Professor David Campion: Traversing the Globe, from Xavier to Xavier

April 30, 2017

Left to right: Fr. Tom Benz, S.J., Professor David Campion, Mr. Martin Carl.

It is the start of the school day at Xavier High School and the bell has rung calling students to morning assembly.  After an opening prayer and the day’s announcements, the faculty and students adjourn to their classrooms to begin an intense series of hour-long classes across a range of subjects including world history, pre-calculus, religion, physics, and literature.  When classes conclude in the afternoon, the day continues with extra-curricular projects, intramural basketball games, and campus ministry activities.  Each day the Jesuit and lay faculty of Xavier dedicate themselves to their students, leading them through the rigorous study of the arts, humanities and sciences, preparing them for academic success at the college level, instilling in them the values of teamwork and fairness on the playing field, and—most importantly—helping them develop into conscientious “men and women for others.”

This is Xavier High School in Chuuk, Micronesia.  It is a testament to the missionary zeal of the school’s namesake that such a thriving Jesuit apostolate exists in so remote a location.  Micronesia, located within the Caroline Islands—a sparsely populated scattering of island groups spread across 1,500 miles in the Western Pacific yet practically invisible on a world map.  The school’s location on a breezy, palm-fringed hilltop overlooking the azure waters of the Pacific Ocean could hardly be further from the concrete and glass canyon of Sixteenth Street in the heart of Gotham where I was once a Xavier student.  Yet in many ways the similarities between the two Xaviers are as striking as the contrasts.

I came to Xavier Micronesia this spring while on sabbatical from my college to immerse myself in some meaningful volunteer work, to reflect upon my own career as an educator, to experience an unfamiliar part of the world, and—above all—to reconnect with the tradition of Jesuit secondary education that formed me as a student, a teacher, and a person.  That this opportunity came only weeks before my 30-year reunion at Xavier New York seemed especially well timed.

During my two weeks at Xavier Micronesia I gave lectures in history classes, held college advising sessions for seniors and a faculty development workshop, and participated in a variety of extra curricular activities.  Throughout the experience I was constantly impressed by the commitment of the faculty, the enthusiasm and drive of the students, the verdant beauty of the location, and the formidable challenges in delivering a top-quality education in so isolated a setting.

Xavier High School has an impressive if unlikely history.  Founded by American Jesuits in 1952, the school is housed in a former WWII-era Japanese communication center that was miraculously spared destruction during the Pacific campaigns and was later given over to the New York Province of the Society of Jesus.  In the past half-century the two Xaviers are perhaps most closely connected by the individual Jesuits who have given years of service to both schools.  Xavier Micronesia, a co-ed, residential institution, it is widely considered among the best secondary schools in the Western Pacific.  It admits the top students from the Federated States of Micronesia, the Marshall Islands, and Palau—three recently independent countries that were once US trust territories.  The faculty draws from a diverse mix of laypeople, priests, and scholastics from the United States, Micronesia, the Philippines, Australia, Indonesia, and Japan.  Many of the lay teachers are recent college graduates only a few years older than their students.

There were many instances during my stay at Xavier Micronesia that seemed to transport me back to my own days as a Xavier student: the blur of school uniforms during the rush between classes, the student Masses, the glass display cases housing dozens of shiny athletic trophies, the palpable anxiety before a standardized test for college admission, the rigorous review of equations in a math class, the animated lunchroom conversations, and the many other moments of excitement, contemplation, humor, controlled chaos, and hard work that make up each day.

Yet the differences could also be quite stark.  In my time at Xavier New York my fellow students and I often noted the subtle distinctions among us depending on which of the five boroughs or New Jersey we hailed from.  At Xavier Micronesia, however, most students leave home from islands that are hundreds of miles away, with their own distinct cultures and languages.  Even a journey to the Mortlock Islands, located within the same state as Xavier, takes over 24 hours by boat.  Xavier Micronesia, situated in an isolated and developing country, also faces basic supply and infrastructure issues that most New Yorkers could hardly imagine.  A poorly maintained road and unreliable power grid are a constant challenge added to which is the risk of destructive typhoons that sweep through the region periodically.

While some of the challenges faced by Xavier Micronesia are unique to its circumstances, others it shares with its New York counterpart.  Foremost is the never-ending task of raising sufficient funds to repair, renovate, or replace an aging physical plant, pay for supplies, keep up with technological innovation, and ensure that a Xavier education remains affordable for students from families with limited resources.  All students at Xavier Micronesia receive financial support to cover the cost of their education.  Graduating seniors also require generous financial aid to attend the US colleges and universities to which they are regularly admitted.  Like Xavier New York, this list includes the top Jesuit colleges and universities across the country, other state and private schools, and the service academies.  Indeed, it is an annual source of pride and excitement both in Micronesia and New York each spring when acceptance letters are received by Xavier students and the news spreads on campus.  Yet it is also an unfortunate reality that each year some deserving Xavier students in Micronesia are unable to accept their college admission because of financial limitations.

My two weeks at Xavier went by quickly and—though it is a cliché to say it—I gained at least as much from the experience as I contributed.  It was a pleasure to get to know the sons and daughters of Xavier in Micronesia and their dedicated teachers, coaches, and administrators.  My daily contact with all of them often brought me back to my own days as a Xavier student three decades ago and on the other side of the world.  Most of all, my time at Xavier was a salient reminder of the transformative and lasting effect of a Jesuit education.

David Campion, who graduated from Xavier High School (NYC) in 1987, is the Pamplin Associate Professor of History at Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Oregon.

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