Sister Agnes Marie greeted our class as we filed into the brand new Foods and Culture Lab. Perfect grey curls framed her face under her traditional habit. Her face was puffy with old age and her pasty lips looked like she ate a lot of Tums. A transfer student entering my sophomore year, I had never been around nuns before. Although I was raised Lutheran, at age 20 I was apathetic about religion. I’d chosen the school because they had a dietetics program that aligned with my passions and interests. Plus, I’d gotten a decent scholarship and was determined to come out on the other end as a registered dietitian.
Viterbo College, which was founded and operated by an order of the Franciscan Sisters, had strong nursing and home economics programs. In 1977, the dietetics program was a fledging that had sprung out of these disciplines and borrowed resources from the two. The vision for the program along with the faculty inspired me to jump in without thinking about how I might (and might not) fit into the culture of a Catholic community.
Childhood friends from the Catholic tradition had shared unnerving stories about strict nuns. Sister Agnes Marie’s firm and formal demeanor scared me stiff! She imposed many unyielding rituals about how the new foods lab would operate. (A student was publicly reprimanded for not running the garbage disposal for the proper amount of time.) I was anxious that I’d make a mistake and wouldn’t fit in.
One day, we were making angel food cake, which involves gently folding a flour-sugar mixture into whipped egg whites. Mesmerized with this task, I was startled to hear Sister Agnes Marie standing behind me declaring (with her hands raised), “Class! Stop! Come Here!” My brain exploded, “Holy crap, I’m in BIG trouble. What did I do wrong?”
After summoning the class to surround me, Sister announced, “I’d like you all to observe the perfect folding technique.” She continued to praise my technique in front of the whole class. Phew … I guess I knew how to gently mix flour into egg whites without collapsing the foam. But I also started to learn about assimilating into a new culture and a new routine. By the end of that semester, Sister Agnes Marie and I had cultivated an affection toward each other. The program served me well, and I have enjoyed a 38-year career as a dietitian. My time at Viterbo not only enabled my career, it taught me resiliency and how to assimilate into a culture that feels alien.
“Feeling Like a “Fish Out of Water”
As kids hop on buses for their first day of school, I reflected on my new-school stories. Whether it’s a kid navigating a new school or an adult embarking on a major life change, these transition stories often follow a universal plot about the emotional journey of adapting to a new environment. David Hutchens frames this plot as “The Extraordinary World” or “Fish Out of Water.” For example, when Harry Potter arrives at Hogwarts for the first time, he had to quickly learn many rules and rituals that other kids already knew. We relate to Harry because we’ve all found ourselves in positions where new roles, relationships, and settings stretch us. Hutchens breaks it down as five key plot points. I added a sixth, “Moment of Truth,” to illuminate the pivotal insight that leads to change or acceptance.
Fascinating Place Where Rules Are Different
Hogwarts is an exotic place with strange rituals; however, new school experiences (from elementary school to advanced degrees and certifications) often feel the same way. Similarly, a new position or role in a company, a new job or career, and moves to a new community or home can evoke fears about not fitting in. You don’t have to immerse in a foreign country or different culture to feel like a fish out of water—this storyline can play out during many ordinary life events.
Old Rituals Don’t Work Any More
My early 70s hippy garb didn’t really fit into a Catholic university, but I couldn’t afford new clothes. The symbols and complicated rituals that defined life in this college community bewildered me. While I wasn’t expected to participate in Catholicism, I still felt alienated from the intangibles that many others knew innately.
Learned to Improvise
I knew my way around a kitchen and was good at baking. My instincts and knowledge helped me complete the tasks at hand and forget about where I was … I got caught in the Zen of folding a powdery mixture into whipped egg whites.
Moment of Truth
When Sister Agnes Marie flagged my perfect folding technique, I knew that I had passed the test. I could make it at that school! My misfit label was self-imposed. I had more in common with this community than I thought. Everyone was more accepting and less judgmental than I expected.
My confidence was boosted and future college challenges were more manageable. Lessons learned made new challenges seem smaller.
More Capable and Resilient
As a result, I’m more open to cultures that are different than the ones I know. I’m willing to take on challenges and stretch in order to grow.
This fall, I’m watching transitions all around me. My daughter started her first professional position as a fourth-grade teacher. My mother and mother-in-law are transitioning into assisted living communities. My favorite yoga instructor shared her decision to return to college after a 10-year break and invited us to meditate on “change” during her last class. Life changes bring challenges that stem from being pushed out of a comfort zone into a new situation that feels strange and uncertain. Transitions are often exciting and uncomfortable at the same time.
“We must be willing to let go of the life we’ve planned so as to have the life that is waiting for us.” Joseph Campbell