Finnegan Award winner Grace Simmons: "I just feel so fortunate to have been in a place that has enabled me to learn so much about the world, and what a person can do to try and make a difference."
Four Years of 'Perpetual Motion' At an End
Simmons caps a full four years at Boston College with Finnegan Award
By Sean Smith
It's not the easiest task for an 18-year-old college student to convincingly channel a 17th-century French mathematician-philosopher.
But when Adj. Assoc. Prof. Brian Braman (Philosophy) saw then-freshman Grace Simmons portray Blaise Pascal three years ago, as part of a year-end exercise for the Perspectives course, he was more than persuaded. The intelligence and maturity Simmons displayed were impressive, but something else struck Braman.
"Pascal was famous for saying, 'The heart has reasons of which reason knows not,'" he explained. "It's about being in love with the world, and the people you are serving. It's about finding God in the most important ways of one's life. And realizing that there's not always an explanation for these things.
"Grace got that. She clearly had a depth to her spirituality, one that has gotten deeper during her four years here."
Like Braman, Simmons' many other admirers say the Skaneateles, NY, native epitomizes the tenets of Pascal's phrase, showing a love for the world and the people she served - whether BC's student body, Muslim scholars from abroad or developmentally disabled University employees - while expressing her faith beliefs in an abundance of on and off-campus activities.
Those qualities, along with a stellar academic record, have earned Simmons the 2005 Edward H. Finnegan, SJ, Memorial Award, given annually to the senior who exemplifies the University's motto "Ever to Excel."
The middle child of two attorneys, Simmons might well have never come to the Heights. Although drawn to BC's Jesuit-Catholic character, she also liked the idea of staying close to home by attending Colgate. So she flipped a coin, with Colgate designated as "tails." It came up heads. She's never looked back since then.
"I feel like I've been in perpetual motion," said Simmons, interviewed during the recent final exam period. "It's hard to believe four years are almost over, when the things I did in freshman year seem like yesterday.
"But they've been great years. The mission of Boston College - the academic and the spiritual - resonates for me. I just feel so fortunate to have been in a place that has enabled me to learn so much about the world, and what a person can do to try and make a difference."
A major in political science and philosophy and a Rhodes Scholar nominee, Simmons recently completed her term as president of the Undergraduate Government of Boston College by working with University President William P. Leahy, SJ, and other administrators to make BC's non-discrimination statement more welcoming and affirming for gays and lesbians while preserving BC's right to uphold its Catholic beliefs and values.
She also has served as an advisory board member for the University's groundbreaking Church in the 21st Century initiative [www.bc.edu/church21], helping to organize events focusing on the relationship between the Catholic Church and young adults and women.
Her other marks of distinction include the Shaw Leadership Program, where as a freshman she co-organized an ice cream social - now an annual event - for developmentally disabled workers in the University's Supported Employment Program. She also worked with BC's Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life as a staff assistant for a summer institute that brought 16 Muslim scholars from Africa, Europe and Central and Southeast Asia to learn about religious diversity in America and the impact of religion on democracy.
With a GPA that ranks her among the top 10 in her graduating class, Simmons is a member of Phi Beta Kappa and was selected as chief marshal for the College of Arts and Sciences Order of the Cross and Crown.
A&S Honors Program Director Mark O'Connor found himself so impressed by Simmons, especially her performance as UGBC president, that he wound up offering her a non-credit private weekly tutorial.
"When I first invited her to talk with me, we just hit it off immediately," he said. "Our weekly sessions were really all about enjoying the life of the mind, which is something on which Grace places a lot of emphasis. She represents what's best about BC, not only in academics but in the formation of the whole person."
Yet for Simmons, the heart and spirit have been equally as important as the mind in confronting the compelling events and issues of the day, whether in a Nicaraguan village on a service program in her junior year or on the BC campus itself.
Her college career had barely begun when the Sept. 11 attacks occurred, and in the weeks and months afterward she, along with the rest of the BC community, tried to understand what had happened, and why. In the spring of 2003, she happened to stop in the Boisi Center looking for a job, and was offered the staff assistant position for the Muslim scholars institute.
"That was an outstanding experience," said Simmons. "I got to meet, talk to and travel with these fascinating people. I learned a tremendous amount about religion and the world, and the interplay between religion and cultures. It gave me a lot to think about."
In the meantime, another traumatic episode - especially for Simmons and other Catholics - had unfolded as a series of shocking, painful revelations: disclosures of sexual abuse by Catholic clergy.
"When the scandal broke, I didn't know how to respond," she said. "But I had a great sense of hope that we, as a church and a community, could find a way to ease our collective pain and move forward, particularly among my generation. As long as young people could talk and listen to one another and not be afraid, we would be all right.
"So when the opportunity to be part of the Church in the 21st Century program came along, I knew it was perfect, because that's exactly what the basic purpose is: to talk, to listen and work together through the uncertainty towards the hope of the future."
Simmons cites experiences like these, and most of all the people she met through her involvement in them, as her inspiration to run for UGBC president in 2004, along with her vice president Burnell Holland. "Student government can be frustrating, sometimes - you wonder, 'Am I really making a difference?'" she said. "I was amazed by the seriousness, the organization the job entailed.
"But the dialogue you have with the student community, and really, the University itself, is extraordinary," said Simmons, who cites the campus appearance by Rwanda President Paul Kagame she organized earlier this semester as one of her fondest UGBC memories.
"I never regretted doing it."
Simmons hope to find similar opportunities "to make a change, make a difference" after BC, although at present she is not yet sure where exactly she'll pursue them.
"I would love to be a well-educated person, but I know that takes time," she said, smiling. "I do feel confident that I will find another place where I can learn, about myself and others, and hopefully put that knowledge to good use."
Read about the other candidates for the Finnegan Award.