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The big questions

Karen Langley | Monday, August 29, 2005

It has been over a year since I came to Notre Dame for my Frosh-O weekend, but I can remember those first crazy days clearly. While I did manage to have a few meaningful conversations that weekend (even at Domerfest), most exchanges required me to say no more than “Hi, I’m Karen from New Jersey and now from Farley Hall.”

This year, I returned to campus as a sophomore and realized that this was going to be a very good year. I was no less excited to come to school this year. In fact, the biggest difference was that as a sophomore, I know people.

While missing so many people over the long four months of summer made me long for the return to campus, I had forgotten that the big questions of Frosh-O, the “What is your name? Where are you from?” would be replaced by another set that would become no less repetitive. “How was your summer? What did you do?” became the mantra among the upperclassmen who arrived on campus early.

Being from Jersey hardly sets me apart among college students, and so this year I didn’t mind having a more interesting answer to the generic back-to-school questions.

“It was interesting,” I said. “I worked at a medical clinic for homeless people. And I lived in a shelter.”

After assuring people that I do still have a place to live and thanking them for offers to crash on their sofas, some wanted to know more about my Summer Service Project in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

I told them it was a pretty crazy summer. I saw the doctors treating a man for a gunshot wound in the head, and I arrived home one night shortly before a man tried an unsuccessful armed robbery of the restaurant next door to the shelter.

I told them that after some of the conversations I had, I doubt awkwardness will ever again bother me. There were days when a nurse would ask me to talk for 10 or 15 minutes with someone who was newly homeless because he or she had just gotten out of prison. I learned that California penitentiaries are the best place to get a colored tattoo, and the ex-cons listened to how the Irish student body rushed the field after beating Michigan last year.

I told them it was a lonely summer, and that I missed my family and friends so much my cell phone bill became an issue. At the same time, I met some incredible people. Some were breaking out of a generations-old cycle of poverty by getting an education. Others were kicking habits so their kids could have easier lives than they did. Not any less striking were the rabidly Irish ND alumni who welcomed students into their homes in the city, the suburbs and even the Navajo reservation.

Living with the homeless wasn’t always easy, but I wouldn’t give up this past summer for anything. My experience of poverty could not be entirely genuine because I always had an out, a safe home and a good school that I could return to in a matter of weeks, but I was able to see the gritty reality of the poor firsthand. And it gave me a pretty good conversation starter this Frosh-O weekend.