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Top: Katherine C. Helming ’09 works in the lab at the Dana Farber Cancer
Institute. (Photo © Sam Ogden DFCI)
Below: Front, from left, awards recipients Colleen Gardner ’16, John
C. Bugnacki ’15, and Francis R. Rowland ’15 are joined at the
convocation by, rear, from left, Dr. Stephen J. Lynch, Michael Woody
’77 & ’83G, Rev. Brian J. Shanley, O.P. ’80, and Dr. Suzanne J.
Fournier ’77, associate professor of English and associate director
of the Honors Program.

Helming ’09 conveys emotional message in Honors Program address

Taking a Development of Western Civilization class with seemingly little relevance to one’s major or grinding through a reading of Plato may feel counterproductive and pointless, but those experiences will surface time and again as pivotal lessons throughout a graduate’s lifetime.

Katherine C. Helming ’09, a Liberal Arts Honors Program graduate, shared that message in a powerful, personal way during the College’s 19th Annual Liberal Arts Honors Convocation.

In her Distinguished Alumna Address to approximately 120 students, alumni, and faculty members in Slavin Center ’64 Hall, Helming drew parallels between her harrowing battle with leukemia and lessons learned through the two-year “Civ” curriculum. She likened her health ordeal to the journey of Dante in his great work, The Divine Comedy.

The youngest program graduate selected to give the convocation’s keynote address, Helming conveyed three lessons that underscore the value of Civ. She emphasized that those lessons “are universal and widely applicable to all of us, whether we are students, patients, lawyers, businesspeople, doctors, or professors.”

The year after graduating from PC with summa cum laude honors and a degree in biology, Helming suddenly was diagnosed with leukemia while working on her doctorate and conducting pediatric cancer research through the Harvard Medical School’s Biological and Biomedical Sciences Program. Initially hospitalized for a month, she was forced to leave school. Helming moved back home to Hamilton, Mass., and underwent two years of intensive chemotherapy. Now, she is cancer-free and has returned to the graduate program full time.

“Like Dante, through my journey, I learned many lessons that have shaped who I am today and affect my life goals,” said Helming, adding that she had already learned some of those life lessons in Honors Civ seminars.

Her battle with leukemia and her Civ studies taught her lessons about perspective — especially empathy — and the importance of both community and giving back, she said.

A wide-lens view

Experiencing the operations of Boston’s Dana Farber Cancer Institute as a researcher and as a student helped her “see cancer from both sides of the laboratory bench” and was consistent with the Civ objective of viewing the world from multiple perspectives, said Helming. Furthermore, she noted her sharpened awareness of empathy.

“It is important for business people to consider the point of view of their clients, for teachers to relate to their students, and for elected officials to think from the perspective of their constituents,” she said. 

The physical and emotional isolation she felt when sick was another reminder of the importance of community, said Helming, who found camaraderie and support through involvement in the Young Adult Program at Dana Farber. That sense of community and companionship is a central component of Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, which she read as part of the Civ curriculum.

She said her research in pediatric cancer and service on Dana Farber’s Young Adult Advisory Board also complemented a core value instilled at PC: giving back. Helming, who as a student participated in Urban Action, Habitat for Humanity, and ESL tutoring, reminded students in the audience to integrate their service experiences into their lives going forward.

“I hope that by hearing my story you will begin to appreciate the values of the lessons you are being taught in Civ, and will begin to understand how widely relatable they are to any path of life that you follow,” said Helming, who also was an Admission Ambassador and a member of the Liturgical Choir at PC.

One of the signature annual events of the Honors Program, the convocation began with welcoming remarks by College President Rev. Brian J. Shanley, O.P. ’80, a program alumnus, and greetings from Michael Woody ’77 & ’83G, chair of the program’s Leadership Council. Also taking part were Rev. Mark D. Nowel, O.P., dean of undergraduate and graduate studies, who introduced Helming, and Dr. Stephen J. Lynch, professor of English and Honors Program director, who served as master of ceremonies.

In addition to Helming’s address, the other highlight of the evening was the presentation of awards named in honor of two former directors of the Honors Program. Colleen Gardner ’16 (Deep River, Conn.) received the Rodney Delasanta Award, which is presented for the best first-year student essay in Honors Civ. Francis R. Rowland ’15 (Cromwell, Conn.) and John C. Bugnacki ’15 (Manchester, Conn.) were co-winners of the Rev. Paul van K. Thomson Award, which is given to the most outstanding student to complete the four-semester Honors Civ curriculum.

— Charles C. Joyce


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