path in a meaningful way.
But you can’t pivot from stress every time. We emphasize resilience here because that, too, is an important muscle to strengthen. Part of that strength is learning when to ask for help.
Asking for help can be a challenge. For many young men, their ideal self-image is the guy who goes it alone, guts it out, even when doing so is unwise. To return to the analogy of the road: Some people don’t like to ask for directions! But there’s not an app out there that’s going to help you find your way through the dark forests. You have to find someone with a better line of sight, a better compass.
At Wabash, when students turn to professors, staff, or one another, they’ll find someone who is not only understanding, but glad to help.
I saw evidence of this during our pilgrimage on El Camino de Santiago. Junior Mitch Homan struggles with chronic knee problems and had brought a couple of braces he’d need for the nearly 100-mile walk. When he met a pilgrim with another group who was suffering similar joint pain, he promptly gave one of the braces to the man. It was a moment of pride for me as a college president, and a reminder of the many ways our students live out the mission of this place, whatever road they may walk.
Photo by Lora Hess