For those of us who choose to go to college, we usually call it quits after eight or so semesters. And maybe some of us voluntarily take on at least a few more for a post-graduate degree.
But 46 semesters, for the vast majority of us, is just simply too many.
Yet, that’s how many educational cycles Lois Harr has called Manhattan College home.
She’s not a student, of course. In fact, Harr received her undergraduate degree at Manhattan’s crosstown rival, Fordham University. But for more than 20 years, Harr has been instrumental in the development of Manhattan’s campus ministry office. And now, she’s retiring.
But then again, this is Lois Harr. And the college can’t get rid of her that easily. In fact, she still plans to teach a class or two as she transitions out of her role as the college’s campus ministry and social action director.
“I feel like (leaving) would be really cold turkey otherwise,” Harr said. “But this way, at least for now, I’m kind of weaning myself off of it.”
Manhattan College has been her home for more than 20 years, but Harr is also a lifelong Bronxite. And she classifies her childhood growing up in the borough as formative in her desire to promote social justice and fairness for her entire life.
“I suppose I believe this stuff they taught me as a kid,” Harr said. “I believe the stuff in catechism class about justice, and equality, and God loves everybody. And I believe the stuff they taught me in civics class … equality, and justice, and fairness under the law.”
It was at Fordham Harr was introduced to the Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition — which is now one of Manhattan College’s frequent partners for its community-based learning programs.
And it was the clergy coalition that gave Harr her first job out of college. She spent several years as a community organizer with the group before transitioning to a part-time job at her local Catholic parish once she had children.
But then Harr met Stephen Kaplan, a longtime religious studies professor at Manhattan College, and the two worked together to secure one floor of the college’s academic buildings to host a middle school. It was around that same time Kaplan informed her there was an opening in the college’s campus ministry and social action office.
And while “campus ministry and social action” sounded like the perfect intersection of Harr’s interests, she found the idea of a new role daunting. For one, being considered for the position involved a job interview. And as someone who’d largely done community-based work, Harr had never done any interview like that before.
“Coming here was a little more formal,” Harr said. “But (former campus minister) Brother Dennis Lee did say to me … after I got the job, ‘Now, you understand this is not a 9-to-5 job?’ And I said, ‘Yeah, that’s OK. I’ve never had one.’”
Harr expected most of the work she encountered in her newfound position. But there were some roles she just lucked into. For example, some students wanted to create the precursor to the college’s current Black Student Union — known as the Association for Black Culture, or simply ABC.
And Harr, as an Irish-American, was taken somewhat aback when two students approached her to be its adviser.
“I said, ‘Well, sure, but maybe a Black person should be your adviser?’” Harr said. “They said to me, ‘That’s OK. We don’t need anybody to teach us what it means to be Black. We just need somebody to help us get things done.’”
But the role gave Harr an opportunity to connect with the college’s students — something she said was both her favorite part of her job and the part she will miss the most in her retirement.
After all, Harr is certainly one of the more social people on the college’s campus, and enjoys the connections she makes not only with students, but with her fellow campus ministry staffers — and even people down the hall from her office.
“I always tried to do my share, so I bring in K-cups or a little creamer or something in,” Harr said. “I would use the new coffee machine and just have a little chat.”
Harr has three items on her retirement to-do list. First, she plans to continue teaching at the college for at least a while longer.
She also plans to visit Laredo, Texas, soon to assist with outreach to migrants at the country’s southern border.
She also plans to take time for herself while staying busy and finding a creative outlet. And to Harr, the perfect intersection of those desires might be in something as simple as a flower-arranging class.
She might have spent most of her recent memory at a Lasallian Catholic college, but one of the principles about finding one’s vocation — or true calling — guiding Harr actually came from the Jesuits. It’s something she has always kept at the forefront of her mind, and won’t change simply because she’s retiring.
“They say, ‘What’s your true vocation?’” Harr said. “’Can you do something? Are you good at it? And does the world need you to do it?’”