Media CenterCarolyn Woo’s CNS Column – Grace in a Hyper-Competitive Culture

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By Dr. Carolyn Y. Woo

October 2014

This year marks a "big birthday" for my classmates and me and we have been hosting reunions across the globe wherever we are scattered. Many of us went through first to 12th grades together at the Maryknoll Sisters' School in Hong Kong. No matter how old the alumnae are, we are known as "MaryKnoll Girls" and the pride with which we wore our uniforms in our student days has morphed into lasting affection for each other, a part of our identity, and an abiding sense of gratitude for our teachers, particularly the Maryknoll sisters.

In our most recent reunion along the shores of Lake Michigan, one of the "girls" designed and ordered mugs for the group with the loving sentiment "Sisters Forever." Clearly our friendships and almost daily exchange of emails between one or the other got a boost from the internet. But the seeds for the bond has been sown a long time ago as we came of age. What is always puzzling to me is that we grew up in an extremely competitive academic system whereby public examinations after grades six and 11 eliminated most students (75% and 90% respectively) from advancing to the next levels in the top schools like Maryknoll.

Thanks to the Sisters, instead of turning our energies against each other, we looked out for, tutored and cheered each other on. The work of the Hong Kong system was so intense and its evaluation so demanding that we developed empathy for each other. By our mid-teens having spent ten hours together each school day for most of our then young lives, we were no longer competitors but cherished friends with different gifts, struggles and dreams. Our competition was not with each other, but against unrelenting pressures.

The Sisters also moderated what could have been a one-dimensional obsession with academics with fun activities such as (our very non-competitive) sports, singing, dance, art and broad participation in the annual music festivals where we were as likely to come in at the bottom (choir, Chinese poetry) as at the top (English recitation). They encouraged different gifts to be recognized, appreciated and nurtured. In the mid-90s when there was a special anniversary of the Maryknoll Sisters' School, nominations were sought for distinguished alumnae. As you can imagine most of the entries depicted soaring careers and top job titles. The Sisters recognized that while the education they provided led to impressive achievements, that was not the primary objective for their schools and students. They simply wanted us to know our worth, imagine our choices, use our voice, develop the skills to pursue our dreams, know God and serve others. Therefore, it was just as important to recognize the stay-at-home mom, the community volunteer, the piano teacher, the daughter who took care of elderly parents, etc. They changed the format of the program from distinguished alumnae awards to honoring the different ways by which the "Maryknoll Girls" found meaning and purpose in our lives.

My Marknoll experience is a prism by which each of the many beams of reflected light can be a story unto itself. This particular reflection casts attention on the possibility of grace even in a hyper-competitive culture. It is a reminder of the transcendence of friendship and a caution not to sacrifice that for material glitter, human vanity and petty hurts. My friends have affirmed, laughed, fretted with, encouraged and carried each other in ways that give a glimpse of what Is in store for us when Christ called us "friend." It is a manifestation of His promise that we do not make our journeys on our own.

Dr. Carolyn Y. Woo is the president & CEO of Catholic Relief Services, the official overseas humanitarian agency of the Catholic community in the United States. This article is part of her ongoing monthly column, Our Global Family, written for Catholic News Service.

Read Dr. Woo’s previous columns

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