A love letter to the tiny Catholic school that stole my heart, long before making its ascent to the final round of the tournament.
I’ve never been much of a sports fan. Always more interested in playing the game than watching, I am a textbook example of a fair-weathered fan and support teams with such half-hearted enthusiasm, it rarely hides my ambivalence.
Gonzaga, however, is the exception. I am a Zag to my deepest core, though not for any true affinity for basketball, but for the love of a school that so profoundly changed my life.
Anyone who remembers being 17 probably remembers what it was like to know everything. How fantastic life was then when you not only knew exactly who you were, but you also knew more than your peers, your teachers, and most of all, your parents. What a burden it must have been shouldering all that knowledge.
The only thing on my mind as a high school senior who both ‘had it all’ and ‘knew it all’ was where to go to college. In my mind at the time, I felt that the college lucky enough to have me had to be prestigious, quite difficult to get into, on the west coast (a stipulation put forth by my benefactors (read: my parents)), at least 500 miles from Seattle, and called Stanford.
Sure it was a stretch, but someone has to win the lottery, right? I had the credentials and I knew I was special in the same way my peers were special (which is to say we weren’t) so why not try.
Well of course, only one person from my high school (my private, Catholic, mildly-elitist preparatory high school, I might add) got into Stanford that year — and it was not me.
Now what is a know-it-all high school senior to do now? Consider my fallbacks? Well, all the other California schools were out, as my parents would not pay out of state tuition. The most prestigious institution in my state, according to my grossly uninformed mind, was the University of Washington. But I couldn’t go there. Not only was it only 15 miles from where I had grown up (automatic dealbreaker), it was enormous. As someone who couldn’t handle going to public high school due to the size and lack of community, I knew I would flounder at UW.
All the Jesuit schools along the west coast were popular destinations for graduates of Eastside Catholic High School, so schools like Santa Clara, Loyola Marymount, University of San Diego, and Gonzaga were all on my radar.
Well, among Jesuit schools on the west coast, Gonzaga seemed to be the one with the most name-recognition and therefore the one that would give me the greatest advantage (remember, college is all about me). This, coupled with the fact that in-state schools were beginning to look like the only options my benefactors would entertain, I was compelled to apply to and visit Gonzaga.
The look of mild distain never left my face over the course of my visit to GU and I could not think of a single kind word to use to describe Spokane. I thought of Spokane as the driving equivalent to a fly-over state and I was not impressed by what some might call “the charm of middle America”.
The eager student that guided our tour did little to convince me of anything other than that Gonzaga was clearly some sort of large cult. A wide smile never left this student’s face as he happily marched us around campus, pointing out things like the library and dining hall with such glee, I had to believe he was under some sort of hypnotic influence. The students I saw on campus that day were so happy, friendly, and welcoming, I would not at all have been surprised if a group of them linked arms and skipped to class.
It made no sense. They were still teenagers, right? Where was the angst, where was the unfounded sense of superiority, the sheer annoyance of being addressed by anyone other than friends? Why was everyone so happy?
I left Gonzaga extremely unsettled but I can’t say I wasn’t intrigued. Wasn’t this why I had transferred to a small, private high school? To escape the coldness that can be a large, unfeeling, high school in favor of a small, Catholic high school where community, unity, and service were key? Wasn’t this what I wanted from college as well? Well, of course it was what I wanted but did I believe it existed? Absolutely not. My skepticism remained wholly intact.
My mom had slyly put us up at the Davenport Hotel, the nicest accommodations around, and not just by Spokane standards. Comforted by this, we rounded out the night with a nice dinner in the lobby. Though the food was good, it was the service that was remarkable.
Our server was an intelligent, articulate, energetic young woman, who made us laugh and feel at home. It was only after she had won me over and I concluded she was the first normal person I had met in this small town, that she told us she was a Zag. She was graduating that week and was ecstatic, buzzing with a vibrancy and vitality that I had never seen before. What does this school do to people? She had seemed so normal but she was also one of these kool-aid drinkers? Could you be both? I left Spokane more confused than ever.
Thanks to the generous scholarships Gonzaga offered, attending was a foregone conclusion, but I can’t say I was happy about it. What can at say? I was a brat, spoiled and blinded by privilege, which was compounded by both being a teenager and having spent the last few years desperately trying to fit in amongst the wealth of my private school peers. And let’s not forget, I knew everything — except for the fact that I was capable of being so wrong.
That summer flew by and as the start date of school approached, I felt the slight tingle of excitement at the thought of Gonzaga. Was the school itself responsible for this feeling or was it just the strong desire to get far away from my hometown and be on my own? Whatever it was, it didn’t prevent my from dragging my feet as much as I could the weekend of orientation.
I arrived at Gonzaga late, skipped every bonding/getting to know you event that I could, and spent the night at the hotel with my dad instead of in my new dorm. Sure I was here, but I wasn’t going to let the school have my soul that easily. I was going to remain strong and take everything Gonzaga told me with a heavy dose of skepticism.
Well, this didn’t last long. After the first week, Gonzaga had its hooks in. I spent some of the first weekends away (I couldn’t give in just yet) but after the first month, I was indoctrinated. I don’t know when I became a Zag and when Spokane became my home and favorite city in the world, but I do know the community had everything to do with it. It was a community that loved you as an individual, who put your whole person ahead of your academics. It was the professors that knew me by name and could personally ask why I had not been in class that day. It was the student body that was encouraged to explore themselves, engage with others, and the world at large. A school that treated everyone like an adult, assumed the best of people, and championed kindness, support, and service.
My four years at Gonzaga were some of the best of my life. They went by much too quickly, but the life that has followed has in every way been influenced by my time there. My heart is bigger and my life is better because of everything I learned and everyone I met at Gonzaga.
The most important lesson the school taught me was that I don’t know everything (anything?). For an institution built for educating, this lesson seems counterintuitive, but Gonzaga welcomed me with open arms. It accepted me when I didn’t accept it and it loved me unselfishly and before I loved it back. Gonzaga humbled me without breaking me down, but by showing me just how good people could be and that love, light, and kindness really could prevail in this world — a profound idea to a cynical 18 year old.
Would I have grown up regardless, learning as we all (hopefully) do with age that the world does not exist for our benefit? Absolutely. But Gonzaga that not only taught me this; it taught me that a meaningful life is not only one lived unselfishly, but one dedicated to service.
I owe so much of who I am to this school. Seeing the national spotlight shining down on Gonzaga is an incredible sight, and one that I believe the school deserves entirely. However, this tiny school in Spokane stole my heart long before this year’s team danced the dance.
Gonzaga reshaped my outlook, opened my mind and my heart, introduced me to incredible people, each with the unique ability to change lives, and gave me the tools, as well as the love and support, to help discover who I am and how to engage with the world (and it will look the other way when I write long, rambling, run-on sentences). I may no longer know everything, but I know how to love on a scale I never would have thought possible as a teenager. I will forever be an extension of the school and take my responsibility as ambassador very seriously. What kind of person do I want to be? Well, one that would make Gonzaga proud.
To all of you who knew you wanted to attend Gonzaga at the outset, I apologize I ever doubted you. However, it’s been a long time since I was 18, and I have never doubted Gonzaga since, and I certainty do not doubt Gonzaga tonight.
So much love goes out to my Zags on this historic day. Winning the championship would be nice, but as Zags, we already have something much bigger than a championship (but let’s not let that stop us from winning this thing).