by ALEXA SCHMIDT, Asst. A&E Editor
On Wednesday, Nov. 26, Deirdre O’Leary Cunningham, Ph.D., delivered a lecture at the last Agape Latte of the fall semester. O’Leary is an associate professor of English, with particular interests in Irish literature and theater.
Sophomores Meggie Osorio and Jeremy Capuder are part of the Agappe Latte planning committee. They go to a meeting with whoever is doing the talk before, and let them know what students want to hear so they will be engaged in the lecture. On the day of, they arrive early to help set up and write a thank-you card. Conor Reidy usually decides on who will deliver the speech, but he takes all suggestions into consideration.
Agape Latte is a chance for students to learn more about their professor outside a classroom setting.
“I like listening to people I admire, and hearing people that I look up to, and hearing about how their lives went wrong, and I’m like, ‘I’m going to be okay,’” Osorio said.
“I like hearing about the development professors went through. And sometimes it’s really crazy. It’s so interesting to hear about how different people’s lives are and and how it affects them,” he said.
Before the event started, students filed in to chat, eat some snacks and listen to music by singer and songwriter, Emely Martinez. O’Leary started her hilarious, relatable and honest lecture, titled “The Best Mistakes I Ever Made” at 8 p.m.
“I have spent the last few weeks thinking about what it was I was going to say and I think it’s particularly timely that I’m speaking to you right at the start of the Christmas season because the inspiration behind what it is I’m talking about today happened at a Christmas Eve mass in 2011,” O’Leary opened.
She recalled how special going home for Christmas could be for a college student, especially because she went to school in Virginia, and the holidays were only her second trip home for the year. However, her story starts in 2011 she was 37, with a three-year old and two one year-old twins.
The preparation for the whole ordeal included getting herself, her husband and her kids to the church. This required the “operation and organization of the military,” which gave the audience a laugh.
“It’s only when you get to church and you sit down and you see these three little angels sitting there and they look great and you kind of give those nods like, you’re welcome, because you’re showing these beautiful children to church and everyone’s looking at them,” O’Leary said.
“My husband looks remarkably calm and rested and not at all frazzled and you see the 20-somethings home from college and they look so young and they look great and they looked relieved that the semester is over and then somehow maybe it’s through the stained glass window or something. You catch a glimpse of yourself and you look horrible and exhausting. You are the hobo that somehow caught a lift with this family, well dressed, beautiful family, and you just don’t look like you really should be a part of it. And every other mom in church looks the exact same way. But that is not at all reassuring,” she said.
Then the priest started the homily about the birth of Jesus, which he pointed out was a complete mess. There was no inn, no doctors, no midwives. Mary had to deliver in a barn full of animals, and the reward was three wise men who brought myrrh, frankincense and gold.
“I bet she really wanted a shower,” O’Leary said. “The message of the homily was that Christmas is a time when we get addicted to making things perfect and more often than not, things go wrong. Things are a mess, and of course, it’s a message that we don’t have to bring to just Christmas. Mistakes are made all the time. The night that’s supposed to be the best night ever isn’t. The birthday isn’t as great as you hoped it would be, the date that didn’t live up to expectations. But some of the best things in our lives can come from our mistakes and it’s up to us to choose to see them that way.”
Some of her mistakes include haircuts alone, and who she’s dated. But she shared three mistakes that she’s learned to embrace, which most people viewed as mistakes, but she still made those choices, and considers them gifts.
O’Leary’s first mistake was dropping out of school. She graduated college in 1995, and enrolled in a master’s degree program at Hunter College in the fall where she got her MBA. In 1997, she was accepted to the Ph.D. program at the CUNY Graduate Center where she took three years of courses and then moved to Ireland to do a program at Trinity College, Dublin.
O’Leary worked on research for her dissertation and lived in Dublin from 2000 to late summer 2011. She moved back to the United States, and took a temp job at a commercial real estate firm doing copy editing and being an assistant to one of the executives. She had the opportunity to get a couple hours off each week so she could teach a class as an adjunct.
“I was happy that I had this work life balance. I was making some money. I had regular health insurance, which was new. I could work on my Ph.D. exams and my dissertation proposal in the evening. Then a few weeks later it was September 11, and I happened to be working for the real estate company that managed the Trade Center and I remember bursting into an executive conference to tell my boss what had happened,” O’Leary said.
O’Leary worked in midtown, but can still remember “the thousands of people walking up Sixth Avenue covered in ash” and getting calls from her parents.
“Everyone knew someone personally affected by that day and in the days and weeks after the 11th. The one thing that didn’t seem to make any sense to me was my going back to a Ph.D. program. For some people, a tragedy like that crystallizes your priorities. You see clearly what it is you should be doing with your life, who you should be spending it with. For me, I got really scared that I wasn’t acting grown up … and that since everything could change in an instant, I needed to start acting like a grown up that very instant. So I dropped out,” she said.
Technically, O’Leary took a leave of absence, but just did not return to her grad program. She stayed at the real estate firm, taking minutes at meetings and took solace in the fact that she was just going to work, earning money and paying bills.
“I had this feeling like I was adulting in a way that gave me some sense of stability, of significance. The work I was doing was fine, but it’s not like I was doing something that I considered meaningful. I was actually stalling because I didn’t want to do what I considered meaningful to me because all of a sudden I knew with certainty that I could fail, that the world could fail. So I shouldn’t take the chance at succeeding at something that I had been wanting to do since I was a freshman in high school” O’Leary said.
About a year later, she received a letter in the mail from one of her professors from the program who wanted to check in and see if she was okay. He wrote that whenever she was ready to come back, they would welcome her back and he was confident she would get her Ph.D. He wrote, “If you’re waiting for the world to make sense, my dear, it never will. So remember what you love and what your passion is. We’re here.” However, when she returned, he didn’t even remember writing a letter changed her life.
“I look back at that time as actually a great choice I made, because I think I really needed time away from school. I had needed to reevaluate if what I was doing was in fact what I should be doing. It’s so important to have joy and passion in your life and that passion doesn’t always come from work, but it’s so much better when it does and I think I really needed that time, that feeling of being, being a bit directionless to embrace my grad program again. When I returned I had a focus and a love for it that I really don’t think I had before,” O’Leary said.
Her second mistake was turning down a job. When she was initially looking for jobs, she knew her husband would follow her, and she also knew that she wanted to be near a major city. She received the first round of interviews for three institutions.
“I pretty much only think that I had two interviews because my first interview was with UC Berkeley and I happened to be in a … packed elevator with two of the people who’d be interviewing me. And I heard them say to another person in the elevator on my way up to the interview, they said “These 9 a.m. interviews are so tough, but we aren’t really looking to hire this person anyways. So it’s kind of a warm-up for us.” Great. And then someone fell asleep in the room while I was being interviewed, so I really nailed that one,” O’Leary said.
She then got a job offer out in Chicago. Logistically, it made sense. But, O’Leary knew it just was not the perfect fit. The next year, she saw a posting for Manhattan College. She applied, got it and thanked her lucky stars.
“I don’t know that I’ve ever shared this, but the first day of every semester I always go to the chapel and I say, thank you that I get to be here at this wonderful, wonderful school. I ask for help because at one point in the semester it’s all going to go wrong. It always does. And I sit in the quiet and just appreciate everything that this school has brought me, everything that I have. And I say, thank you,” she said.
As for her last mistake, O’Leary said it had to do with ditching a guy on a date. She realized that she did not value kindness in a partner. She valued it in family and friendships, but never in a partner.
“I was kind of dating this guy who was not particularly nice and not particularly communicative and not particularly emotionally available, but I was kind of dating him because he was a surgeon. He had this habit of ditching me when the bill would come and he had, I know he had the perfect out because the beeper would go off and he would just look down and be like, “Surgery!” she said.
“And I know you know what I’m talking about, you know, when you realize a relationship is or whatever it is is going to end and it’s just a matter of time. So you want to be the one to end it because then you kind of win,” she said. “Well ghosting was a lot easier 20 years ago. We were having dinner outside in New York City and I knew that he was going to find a way to leave me with the bill. Not tonight. So I arranged to have my friend call me and my phone rang, I picked it up and I said, ‘Hello, what? I’ll be right back.’ And I got up and I said, ‘Somebody just saw ‘Hamlet’ and they don’t understand it. I’ve got to go.’ And I never saw him again.”
And she’s never regretted that decision.
“And when I met my husband, I could tell you any number of things about him. He’s intelligent, he’s gorgeous, he’s hilarious. But the first adjective I used to describe him to my roommate was, he’s kind. People, date whomever you want, but if you’re looking to spend your life with someone, find someone kind. So looking back on my great mistakes, which just happened to be the three I came up with, I thought of over a lifetime of making mistakes,” she said.
O’Leary ended her lecture with a list of advice.
“Number one, call or text your mother. She worries. Do it tonight, Dad worries too, but text your mom. Make room in your life for a guilty pleasure and don’t apologize for it. Grammar matters. Learn to present yourself well and ask for help. If you only speak one language, don’t ever make fun of anyone who has an accent because they speak more languages than you do. Everyone should live by themselves. At one point, everyone should be comfortable being by themselves. Nothing educates you like travel. Develop a travel addiction and feed it as often as you can,” she said.
“Your twenties are exhausting. Give yourself a break now and then. Your thirties are going to be amazing. I’m halfway through my forties and they’ve been great. You will all need glasses at some point in your life. Collect stories from people in your life and in your family sooner than you think they will be gone. Understand that heroism takes many, many forms. Single parents raising their kids, the mature student walking into a room full of kids, much younger than they. If it were easy for quiet people to talk in class or talking groups, they would do it. The world needs more quiet people. Don’t take any relationship advice from someone who didn’t at one point say out loud, “I’m going to die alone”. Read every day… Reading makes you a better thinker, a better writer, a better everything, and finally, don’t ever be afraid of making mistakes. They make you who you are.”