Capable, qualified, proficient, suited, talented, adept, gifted, experienced, competent, and skillful: the thesaurus app on my phone never gets as much use as it does during this time of the year. ‘Tis the season when students seek out (or stalk) their professors, mentors and, yes, even chaplains for letters of recommendation. With timid knocks on my office door followed by a long, meandering conversation or with long-ish emails with their awkwardly extended opening pleasantries, students eventually get to the ask: would you maybe, possibly, consider writing a letter for me?
As the second semester continues to unfold at breakneck speed, senior students are rushing to apply to competitive graduate schools and to demanding service programs, both domestic and abroad. Juniors are working hard to land that prestigious Washington, DC internship or arrange summer research opportunities in the labs and offices of their favorite professors. Sophomores and first-year students, too, are applying for various roles: resident assistant, orientation leader, multicultural peer educator, service learning interns and dozens of other positions that I know I never considered when I was in college. I’m still trying to learn what some of these positions even entail, but they sure sound impressive! These students today are serious. And, in all seriousness, I’m happy to write these letters.
Before I open a new Word document and begin typing my missives, I take a prayerful stroll down memory lane, pausing to remember my interactions with each particular person. I recall that moment when she first gave voice to a deep desire to devote her next years to service and can feel in myself a certain pride and gratitude to have witnessed her recognition. I remember the unguarded moment of confused laughter when he realized that knowing what he didn’t want in life was just as important as knowing what he did want, and I smile, reveling in the memory of his profound self-discovery. I call to mind the probing questions she asked in class and the follow-up conversations that sprung from these first queries, and find myself teary, moved by the awareness of my effect on her and her effect on me.
In all of this I’m conscious that there’s a sacredness to writing letters of recommendation: I get to carry my experience of each person, to remember them, to recreate our time together, and to savor the gifts revealed in their self-becoming. As I sit at my desk to write, both the flood of memories as well as my reaction to those memories help me craft the familiar but distinctive narrative of each letter: the interwoven strands detailing what I appreciate about him and what I see possible in and through her. And I write on their behalf what I get to behold: not just what I know they have done, or could do, but rather who I know them to be.
Writing these letters is a privilege of which I never tire. How could I tire of knowing well, appreciating deeply, and peering into the bright future of these young lives? How could I tire of hope?
The cover image, from Flickr user Lucas, can be found here.