A Space for Everyone; For Everyone, a Space.

The Calcagnini Contemplative Center Celebrates 10 Years as a Haven for Hoyas

By Jennon Bell Hoffman

A group of students configured in a pyramid with a student midair in a jump split.

Akil Cole (C’24) “jumping for joy” at the CCC with members of the Class of 2024.

In the same way a home is more than four walls and roof, the Calcagnini Contemplative Center (CCC) is more than a retreat space. For the past 10 years, the CCC has been a place for rejuvenation, for discovery, for contemplation, for renewal, for community. Made possible by a generous donation from the late Arthur Calcagnini (C’54) and his wife Nancy, the CCC has spent the first decade of its existence providing a welcoming space and opportunity for reflection beyond the Hilltop.

Perched atop the loamy Shenandoah Valley, and only 90 minutes from Georgetown in Bluemont, Virginia, the CCC became a reality, after many years supporting the ESCAPE retreats, Arthur and Nancy envisioned a dedicated home for the program. Eventually, other retreat programs were offered at the CCC making it a space—physically and spiritually—for Georgetown students, faculty, staff, and alumni to foster connection, contemplation, and community. This October, the CCC celebrated its 10-year anniversary of hosting retreats and events for the GU community, with no signs of slowing down.

A large part of what makes the CCC so beloved and integral as an extension of Georgetown University is that it’s an accessible respite from the rigor and fast pace of campus life. There are many programs for students, including the keystone retreat for first-year students, ESCAPE, as well as half-day or weekend retreats for other programs, like the medical school. A newer program that really embraces finding the students’ where they are is The Cookout retreat, which focuses on the Georgetown experience for Black students on campus. The Cookout aims to promote joy, hope, and community, and support for Black students by “drawing on the values and practices of Georgetown’s Ignatian heritage and other spiritual traditions.”

Akil Cole (C’24) a co-coordinator for The Cookout, has witnessed the positive effects a space like the CCC has on Georgetown students looking for connection. After his first year was spent online because of the pandemic, Akil was having a hard time transitioning to life on campus and finding others to befriend and bond with. He also noticed that the first- and second-year students seemed to keep their heads down, eyes averted, rarely smiling while walking around campus.

“At the time, I was having a lot of difficulties on campus and didn’t know to what extent I belonged. I didn’t see a whole lot of other Black students and that’s kind of isolating here. I was very seriously considering transferring to another school and actually ended up taking a gap semester that fall,” says Akil. He attended the first Cookout in April 2022 and the experience changed his perspective on his time at Georgetown.

“One of the prime reasons I did come back was the community that I got to experience at The Cookout. It’s created for Black students by Black students at Georgetown and being able to put a name and face and experiences and similar colors and foods and stuff to people around campus that look like me…I was like, “Okay, I can go through this Georgetown thing.”

The Cookout, and other retreat programs like ESCAPE or faith-based retreats, work with Campus Ministry to develop a retreat itinerary that aligns with Georgetown’s mission and Ignatian values, while fostering opportunities for groups to deepen their bonds and make meaningful connections to others in the GU community. As a co-coordinator for The Cookout, Akil knows just how important it is to have a welcoming space that allows people of different backgrounds and experiences to find common ground and feel like they matter.

“My experience was really profound. I wanted to be able to recreate or at least pay it forward for other students because I know that feeling of belonging is a really important piece of going to college,” says Akil.

Thanks to the large multi-purpose rooms and several spaces for discussion and smaller break-out groups, the CCC is the perfect space to hold intensive talk sessions, enjoy peaceful reflection space, and rambunctious rap battles and dance parties.

“I love the CCC! It’s so nice and architecturally, a beautiful space. The rooms are spacious, and the multipurpose room can hold our group without feeling cramped,” says Akil. He says the set-up of the CCC works for any group, including The Cookout, because it’s adaptable to the needs of the event. “We try to have programming where everyone has a chance to interact as a large group, interact in small groups, interact individually or just take time away from themselves. We also will make it a point to introduce new people to one another, so I love that there’s good spaces—different cabins, the farmhouse, outside—to do that without being interrupted and still having fun as a group. It just works well.”

The retreats at the CCC are typically day retreats, or overnight, which Akil says is the perfect amount of time to step away from the intensity of school or regular life and reenergize yourself.

“I went on a day retreat to get away from all the things and it was exactly what I needed. There’s a lot of stuff on campus and being able to just spend time reading and writing and looking out at the valley…I have nothing but good things to say about the CCC facilities.”

Although Akil says many students tell him they wish it was longer, he likes that the community and closeness created over the retreats is then carried back to campus, expanding the feelings and experience into everyday life.

“That [participants] feel comfortable to be themselves and for them to say, ‘I want to do what you’re doing because I want to help people feel the way I feel right now,’ that is everything. If I get like one person come back saying that, it’s great, and for multiple people to say that to us is really gratifying.”

That feeling—the sense of personal belonging and peace and having a space by which to explore that—is exactly what Arthur and Nancy Calcagnini envisioned for the CCC 10 years ago. That the mission and values are still taking root and filling the cups of the students, faculty, and community today is what the Hilltop experience is all about.

Akil Cole (C’24) is a student in the College of Arts and Sciences, studying Interdisciplinary Studies with a focus on peace and sustainability.

Jennon Bell Hoffmann is a freelance writer and editor living in Chicago. 

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Making Sandwiches and Fostering Friendships, Even Amidst Uncertainty

An interfaith event shows we are stronger together, even in times of conflict.

Students around a long table laden with bread and other sandwich making ingredients.

Students making sandwiches at an interfaith community service event.

On October 12, 2023, the Hindu Student Association (HSA), Jewish Student Association (JSA), and Muslim Student Association (MSA) jointly hosted an interfaith community service event at the Leavey Center to make and donate sandwiches and snacks to Martha’s Table, a local community-led non-profit that helps provide healthy food options to the Washington D.C. area. In the midst of planning, conflict broke out in Israel and Palestine and there was some trepidation about continuing with the event. However, the organizers decided to move forward with planning because, according to them, “world events did not affect our friendships as people and [we share] our joint commitment to helping others through our faiths’ collective tenets of service and compassion for all.” If anything, it felt more important than ever.

Below, the student organizers from HSA, JSA, and MSA share their reflections and thoughts about the event and what it means in today’s uncertain landscape. 

Uma Savla, (Interfaith Chair, HSA): “As the event began, we were pleasantly surprised by the amount of people who showed up — the waves of people arriving were almost overwhelming. It is always difficult at interfaith events to get people to break out of their groups, but people from different traditions were talking to each other and eating dinner together. We were blown away that so many people came and genuinely bought into the interfaith goal of the event. We are thankful to be surrounded by relationships that transcend religion, politics, and current affairs.

As the event progressed, we started making sandwiches, and people coordinated to make a sandwich assembly line. We had only a vague plan for how it was going to happen, but everyone just worked together and figured it out.  It is a testament to the idea that we have friendships and common goals that were not affected by the terrible recent news.

Personally, I was more hopeful after the event. The turnout despite (or perhaps because of) current events reminds me that even though politics, religion, and ideology continually pull people apart, we retain the capacity to work together. Imam Hendi always says that religion should be part of the solution, not the problem. This event was a start at understanding what [that] means.”

Ria Maheshwari (Community Service Chair, HSA): “I was expecting just a small handful of volunteers, primarily from HSA, to attend the event; and thus my expectation for the number of donations was low. Yet when tens of students came through the door to the Leavey Program Room, I was pleasantly surprised because I knew that we would exceed our goal — in the most fulfilling way, our initial estimates were not in accordance with our actual turnout. 

With our volunteers diligently working as if in a factory assembly line, I ran into Vital Vittles for more sandwich supplies numerous times throughout the event. As our mountain of loaves of bread began to dwindle and the number of completed sandwiches increased, I began to count our donations, and continued counting for much longer than I had anticipated. As a collective, our volunteers made over 150 sandwiches and 40 trail mix pouches. These numbers were shocking for us considering the initial pushback we received on the event taking place.”

Daniel Greilsheimer (Interfaith Chair, JSA): “I was thrilled to co-host this event with my friends in MSA and HSA. Despite the news coming out of the Middle East, there was never a doubt in my mind that the event would not continue as planned. In fact, in such a time of division, I felt it was more important than ever to gather together in a friendly, light-hearted, charitable capacity. It was amazing to see our communities — which hold so much in common as minority religious groups on campus — come together for such a positive act. 

My role in the operation was delivering the sandwiches and snacks. As I arrived at the drop-off location, it became clear how important Martha’s Table, which is devoted to bringing about a more equitable D.C., is to the neighborhood. It was wonderful to see our hard work in the Leavey Center come to fruition in such an enjoyable fashion. I look forward to co-hosting many more interfaith events in the future, from game nights to basketball tournaments.”

Saara Bidiwala (Interfaith Chair, MSA): “I invite anyone hesitant to participate in any of these events to come. Amongst the three of us who are interfaith chairs, we’ve attended each other’s religious services. I will never forget how multiple times I’ve walked out after a sermon given at mass or a puja offered for Navratri and came back to the masjid and heard the Imam talk about the same core tenets. Attending each of these events is such a valuable part of my experience at Georgetown because we are lucky to have so many cultures, faith traditions and perspectives right in our backyard.”

Uma Savla (C’25) is a student in the College of Arts and Sciences, studying French.

Ria Maheshwari (C’26) is a student in the College of Arts and Sciences, studying Political Economy and Mathematics.

Daniel Greilsheimer (SFS’26) is a student at the Walsh School of Foreign Service, studying Regional and Comparative Studies.

Saara Bidiwala (C’26) is a student in the College of Arts and Sciences, studying Computer Science. 

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Making a House a Home

Rabbi Daniel Schaefer reflects on the High Holy Days.

By Rabbi Daniel Schaefer, Interim Director for Jewish Life

2 men and 3 women standing, 1 woman in motorized wheelchair in a temporary, wooden structure with branches hanging down from the roof.

In the sukkah, Rabbi Schaefer is showing a student how to wave the lulav.

The fall is a busy time on the Jewish calendar. The new year begins with Rosh Hashanah, followed ten days later by Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year, and a few days afterward the week-long fall harvest of Sukkot.

At Georgetown, we’re blessed to be able to build our sukkah (hut) on the Healy Lawn and to host meals, events, and services there all week. The sukkah is meant to remind us of the temporary shelters that our ancestors lived in while they wandered in the desert for forty years. Its walls are flimsy and its roof is made of branches, with enough space to let in some sun and rain.

While guest-lecturing in a recent Problem of God class, Professor Judd Birdsall reminded me of the difference between a house and a home. When you’re building a house you want to make sure the walls are secure, the roof doesn’t leak, and the electricity and plumbing work correctly. But that alone won’t make it a home. What makes it a home home is the spirit of warmth and hospitality that you infuse it with and the memories created there.

Every year, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur help us build a house. This September, hundreds of students joined us for holiday meals and over five hundred members of the community joined us for services in Gaston Hall. But Sukkot reminds us to build a home. Its broken walls and open roof help teach us that we can create incredible connections and memories wherever we are. Celebrating Shabbat over Sukkot (pictured below) with over eighty people gathered on Healy Lawn was a beautiful reminder that Georgetown is a Catholic and Jesuit home for all peoples and that we are encouraged to be proud and celebrate our Jewish heritage here.

People seated in chairs arranged in rows facing the a rabbi delivering a sermon with Healy Hall, a Victorian Gothic-style building.

Shabbat on Healy Lawn

That sense of home was so important after the attacks on Israel. Our house of joy became a house of mourning, but by being together in pain, suffering, and solidarity, we strengthened the sense of community and belonging. We hope that the future holds more joy than suffering and more peace than pain, but we also know that we are building a home here together, one that is big enough to hold our differences, deepen our sense of belonging, and help us find meaning in even the most difficult moments.

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Doctor, Heal Thyself

GU Medical School Students Rest and Reenergize on Retreat

By Jennon Bell Hoffman

A group of people standing together with a vista of blue sky and trees in the background.

Fr Jim Shea, S.J., (pictured center, back row) at the Calcagnini Contemplative Center with Georgetown medical students.

Cura personalis, or “care for the whole person” is the Catholic, Jesuit concept that suggests individualized attention to the needs of others, distinct respect for unique circumstances and concerns, and an appropriate appreciation for singular gifts and insights. Not only is it a foundational element of Ignatian spirituality but it is a founding principle of Georgetown University Medical Center. Which is why an overnight retreat for medical students is an important piece of the cura personalis toolbox.

After a hiatus of a handful of years, the Calcagnini Contemplative Center welcomed a group of Georgetown medical students over the weekend of September 9-10, 2023. Together, the group explored the intersection of spirituality and professional identity while experiencing Ignatian prayer, individual reflection, and group faith sharing during this first retreat since before COVID at the CCC. Michelle Siemietkowski, Catholic Chaplain for Spiritual Formation and Fr. Jim Shea, S.J., Medical School Chaplain, organized the retreat and offered reflections, while Dr. Eileen Moore, Associate Dean, Community Education and Advocacy, and Fr. Myles Sheehan, S.J., M.D., Director of the Pellegrino Center for Clinical Bioethics, shared their experiences from their years of medical practice and student mentoring.

According to Fr. Shea, SJ, one of the most impactful ways to help medical students foster cura personalis in their future professions is to cultivate the practice now within themselves.

“In a medical school, you’re doing formation really — you’re trying to form a person to think and feel and act like a physician… not just as a scientist, but as somebody who can become a healer,” says Fr. Shea. “And if they’re going to be a healer, they need to be in touch with their own spirituality. How do they find meaning and hope? Are they in touch with their own selves? Because they need to do that if they’re going to make it through this ordeal of medical education.”

Stepping back from the anatomy lab or clinical rotations in psychiatry, pediatrics, and internal medicine, students were able to enjoy the refreshing peace of contemplative time away, tucked within community, prayer, and reflection. The picturesque grounds of the CCC provide ample space and natural beauty for reenergizing the soul and quiet contemplation.

Anna Stephan, a third-year medical student, found much-needed rest and rejuvenation on the retreat.

“I think this retreat was especially essential for medical students because during the fast pace of medical school there is such little time for slowing down, taking a step back, and taking time to reflect on your experience and nurture your spiritual self,” says Stephan. “These spaces are so important for creating physicians that are healthy and balanced, with hearts that are open and full enough to joyfully and sustainably give to their patients the holistic, person-centered care that they deserve.”

John DiBello, a second-year medical student, felt the retreat was an extension of his values, both educational and spiritual.

“I specifically chose to come to Georgetown for medical school for experiences such as this retreat. My hope was that attending a Jesuit school would help me deepen my life of faith and have a stronger foundation so that I can best serve my patients in the future,” says DiBello. “It’s been a gift to be able to see community members like Fr. Shea, Dr. Moore, and Fr. Sheehan committed to reincorporating that sense of mission at our school.”

Fr. Shea says an experience like the retreat underscores the connection between teaching the future medical professionals to know their true selves and connecting with their future patients.  

“Students [have to] be able to form relationships with patients that will be deeply helpful for the patients but also deeply satisfying for the physician,” says Fr. Shea. “It’s a sacred trust, so how do you nurture that sense of calling? How do you find what they need, including experiences of community, of sharing on a deeper level, or the sense of calling? If you don’t have the capacity to get close to people, what will that mean? And you don’t get close to people unless you know yourself.”

While finding the time to step away from the rigorous schedule of a medical student isn’t easy, those who attended found the weekend more than worth it, not just for the break from the hustle, but also for the lasting impact the weekend’s lessons bestowed.   

 “For me, Ignatian spirituality, faith formation, and discernment are intimately tied to my pursuit of medicine. The Jesuit values are what give meaning to my work, they are something I always return to if I find myself questioning my path’s meaning or disheartened by the numerous challenges and issues with the medical system,” says Stephan. “Feeling a deep connection to — and grounded in — something greater than myself is what allows me to connect with my patients on a human level, and strive wholeheartedly to make them feel genuinely cared for and dignified.”

Encouraged by the response from the students and alumni, Fr. Shea is excited for future retreats and opportunities to help medical students use the Ignatian principles and guiding core values of Georgetown University to continue to flourish in their professional and personal lives.

“That’s what an in-touch Catholic medical school is going to try — to find the ways to foster that sense of spirituality,” says Fr. Shea. A retreat, he says, offers students the tools of how busy people can find some sense of daily practice in their lives to lessen the feelings of intense overwhelm, pressure, and anxiety.

“Medical education is an ordeal—it’s too much!—students are drinking out of a fire hose,” says Fr. Shea. “As a Jesuit Catholic medical school, we ask ourselves: How do we foster that spiritual exploration? How do they come to know themselves, to be centered and spiritually grounded? Because if they are not, they are not going to be good doctors, good healers, and not going to be satisfied with the work they do.”

The Calcagnini Contemplative Center first opened in 2013 on 55 acres in Bluemont, VA, and offers Georgetown students, faculty, alumni, administration, and staff quiet, restful space for day-long and overnight retreats. To learn more about retreats offered at the CCC, visit their website.

 Jennon Bell Hoffmann is a freelance writer and editor living in Chicago. 

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Sharing More than a Meal

How an Interfaith Dinner Set the Stage for New Perspectives and New Friendships

By Bridgitte Isom (H’24)

Women seated at tables eating a meal together

Undergraduate women meet over dinner to talk about faith, friendship & the challenges of living out their faith as busy college students.

This month, Catholic Women at Georgetown hosted an interfaith dinner that provided female students an opportunity to learn how their peers practice their faith at Georgetown. Living out one’s faith at college can be challenging because of the many demands on students’ time, and as organizer, I and my team were hoping to learn how women from other faith traditions approach this challenge. We also hoped that new, meaningful friendships would come from the experience. 

In the days leading up to the dinner, we were excited to gather such a diverse group of women together. Members of the Jewish, Protestant, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Sikh, and Catholic organizations had reserved a seat, and as eager as we were to make their acquaintance, we were also a little nervous. Would our conversations venture into serious theological and philosophical topics that are difficult to agree upon? How would we strike a balance between creating a casual dinner setting and encouraging conversation about religion? 

As the first guests arrived, we quickly realized that all would be well. Everyone was smiling, laughing, and talking as they served themselves and found their seat at a table. It was heartwarming to observe their immediate willingness to introduce themselves to someone new and share a meal with them. As I began conversing with Iman Saymeh, a Muslim residential minister, and students from the Latter Day Saints Student Association (LDSSA), my feelings of excitement evolved into those of curiosity, inspiration, and a sense of shared experience. The women were eager to speak honestly about their faith, particularly in the context of living at Georgetown. We realized that we face a common struggle of not always knowing how to share our faith with other students because of common assumptions or misconceptions associated with our religion. Most important to me was our agreement that faith is a central part of who we are and requires an investment of time to continue its cultivation throughout college. I was particularly inspired when I learned that the LDSSA members travel to Chevy Chase, Maryland, every Sunday for a two-hour worship service.

I was also touched by the profound messages our female chaplains and resident ministers shared at the end of the dinner. They each spoke about the importance of interfaith work, encouraging us to appreciate the beauty found in all faith traditions, celebrate commonalities, and respect differences. Most importantly, they emphasized that cultivating spirituality is a communal effort that can be carried out across religious groups. No one person can grow in faith through isolation.

Before this event, interfaith work felt a bit daunting. I had attended interfaith retreats to learn how this work is carried out, but had never done so in practice. Organizing the dinner has shown me how fruitful it can be to learn from students who have different beliefs, and I now have the confidence to continue similar interfaith collaboration. Even more meaningful than this, however, was the deepening of my friendship with one student from LDSSA. She asked to attend Catholic Mass with me the next day, to which I readily agreed. It was very special to share my faith with her in a tangible way and showed us that our worship services have much in common. This is the type of friendship I hoped to encourage through the interfaith dinner, a friendship that appreciates the value of religious experience and motivates each person to live out their faith to the fullest.

*Student reflections are edited for space and clarity. 

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