SBU’s ‘Thisness’ Project Unifies Campus by Celebrating Diversity

Jocelyn Thomas In the Headlines

ALLEGANY, N.Y. — An initiative with a unique name and a Franciscan theme — the ‘Thisness’ Project — brought together members of all facets of St. Bonaventure University last month to celebrate the value of each person and group in the community. The effort involved creativity, collaboration and months of organization.

On April 20, participants in the ‘Thisness’ Project assembled an 8-foot tall wooden puzzle with pieces made by members of university clubs, departments and organizations. The 53 puzzle pieces were created using paint, decals, pictures and other objects to portray the uniqueness of the groups, according to Francis Di Spigno, OFM, SBU vice president for university ministries. They fit together to form the initials SBU.

The April 20 rally, held in Hickey Dining Hall, concluded nearly seven months of collaboration. Members of the participating groups — including the friar community, represented by Peter Schneible, OFM (pictured) — placed the puzzle pieces on the SBU outlined structure. At the end of the rally, students, faculty, and staff gathered to see SBU’s step team perform, as well as hear a poem read by Black Student Union president Felice Brooks. During the rally, an overhead projector flashed pictures of students holding a puzzle piece with a single word that described their uniqueness.

Rapid Collaboration
The initiative enabled “all of the campus groups — even those that do not always have large numbers — to realize that they are important parts of the community,” Francis said.

The ‘Thisness’ Project began early last fall, when a student asked the university ministries office if a prayer service could be held in memory of area teenager Jamey Rodemeyer who committed suicide after being tormented because of his sexual orientation. This evolved into a campus-wide project that included discussions, catchy signs and a social media presence.

Rodemeyer’s death had a huge impact on the SBU community, Francis said. People felt the need to get together to mourn his loss and to develop a campaign with a positive perspective.

“Within a week of the conception of the idea, representatives of various campus groups were brought together to discuss how to change a campus subculture that did not live the Catholic social teaching of respect for the dignity of each person,” said Kevin Kriso, OFM, who lives at the Mt. Irenaeus Franciscan Mountain Retreat. Participants included the SBU Counseling Center, the Damietta Center and its diversity clubs, University Ministries, Mt. Irenaeus, Student Government, Student Life, other service groups and the Education Department. “It was a wonderful experience to have so many groups collaborating so quickly,” Kevin added.

Positive Approach
The planning committee members — with their many diverse backgrounds — aimed to keep the project positive, inclusive and relevant to SBU. “They created a lot of energy on campus,” said Francis, who has been stationed at SBU since last summer.

“The thought was not to tackle the problem of violence from a negative standpoint, such as anti-bullying, but rather, to come up with something positive to change a culture that gives rise to bullying,” said John C. Coughlin, OFM, of the Mt. Irenaeus team.

Kevin said: “We also soon saw that we did not want to be ‘anti’ anything. Bullies are usually people who feel a lot of hurt themselves. How could we change hearts — turn an enemy into a friend? We also saw that words like ‘tolerance’ or ‘respect’ are so overused that people might tune it out.”

Franciscan Theme
The project’s name arose from the desire to use a unique term that would attract attention and also be related to the Franciscan heritage of the more than 150-year-old university.

One member of the committee who had recently been on pilgrimage to Assisi “was so taken by the Franciscan idea of ‘thisness’ or the beauty/uniqueness/sacredness of all things, that she proposed the idea of us using that word for what we were trying to do,” said Kevin. “We thought it made sense, because it was different enough to make people think. It was not ‘anti’ anything but ‘pro’ tolerance and respect. It was a way for us to infuse the campus with a Franciscan value that people from all spiritual traditions could accept.”

The planning group used a paper written by F. Edward Coughlin, OFM, SBU’s vice president for Franciscan mission, as the basis for the ‘Thisness’ Project. In “Pace e Bene/Pax et Bonum, Brother/Sister,” Edward described the dignity of the human person from the Catholic/Franciscan perspective, highlighting insights from John Duns Scotus, the 13th Century philosopher-theologian who articulated the principle of Haecceitas or ‘Thisness.’ “It holds that, beyond the fundamental dignity and goodness of every human person, there is something absolutely unique and unrepeatable. The individual is this person unlike any other person before or after him or her.”

Edward said he wrote the paper as part of the All Bona Reads program for freshmen. “I have attempted to develop short papers to stimulate discussion on a theme on which the wisdom of the Catholic-Franciscan tradition has something significant to contribute to the conversation.” He said he “was surprised but delighted” to learn that this paper connected with faculty and with students. “The students saw it as a way to stimulate a positive conversation around a campus concern. It suggested a way to think about the value and dignity of the human person.”

Ed added: “It is very gratifying to know that so many on our campus have been exposed to the Catholic tradition’s perspective on the value and dignity of the human person, the 5th Admonition of St. Francis (“Be conscious, of human person, of your dignity…”), and Scotus’ Principle of Haecceitas, Individuation — ‘Thisness.’ I can only hope that it is a principle and perspective that those who learned about it will bring into a wide variety of conversations in places I am unable to imagine.”

‘Thisness’ Project’s Impact
thisness-r“By making people on campus more aware that everyone has his/her own ‘thisness,’ our hope is that we can inspire in the larger culture a greater appreciation for the sacredness and uniqueness of each individual,” said John Coughlin, part of the Mt. Irenaeus team. “This would lead to reverence and tolerance for individuals. Differences would be respected instead of seen as a threat thus reducing violence in society.”

The puzzle idea came from Francis who suggested using those symbols since “we cannot be unique just for unique sake, but we must be in community with others.” Once the image was approved, “the committee began plastering the campus with blank puzzle pieces,” he said. “Since no one knew what we were talking about, it really created a buzz.”

The impact of the ‘Thisness’ Project is visible on Facebook, on signs and banners around campus — one of which states: “Thisness = Respect (for everyone and everything)”— and in the observations of participants.

“Most people on campus now understand the word, what it means for their lives, and how they can live out this value in a very practical way,” said John. “It ended up being a great example of how Franciscanism and education can help change the culture.”

“One of the things I appreciated the most about the ‘Thisness’ Project was seeing how it allowed students to think deeply about who they are,” said Francis. “We really thought about what makes you you.”

— Jocelyn Thomas is director of communications for Holy Name Province.