Sister Camilla Burns
Washington, DC

Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur are educators.

It’s been this way since our beginnings in 804, when our Foundress Julie Billiart called education “the greatest work on earth.”

She saw the ravages of the French Revolution that resulted in a destroyed education system. This motivated her to fill the need, to work to transform unjust structures and systems, especially for the poor. That desire has been at the heart of a mission lived by more than 10,000 Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur since then.

This raises the question: Has the work of education changed?

That question was put to Sister Camilla Burns. A lifelong educator and former Congregational Leader, she is currently Distinguished Professor of Religious Studies at Trinity Washington University, which was founded by the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur.

How has the job of educating changed?

Technology and the new addiction to phones is quite a challenge. It has a marked negative impact on social skills. Another challenge is the overload of information. Students sometime deal with it by multitasking. They say, “We can use our phones and still hear you.” Yes, but hearing is not necessary listening! There is a positive side to technology which gives ready access to information. But apart from the impact of technology, the job of education is much the same. One can teach but not learn for the student. The key to learning is interest in the subject. Once that is ignited, the student is motivated to learn.

Have your students changed?

Trinity students understand the importance of education for their future and go to great lengths to achieve it. Many are single mothers and most have jobs – some full time. We have a growing number of Latina students who are first generation college students, and highly motivated. They come from difficult family environments. Many live on the edge financially and emotionally so they become quite independent out of necessity. They are exceptionally strong young women to do what they are doing, and they have an inner strength that is quite remarkable.

Has the work of education changed you?

I used to think that I had something to offer the students to enrich their lives. Now I realize that I am the one who is enriched by them. There is a definite change in the emphasis for me. It is a moving experience for me to be with them of an extended period of time and witness their transformation. Sometimes students may indicate nothing during the course itself, but when I see them the following semester they beam with recognition. I think I have a certain role that plays into their matriarchal experience. It is a little difficult for me to fully appreciate but something is there.

Have you seen education change students?

When graduates return for visit it is a stunning experience to meet them. They have jobs and a remarkable maturity. You can see the confidence education has given them, and it is very rewarding.

I once put a student out of class for disrespect. She returned after graduation and threw her arms around me like a long-lost friend. While she was an undergrad, she worked in a coffee shop where he picked up some pretty harsh behavior. Her education changed her into a mature young woman, with that harsh behavior transformed.

And then there was the year we had a student who spent a significant amount of her life homeless and living in a car. She knew that education would take her out of her situation and it did. Her maturity, even as an undergrad, was beautiful. She is now gainfully employed and considering further education.

What is your favorite class level to teach?

I liked them all for different reasons but hands down, my favorite are undergraduates at Trinity. I teach Scripture and there is an innate religious sensibility in the students even though some have stopped attending Church. I think it is in the African American DNA as a result of slavery. The Hispanic students also have it, but for different reasons. My classes intensity that religious sensibility in some and awaken it in others. It usually becomes overt at the end of the course. They give oral presentations about what they have learned and it pours out of them. I am stunned by the revelations.

Many choose favorite Scripture texts from their childhood and often it is from their grandmothers – part of this very matriarchal culture. I tell them all that someday they will be grandmothers and to remember the importance of that role. I think they look upon me as a grandmother, if not a great-grandmother. I find it quite moving.

So was St. Julie right?

Yes! Since she first challenged us to go out into the world, Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur have educated 71 generations of students. I am just the latest to see the transformation education brings about. But at Trinity I see freshmen as “diamonds embedded in stone.” Some days there isn’t much evidence of the diamond but at other times one can see it emerging and it is quite rewarding to observe. The stone is sometimes a protection from a harsh environment. It takes some students a long time to trust and I am exceptionally cautious about never betraying a trust. It even takes new students a while to trust that the environment is safe.

(Cross Currents, Winter 2017)