Students on beach at sunset

A Habit of Mind: The Things We Bring Home From Hillsdale

Written by Mary Caroline Whims

If you happened to stop by Camp Michindoh on a certain night last August, you would have seen a line of people standing on the bridge over the lake. After a day of lectures and field games at Hillsdale’s Collegiate Scholars retreat, my friends and I were enjoying a chance to relax by the water. Some of us were talking about books we’d read over the summer. The stars were out, and it was quiet and peaceful.

Then someone said the fateful word: “Cheeseburgers?”

Five minutes later, the bridge was empty. We piled into a van and careened off to McDonalds, music blaring, and from there to Hayden Park. Cheeseburgers in hand, we sat around plastic tables in the dark, passed lemonade, and talked and laughed for a long time. That may sound simple, but something about that night has always stood out to me: a certain sense of time well spent. Free time would be harder to find as our academic workloads increased in the coming weeks and months. For the seniors of the group, it would be their last retreat at Michindoh. Our time was precious because we knew it wouldn’t last.

Fast forward to spring of this year. For college students around the world, the chance to make memories and say goodbyes was abruptly snatched away. Time that we might have spent in celebration was postponed; we found ourselves finishing exams, or even graduating, from our living rooms. The semester’s unexpected close has made me increasingly aware of the gifts I’ve been given at Hillsdale—habits of mind and heart that I bring home with me.

At Hillsdale, I’m surrounded by people who choose to make the most of every moment, both in their academics and friendships. We learn so much in the classroom, but perhaps even more from the extraordinary people we rub shoulders with every day. It’s one of the most inspiring places I have ever encountered.

My Hillsdale friends challenge me to pursue learning outside of the classroom. When I returned home last summer, I had long lists of reading recommendations on my phone. So I decided to discover for myself the books my friends loved. I read The Little Prince for the first time. I read The Hobbit and To Kill a Mockingbird. With each page turned, I began to understand my friends a little better, while enjoying some of the best things ever written. I bought an old copy of T.S. Eliot’s work at a used book store and started memorizing the poetry I’d heard professors recite. It was a small way of continuing the “habit of mind” I had learned in college.

But Hillsdale has taught me more than a dedication to academics. We also love to have fun, and make the most of our time with others.

Last Halloween brought a load of homework for me and my roommate. With all of the papers to write, we didn’t have much time for anything else. But then she had an idea: what if we showed up at a get-together that weekend dressed as cans of LaCroix? We bought supplies at Walmart and then spent an entire afternoon painting in our dorm room together. When we finally strolled out in our repurposed pop-up laundry hampers, we shared a feeling of utter triumph. Would I do it over again? Absolutely.

When quarantine hit this spring, I tried to bring the same kind of enthusiasm to time with my family. I wanted to make the most of every minute at home. So why not start a game of soccer in the backyard? (We even got Mom and Dad to join in.) Why not cook up a fancy meal for no reason? The other day, we drove almost forty minutes to the nearest take-out ice cream and then waded into a freezing-cold lake. Little things, yes, but these are chances to bring joy to others and to grow in community with them. Although it might be harder to see time’s passage at home, it is no less real. My six younger siblings are growing older by the minute (we celebrated five birthdays between April and May). I don’t want to miss any opportunity to make memories.

We get to spend four years in college if we’re lucky. Knowing that student life is temporary and that friends graduate every year means that we treat each moment as a gift. In Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, Gandalf offers some wise words: “All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.” To be aware of what we’ve been given is half the battle. The other half is to act on it: to commit ourselves to our work as students and as friends, wherever we are.

Together, we are learning to number our days, and as the Psalmist writes, to gain a heart of wisdom. It’s a habit of mind that’s not just tied to a beautiful bridge over a lake, or even to Hillsdale’s campus, wonderful and inspiring as it is. It’s something that goes even deeper than that. As much as I long to see the faces of my friends, perhaps the greatest compliment I can pay them is to say that something of them is always with me.

Mary Caroline Whims Mary Caroline Whims, ’21, studies English at Hillsdale College, where she serves as editor-in-chief of Fool’s Talk magazine. On a given day, you can find her playing in an intramural basketball game, waxing poetic about church windows, or postponing homework to make a good conversation last longer.

Published in May 2020