By Barb Arland-Fye
The Catholic Messenger
DAVENPORT — St. Ambrose University’s new president Amy Novak drives to work each morning listening to prayer on the Catholic social media app, Hallow, before walking to the grotto just outside her office for quiet prayer. This centering in Christ prepares her for the workday ahead, keeps her grounded and reminds her that God guides her day.
On Oct. 1, she will be installed as the 14th president of St. Ambrose University. Her inaugural theme is “Come to the Table: Equipping Inclusive, Innovative and Invitational Leaders for Our Future.” It aims to make St. Ambrose University a primary community asset in fostering conversations that can dissect root causes of complex social and economic problems, including inequality, marginalization, racism and divisiveness and explore the role a university plays in developing leaders prepared to adopt inclusive strategies that lead to real solutions.
“We’re inviting people to gather collectively to ask powerful questions and engage in empathetic listening. In the process, we hope St. Ambrose can model what a healthy and holy community looks like. We are inviting people to partner with us as we gather around the table. I will be inviting our university to consider what our community is calling us to be and do.”
Novak is a devout Catholic married to Ken and mother of eight who appreciates the values of listening, reflecting and being present to others. These values are elements of growth and inquiry that lead to building a world in which everyone is welcome to the table and contributes to the common good.
The first months of her administration have been filled with meetings, presentations, and cultivating relationships with the university’s constituencies — students, staff, faculty, leaders from the diocese and nonprofit organizations, businesses and others.
On Monday mornings the St. Ambrose community receives an email with their president’s Monday Morning Meditation, a spiritual reflection that applies Catholic Social Teaching to the realities and hopes of those on campus. Pop-up Prayer with the President is another initiative of Novak, who assumed the president’s post in August. The pop-up format responds to a popular trend among young adults. At last week’s pop-up prayer event, she posted an invitation on social media inviting the university community to a half-hour of prayer.
“We planned to do it at the grotto. But, it was rainy so we did it by the tabernacle in Christ the King Chapel. We had a brief reflection on the call of Matthew, which was the Gospel reading for the day.” The reflection focused on the question: How does the Gospel speak to you at this place in this time? The gathering prayed about cares on their mind, and spent a few minutes in silence before Novak closed with spontaneous prayer.
That same day, she met with cabinet members to discuss the focus of their efforts and to talk about potential strategic initiatives. She had lunch with Student Life staff, whom she appreciates for their dedication providing services to students. “It was my opportunity to thank them for an incredible amount of work they do at the beginning of the school year. Their efforts are truly a labor of love.”
Extending grace to others
Among them are staffers helping to deal with roommate issues, mental health issues and keeping people safe in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. “I invited them into prayer for our students and I prayed for them,” Novak said. “I like to keep a pulse on our students and this team helps me do that. I am interested in their perspective. They are at ground level.”
Her commitment to getting to know students includes quality time with the family. “We have peer campus ministers coming to our house in late October and RAs (Resident Assistants) scheduled to come to dinner. Ken and I are trying to extend hospitality and invite people into our immediate family and hope to model authentic community and just being present and listening alongside one another,” Novak said. “We’re sojourners together. What a humbling opportunity to walk alongside students on this journey of discernment.”
“It’s a journey exploring what it means to be present every day to the life we’re leading. Some days are tougher than other days. We have to help students and our adult colleagues understand that it’s not all figured out, and to be comfortable with the tension of not knowing what lies ahead. Faith is becoming comfortable with waking up and realizing that we don’t know what the day holds. Our lives really are unknown, despite our best efforts to plan. What we do know as people of faith is that God is walking alongside of us, and that he has graced us with the gifts to work though whatever challenges there are and to be present to what comes to us each day.”
Novak sees as part of her role helping students, staff and faculty to become comfortable with the unknown and to have the confidence to “trust in something greater than ourselves in the process.” There is a sense of grace in that process, which leads to examining “how we can extend that grace to whomever we are present that day.”
As the mother of a large and diverse family, she long ago learned that expectations and plans do not fall neatly into place at all times. Being a parent, she says, is humbling. “It’s much easier to journey alongside people … helping to ask the right questions, offering comfort, simply being present and really listening. We’re letting God help us figure it out.”
Anchored in Christ
She returns home from a long day on campus where Ken has dinner well on the way. She takes a walk with her two children, ages 13 and 15, who still live at home. “The walk is awesome and they are so real. All of the kids are great. I have this whole crew in college and those who have just graduated and keep in touch.” Her experiences at home and on campus give her hope for the future.
Students will be a part of the collaboration that Novak embraces in her leadership style. “We’re going to begin a strategic planning process and get students involved, nonprofits, business leaders, our faculty and staff … we need to know the needs of our community. We need to be better at translating what we are delivering” — students must be prepared to make ethical decisions and think critically while readily adapting to the changing realities of the 21st century business environment.
“We have to be intentional about how students learn those skills through the experiences we create, that truly confirm that a student had an opportunity to make an ethical decision and weighed the pros and cons.” Intentionality includes training and professional development for faculty to be leaders in teaching 21st century students. “We have to be much sharper about how we respond to emerging trends in health care or cyber security or business or science or the church.”
“As part of the student experience, we have the opportunity to engage in these deep questions about what is meaningful … what and who I am and what I am called to do,” Novak said. “The Monday morning meditation is an effort for all of us to adapt, and to exhibit awareness and afford access and opportunity for our students. But we have to be anchored in Christ. There is a grace-filled way to be in the middle of a diverse campus with people of different faiths or no faith with the beauty of this vision. We know our own Catholic Intellectual Tradition is to be in communion with our brothers and sisters of different faiths and invite those who may have no faith at all to consider what anchors them in their life. This is the essence of our call to solidarity.”