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We're Not In Kansas Anymore, Toto

Katherine R. Au

I first saw the golden statue of Mary from Interstate 15 in 1992. I was coming to Mount Saint Mary's for an admission interview. I had decided to wear comfy clothes rather than my interview outfit for the 3 hour drive from home and so as I approached the campus I was looking for a place to stop and change before heading onto campus. I had grown up around a college town and had my own expectations of how the community around the college could be and so I was a bit surprised to drive up the interstate and not see any restaurants or anything else around campus. As I passed the campus, I saw the Getty Mart that is still there today, and so my first experience in Emmitsburg was stopping at the gas station and changing in the bathroom. Back then Mount St. Mary's was a college and not a university, there were a few less buildings on the campus, and the athletic center across the interstate was a wee bit smaller; but, it still was, as it has always been, a center for education that is affiliated with the Catholic faith and although I knew this when I applied, it was still a surprise for me to see for the first time the statue of Mary overlooking the campus.

I was raised protestant, and although I was thoroughly aware I had been accepted to a college that was Catholic, the time I attended my first mass provided for a new and interesting experience for me. The first time I went to a mass on campus was for our ring ceremony junior year and I found I was lost as to what were the proper procedures - I didn't know most of the prayers or calls and responses and I wasn't sure when exactly to sit or stand (luckily, I was able to follow the lead of others who did know as most all of my friends were Catholic). The one prayer I did know was the Lord's Prayer, but it too, I soon found out, was a bit different than the one I had learned growing up, and although most all of it was the same, the few words that were different really did stand out to me at the time. I remember before attending the ceremony I was most worried about communion. Being raised protestant meant communion was something only for certain days of the year like Easter or Christmas and it was a new experience to me that communion was offered with each mass. My biggest fear during the mass was that I would be the only one staying in the pews while communion was offered, but that of course was not the case and no one singled me out as the minority during the ceremony, so my fear was all for naught. I have since attended several masses during weddings or funerals, but none have ever been as much of a shock as that first mass during the ring ceremony.

My junior year at Mount St. Mary's was also the year that I branched out into the community of Emmitsburg. Although the campus is just a few minutes from the heart of Emmitsburg, sometimes it felt like it was a planet away from those of us on the campus, and I really knew nothing much about the community my first two years of college. During my junior year I did an internship with Bo and Jean Cadle who ran the original Emmitsburg Dispatch. Bo and Jean Cadle had been gracious enough to accept me as a part of their team - I had no newspaper experience, but I did enjoy writing and I wanted to learn, and they encouraged me to get involved with the town of Emmitsburg and write about the community. I also learned quite a bit more about writing. I remember distinctly several discussions with their editor regarding commas - I wanted to put commas in here and there and she kept taking them out. And although I still carry some of the comma lessons with me still today, I didn't just learn about where and when to use commas appropriately in journalistic writing, I learned a lot more about the ebb and flow of Emmitsburg and its community.

One of my assignments was to attend the town meetings. I think I learned more attending those meetings than if I had read a book on the community of Emmitsburg. Granted, the first couple of meetings I was a bit lost as I didn't know the background to much that was being debated, but as I kept going I got to learn the stories behind the stories that were being shared. There were the people who attended every meeting religiously, and not because they needed to since they were on the council, but because they were citizens concerned about their community and wanted to be aware of what may come and wanted to participate in lending a voice to the decisions being made. And, there were folks that only came to specific meetings for reasons of lending a yay or nay voice to a specific proposal that they were interested in or involved with. The meetings were not just a social event, as truly important work was being done during each meeting, but I found that the town meetings were a way for citizens to tap into a social vein of Emmitsburg and stay abreast of where the town was heading and keep acquainted with whoever was trying to head the town in a direction.

I also went around the town talking to people for specific articles. I wrote about the Emmitsburg Ambulance Company and found that their 50th anniversary year was the same year I was scheduled to graduate. I wrote about a peaceful rally held in response to a Ku Klux Klan rally held in Thurmont. I wrote about the Up-County Family Support Center moving to a new building. I wrote about Emmitsburg being the site of the National Emergency Training Center and its association with FEMA. All the articles I wrote were merely snapshots of the community at that time and although I learned quite a bit about aspects of the community of Emmitsburg by writing the articles, what I enjoyed most were the people who included me in their lives while they shared their stories, triumphs, challenges, and insights. I discovered what a unique community Emmitsburg is, quiet and introspective in ways, and yet fully connected to the world at large in very profound ways - all of which had I remained merely a student at Mount St. Mary's I would have missed.

I am grateful for the semester I spent with Bo and Jean Cadle and over the years at Mount St. Mary's I made connections with a few in the community of Emmitsburg that are still maintained, even today these many years later. I have a couple of very dear friends who live outside of town and I come to visit them as often as possible. And, each time I come up Interstate 15 and see Mary still watching over Mount St. Mary's I smile and remember my surprise the first time I saw her. And, in many ways, she symbolizes to me how I learned more than what a college education could ever provide. For when I first saw her I realized I was about to interview at a college that was associated from a faith completely different than any I had experienced before and what a new experience that would be. And, while attending The Mount under her watchful eye I learned to expand my own boundaries, to try new experiences, to look further than my own viewpoint, and look deeper into the community of which I was a part, and all of those lessons I still value today. So, although there were moments I wanted to clap my ruby red heels together and wish for home, I am truly grateful for Mary's inspiration to keep walking on the yellow-brick road, no matter how strange or foreign it may seem.

Katherine R. Au is a 1998 graduate of Mount St. Marys where she received degrees in English and History and is the Assistant Editor of the Emmitsburg News-Journal. Katherine and her dog Harry currently call Middleburg, Virginia home.

Read other articles by Katherine R. Au