One day in 1996 I was a 17-year-old freshman in hall 3-C of McGraw-Long, undoubtedly excited, but also homesick for the only home I ever had at that point, a small town in Connecticut. I sat in my room after my family left, wondering if I would have someone to eat dinner with when I didn’t know anyone at James Madison University. (The community-building 1787 Orientation was yet to exist in 1996). My going to college far away where I didn’t know anyone was perhaps a seed of adventurousness, but I certainly wasn’t blooming yet. I had maybe been to one or two countries outside the United States, both not too far off the coast. Now I am 40 years old, I’ve traveled to 43 countries, I work at Harvard University, and I am about to sail as a librarian on my third Semester at Sea voyage. The path from the homesick kid to the adventurous man is inextricably tied to James Madison University, and not simply because of that day in 1996 when I arrived at JMU, but time and time again, in 2010, in 2012, in 2015, and today in 2019.
Is life random, and we find reasons to make sense of the chaos? Or are we living a book where all the chapters ultimately work together and create a well-crafted story with some author, whether that be God, the universe, fate, a spiritual energy, past lives, family, friends, communities, strangers, faith, or something we don’t even know about, helping us find our way to where we need to be, as messy or beautiful as that path might be? Whoever or whatever is helping me, undoubtedly used JMU as a central theme, channel, catalyst, and powerful force in the story of my life.
Perhaps life is random. Ultimately attending JMU in 1996 because your family had to drive along Interstate 81 to visit colleges and universities in Virginia, because you were a kid from Connecticut who was obsessed with the Dave Matthews Band, and JMU was an easy stop on the way home, could be considered quite random.
Perhaps life is meant to be. Something magical happened when I was at JMU, and ever since I left in 2000, I often romanticized those years. In 2010, I finished graduate school in California, and was fully enjoying a beach-bum lifestyle in sunny, beautiful, and perfect San Diego. Had I not gone to JMU and continued to feel a connection to the university, I don’t think I would have applied to be the Education Librarian in Carrier Library, having not been to Harrisonburg since 2000, ten years earlier, when Harrisonburg wasn’t a place where many alumni stayed upon graduating, and was a place where perhaps even less people chose to spend their young-thirties. I had, however, heard that Harrisonburg was changing and growing, so I applied, and I think a significant reason I got the job was because of my passion for the JMU community.
Had I not received an offer, I would have never met my colleague Erika, a fellow librarian at JMU, and a former librarian on a Semester at Sea voyage. Had I not met her, I wouldn’t have known about Semester at Sea, and her recommendation most likely wouldn’t have helped me receive an offer to be the Assistant Librarian on the Fall 2012 voyage, nor would I have been hired again to be the Assistant Librarian on the Spring 2015 voyage. Furthermore, had I not gained the five years of library experience JMU offered me, I probably wouldn’t have been hired as a librarian at Harvard University in the fall of 2015, and if I wasn’t a librarian at Harvard, I might not have had the university’s name recognition to stand out when I no longer knew the hiring committee at Semester at Sea, yet I applied to be the Librarian on the Spring 2019 voyage, and I got the job. Now I will be sailing on the voyage with my girlfriend Alice, who I hope and pray will be my wife someday soon, and we are about to share with one another the transformative, unique, memorable, meaningful, fulfilling, and powerful experience of a Semester at Sea voyage and shipboard community.
How did I get to this point in life? Randomly? Meant to be? Because of JMU. I don’t see any way you take away my going to JMU, or more importantly take away my returning to JMU ten years later, and I still end up where I am today, and end up the person I am today.
All of this may seem like an overly self-indulgent and narcissistic story, but if so, please forgive me for not making the gratitude more apparent, because this is a story of gratitude for the Madison Experience, an experience that clearly doesn’t end when you graduate. Even when ten years go by where JMU doesn’t play an active part in your life, a shining burst of purple could come back into your life. For five years I reconnected with JMU and the university changed my life again, once in 1996 when I arrived as a homesick kid with no friends and I left with tears of not wanting to leave, and again when I arrived in 2010 as a 32-year-old who still hadn’t really left the country and I left in 2015 having been to more countries than the number of years of my age, and enough experience to get a job at Harvard.
Sure, I’m leaving out the songwriting career that didn’t go anywhere, the breakups, the frustration with online dating, the confusion about what to do with my life, the Celtics losses to the Cavaliers, but ultimately, a story came together, and without James Madison University the story falls apart. Sure, there would have been another story, but this one I’m living is remarkable, and I couldn’t write a better one, which is my point, that I didn’t write this story. This story is a gift. This is a post of gratitude.
I’m grateful for all the lessons I have learned along the way and what I now value, like the importance of stepping out of your comfort zone, taking risks, being open-minded, being compassionate, empathetic, and attentive, seeking diversity and inclusion, being encouraging, supportive, and welcoming, seeing things from different perspectives, being curious, learning about other cultures, and having faith, religion, spirituality, mindfulness, gratitude, family, friends, and community, as a centering force. I encourage you all to embrace a few of these lessons, and I hope you all live remarkable lives. Go Dukes.
Jonathan Paulo (’00) works at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts as an Online Learning and Reference Librarian in Harvard Library. Before moving to Boston, he worked at James Madison University from 2010-2015 as the Education Librarian in Carrier Library. Jonathan will be the Librarian on the Spring 2019 Semester at Sea voyage, and previously worked as the Assistant Librarian on the Fall 2012 and Spring 2015 voyages. He enjoys filming and editing video, playing guitar and piano, traveling, drinking coffee, eating sweets, and reading books; doing all of these activities on the same day is a pretty perfect day.