At SSU, our history and our hopes have led us to the following mission statement:

The Mission of SSU is to prepare people, through academic and personal development, for a life of justice, beauty, and compassion, enabling a humble, creative engagement with their world.

All of our life together at SSU contributes to this purpose– it involves a lot more than just what goes on in the classroom. We have written this “Community Handbook” to sketch out a vision for this life together. Part of this vision is honest acknowledgement that actual community life is messy; we want to be up front about the fact that we will not always live up to the aspirations expressed here.

This handbook, then, serves as an introduction to those near and far who want to know what kind of community SSU strives to be. It reflects a history and a vision, ideals and realities, agreements and compromises on differences. It seeks to express the kind of community that those who are and have been a part of St. Stephen’s University are committed to building together.

LIFE TOGETHER

We have a different calling than mainstream universities, and the way in which we base our education on our shared life together is a key part of this.  In order to facilitate this we have determined some guidelines (especially for those living together in residence) and an atmosphere of accountability based on relationship and mutual respect. These guidelines for our shared life are intended to clarify expectations rather than to externally impose a strict set of rules on students.

All of our faculty and staff are dedicated to the personal and spiritual health of our community. This means that in various ways we are all intending to care for personal and spiritual needs even as we are addressing educational or administrative goals. Our hope is that each and every staff and faculty member would be a unique example of embodying a hunger for “justice, beauty and compassion.” We hope that all students, regardless of their personal beliefs, will come to join in the call to be people who use their education, gifts and energy to work for the common good rather than their own self-interest.

HOLISTIC EDUCATION

We believe that it is important that good education deeply involves the “heart and mind.” The prevailing model of higher education in our society has often stripped education of that integration of the heart. We try to be intentional about this holistic approach through an emphasis on:

  • learning based in a small, relational community in which professors and students all know each other
  • experiential learning with significant attention to study abroad
  • attention to cultural traditions, spiritual questions, and a search for personal meaning
  • a balance of critical and appreciative thinking
  • hands-on local engagement, creatively connecting theory with real life situations
  • intentional welcome of the marginalized, in our midst and in the voices to which we want to listen
  • care expressed about all of life as the context in which learning takes place

We have become convinced over the years that the education our students receive is of the highest quality in a variety of ways. The success of many of our students who have gone on to graduate education across Canada and around the world testifies to this, and the same can be said about those who go more directly into other career choices. We believe that this is a result of what happens both in and out of the classroom.

Students at SSU learn in the kitchen, in the local community and while travelling around the world. We expect that the result of what happens in all of these situations will impact the discussion in class and the content of written papers. We expect that relationships formed “on the road” will affect the quality of professors’ lectures and student interest in what is being discussed. We expect that the listening ear of a supportive staff person will transform a student’s ability to balance their personal and academic concerns.

JOURNEYING TOGETHER

Whether on the road or at home, we have increasingly resonated with the image of pilgrimage. Pilgrims are those on a journey of transformation. They travel routes, new and old, seeking deeper meaning in their lives. Very often this meaning has to do with connection. Some pilgrims seek to connect with what happened at a particular place and time. Some want to encounter the Spirit made visible in the lives of others. Some are transformed by the relationships with those they journey with, and others may seek the simple peace of placing one foot in front of the other along well-worn or less trodden paths.

We have found this metaphor very relevant to the educational journey undertaken in a small community. At times the metaphor becomes very literal, such as when hiking around a thousand year old monastery or visiting the site of the vision that inspired St. Francis of Assisi. At other times, pilgrimage might refer to a walk with a mentor along the St. Croix River discussing challenging ideas that came up in class or a late night chat between two students grappling with the relevance of their classes to a rapidly shifting world.

With such an emphasis on pilgrimage and journey, it is also important to remember our need for rootedness. Tradition should not bind us or prevent us from freely following our path, but we are embodied beings and we will quickly become disempowered if we cut ourselves off from the richness of the stories, practices and beliefs that have grounded and enabled the best of humanity over thousands of years, through a diversity of faith and wisdom traditions. This also means that we respect and pay attention to our own history and the rich background that each person brings into the SSU community.

A NETWORK OF COMMUNITIES

Though we may often refer to a singular “SSU Community,” we also see this one community as being a network of distinct but overlapping communities. The Student Community consists of students who have come here for the express purpose of acquiring those things that the university has to offer them. When they graduate, students become part of the dispersed community that is our Alumni Community – an important and ongoing source of connection to each other and to those who continue on the ground in St. Stephen. Some  alumni find themselves building community elsewhere, drawing on their time at SSU as inspiration; we consider them informal and evolving satellites of SSU (just as we are of them – inter-learning as we go).

The Senior Community includes people who have felt called to provide the various services that are necessary in order to be able to offer our programs. Whether part-time, full-time, volunteer or board member, whether they live near or far, the members of the senior community are dedicated to serving the students and each other. Acknowledging that we fail at times, we seek to model living and working together in a way that is characterized by mutual care and respect.

It is also worthwhile to draw a distinction between the spiritual or relational community and the institution of SSU. Like any academic institution, SSU must steward its financial resources well and must maintain a high standard of academic achievement. These concerns are sometimes in tension with more relational priorities. Sometimes individuals who get used to being treated like family or friends in one respect are surprised when they meet a firm policy such as a deadline for a payment or a late paper. Likewise, a certain set of values and flavours may develop among the student and alumni community which are in tension with the institutional values and standards of SSU. It is our hope that good relationships and respectful communication can make this a healthy tension.

The overall university community includes a Board of Governors that gives organizational leadership and support, and various friends and sponsors who have contributed greatly to the building of SSU, as well as a growing number of people who have settled in St. Stephen because the university is here.  

LIFESTYLE

As mentioned above, we have intentionally chosen not to be the kind of community that is based on the external application of rules, though at times some communities have found strength in that model. We would, however, hope that our community life would represent an invitation to a way of living that is a reflection of the “justice, beauty and compassion” that we want to increasingly embody. Instead of rigid rules, we want relationships of mutual accountability, of honesty and forgiveness, to be our hallmarks.

So, while those living in residence are asked to meet certain expectations in order to provide a safe and beneficial experience for all of those directly living together, we invite the entire community to reach for excellence and wholeness in the way we all, individually and corporately, live out our lives.

First and foremost, we encourage everyone to prioritize healthy relationships. Everyone should be treated with mutual respect and care. The emergence of this in residences, classrooms and study abroad is one of the greatest gifts the school can offer. Specifically, this means that any kind of violence, abuse or harassment, including abusive speech, is unacceptable and we will seek an intentional process of redress when it is reported. It means dealing with conflict well, without gossip or resentment and with persistence in seeking healthy reconciliation. It means that even in the natural formation of friendship clusters, everyone will strive to be as inclusive as possible, always trying to care for those who might otherwise be marginalized.

Healthy relationships require that the complexity and richness of our sexuality be treated well. People should never be exploited for each other’s gratification, and the best way to prevent this exploitation and hurt is to ensure that physical intimacy always develops in a way that matches the emotional intimacy and commitment in a relationship. Traditionally, marriage has been seen as the key way to shape such relationships. We acknowledge that we live in a culture in which practices are changing rapidly, yet we seek to affirm our need for commitments that invite community support and accountability for these most sensitive of relationships.

We are embodied beings, and this means that treating our bodies well is a crucial part of a healthy life in many different ways. The table is an important centre of shared life; food and drink are key to many celebrations, large and small. We also know that people often develop habits in which food, alcohol and other good gifts are misused, and this may especially be a temptation for young adults. Both the individuals and the community then pay a price. Misuse of alcohol or use of illegal substances often creates patterns of dependence or fosters poor decision making, and life in an accountable community can be a good opportunity to develop better patterns.

Taking care of ourselves is much easier when it becomes a shared value in community, and modelling and mutual encouragement help us to do far better than we are able on our own. Conversely, we have a hard time doing our best when those around us seem not to care. So, for example, hard physical work and enjoyable exercise are important contributions to health, and it is partly for this reason that we invite everyone to take part in shared tasks and in recreational opportunities.

Our embodied lives also require a healthy environment, and we want to be creative participants and caretakers of both the natural environment around us and the local neighbourhood in which we live. Sustainability is increasingly becoming a watchword for us both academically and in our practical lives. Everyone is encouraged to help us find ways in which our individual and shared decisions can have a more beneficial impact on the environment – so we try to turn the heat down, walk more, compost and not leave messes behind in the buildings or outside.

Relationships with our neighbourhood are just as important as our care for the environment. We have increasingly enjoyed a positive support from the town. Students, staff and faculty have participated in a wide variety of volunteering and recreational opportunities.

We are seeking to be more intentional about being sustainable in our economic lives. It is very challenging for students to leave school burdened by a huge debt. We would like to support intentional efforts to ensure that debt does not become a bondage pressuring students to drift away from the human and spiritual values they have formed in their studies. This may mean helping each other to live simpler lives – reducing the reliance on student loans and enabling staff and faculty to thrive on smaller salaries. It may mean creativity and flexibility for how an academic degree is completed. Again, what is very difficult for isolated individuals becomes easier when we support and encourage each other.

Finally, we are also very aware that we are imperfect people. At times we slip into more self-protection than love. We often fall short of the ideals that we are trying to live out together. There may be times when institutional requirements or academic standards mean that we have to set firm boundaries. There will be times when individuals feel forgotten or unfairly treated. Our commitment is to work through all such messy moments by striving for honest and healthy communication, with forgiveness and grace for each other.

There will even be times when the behaviour of certain individuals will strain the expectations of the community for living together well. This is especially true of behaviour that seems to have a negative impact on others in the community. Whether such individuals are students, staff or faculty, they should expect to be engaged in respectful conversation about what they are doing. Usually, agreement can be reached about ongoing patterns of behaviour and how to bring about positive change. If not, the conversation might need to be broadened, drawing more students and/or staff into the discussion. Whenever possible this relational style will strive to be guided by consideration of the concerns of those involved, the concerns of the community as a whole, and the stated vision and purpose of the university. If no agreement can still be reached there may need to be a parting of ways. While it is extremely rare, the university must reserve the legal right to ask students (or staff/faculty) to leave should their behaviour continue to be consistently disruptive of residential or academic policies or the maintenance of a healthy community.

SPIRIT

Contemporary society has had a hard time finding a balance in which spiritual practices are normalized and welcomed but not imposed. It is not easy to find this balance. We want to make it easy and natural for people to take time for silence, to remember gratitude, and to feel it is acceptable to talk freely about love or about God. We want people to be able to celebrate their traditions and beliefs openly, expecting respect from those around them. We don’t want people to feel excluded by “in-house language” or expectations to take part in activities that feel odd to them.

Yet some of our ways are delightfully quirky. We are small enough that we gather together to hold hands, share a reading and express gratitude before meals in the dining hall. The point is that we pause to slow down and notice each other. We don’t want to take the gift of our shared lives for granted.

There may be a wide variety of other opportunities. Recently we started a “School of Contemplation” for those interested in learning about ancient and contemporary practices that help some to find a healthy rhythm to life. When there are notable transitions in the community, such as a study abroad group leaving, we may gather with a liturgy of poems and songs to attend to the significance of the event. We are always seeking creative ways to get the whole community together or to gather in small groups so that everyone feels “loved and known.” Our approach is invitational and no one needs to take part in community activities that are not a good fit.

Creating a shared life that encourages “justice, beauty and compassion” does not just happen. Staff and faculty will do their part, and it is just as important that students all find their own way to become committed to this goal. Over the four years, we hope that students transition from being “community consumers” to being “community creators or builders.” You can get a degree nearly anywhere, but here we want everyone to have a taste of something richer.

wt-2019