students playing instruments
Called to Be: Access & Excellence

Title:Coming together on the mountaintop

Author: Jane Varner Malhotra
Date Published: April 12, 2024
rows of students smile while sitting inside a bus
Students settle in for the journey from campus to the Calcagnini Contemplative Center, which opened in 2013. Photos courtesy of Georgetown University/Georgetown ESCAPE

Calcagnini Contemplative Center celebrates 10 years

Late afternoon on a chilly Friday in February, a group of about 40 students climb aboard a minibus parked near McDonough Arena. The setting winter sun casts sideways light on each passenger. Some know each other and chat softly, others are a little quiet, unsure of what to expect at an ESCAPE retreat in Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains.

Since 1990, Georgetown has organized these 27-hour getaways for students during their first year on campus. The program has evolved but the core purpose has remained central to the experience: making space to step away from the pressures of academic life, build community, and listen and tend to one’s inner life.

In the early years, ESCAPE and other retreats took place at a variety of locations in the region. But transformative gifts from Arthur (C’54) and Nancy Calcagnini (Parents’84, ’85, ’93, Grandparents’19, ’22, ’23) led to the opening of a dedicated site in 2013. Over the past decade, the Calcagnini Contemplative Center (CCC) has grown into a mountaintop oasis, bringing students, faculty, and staff together for the deep reflection and connection Arthur and Nancy dreamed of.

an aerial view of the Calcagnini Contemplative Center retreat buildings and cabins in the mountains of Virginia
Surrounded by mountains and the nearby Appalachian Trail, the center hosts a variety of daylong and overnight retreats including ESCAPE. Photos courtesy of Georgetown University/Georgetown ESCAPE

After an hour’s trip, the final rays of sunset cast a soft purple glow on the Shenandoah Valley countryside, and the retreat attendees turn up into the hills of Bluemont, Virginia, to see the center, a series of small buildings that blend into the landscape.

As the students disembark, they breathe in the sharp mountain air and take it all in: the evening sky, the smell of forest mixed with dinner cooking, tall trees that surround a clearing, someone playing guitar nearby. Smiling, the students unload their stuff and head to their assigned cabins, settle in, and gather in the dining hall for the opening meal.

Following a delicious buffet dinner, a Georgetown community member offers a reflection, followed by small group time, and then informal social time—board games, music, s’mores, stargazing. And then to the cozy cabins for the night for a peaceful sleep to prepare for another day of community and reflection and fun, before getting back on the bus.

Madeline Vitek Memenza, the Office of Mission & Ministry’s main campus director for mission engagement, has been coordinating contemplative retreats at the CCC for more than a decade. She notes that before the retreat, many students panic that they have too much homework to do.

“They tell me, ‘I don’t have a day to spare,’” she says. “But invariably they get there and say, ‘this is actually exactly what I needed.’ And on the way home they say, ‘I wish it were longer.’”

A place to nurture the interior life

One of the CCC’s primary goals is to create a space away from campus for reflection, a place for all to slow down and pay attention to what is stirring in the heart and soul.

students wearing Hoya and Georgetown sweatshirts sit in adirondack chairs on a wide green lawn
Students enjoy the opportunity to slow down, share stories, and build community. Photos courtesy of Georgetown University/Georgetown ESCAPE

Chicago-based pediatrician Kathleen Osea (NHS’16) was at the dedication of the Calcagnini Contemplative Center in 2013 as a sophomore at Georgetown. Her first-year ESCAPE experience had been at one of the other retreat centers, and so she had a special appreciation for the new CCC.

“To have the space is itself a blessing,” she says. “ESCAPE and the Calcagninis are integral to who I am as a person. The skills of reflection that I gained over four years at Georgetown would not have been possible without Arthur and Nancy.”

She recalls learning there about the Jesuit idea of discerning a vocation by asking three simple questions: what am I good at, what do I enjoy doing, and what does the world need me to do. “The toolbox you come away with after the contemplative retreats includes those skills of reflection, along with accompaniment, and vulnerability—tools I use every day as a pediatrician.”

Osea values what she learned as an ESCAPE coordinator about how to live as a contemplative. “Otherwise it can be easy to have the experiences but miss the meaning.”

Vulnerability and accompaniment

The CCC also creates and fosters a deep sense of community through carefully designed programs that offer a place for Hoyas to be open-hearted and to accompany one another along the way.

In her leadership role with ESCAPE, Osea recalls the many challenges students carried in their hearts during this pivotal time in life and how the retreats helped them open up and learn from one another.

students sit on the floor next to each other in an open building
ESCAPE Team Leader Addison Basile (C’26) joins Student Coordinator Alice Chen (SFS’24) and Team Leader Bahar Hassantash (B’26) in conversation.

“Some are dealing with grief, some with loss, some with mental health struggles. And the experience of being shown all those emotions, of being let in, teaches you how to be vulnerable.”

The retreats helped her realize the type of doctor she wanted to be. “Someone who prioritized people, who could accompany others in their struggles. To fix what I could but acknowledge what I couldn’t.”

An environment for reflection is made possible by the incredible mountaintop location, says Koby Twist (C’25), who along with Alice Chen (SFS’24) and musician Nick Vianna (C’25), coordinates the team of 36 ESCAPE student leaders this year.

RELATED: The Innkeeper in the Woods: What it’s Like Living at Georgetown’s Retreat Center in the Blue Ridge Mountains

“The CCC does so much for setting the tone,” says Twist. “It’s a really quiet, peaceful space. You’re immediately transported from all the stress and movement of Georgetown life. It’s serene.”

a long deck on a wood-paneled hall with windows
Situated on a 55-acre mountaintop campus, the center’s award-winning architecture is designed to blur the boundary of indoors and out, featuring plenty of glass and natural materials. Photos courtesy of Georgetown University/Georgetown ESCAPE

Noting satisfaction rates of 95% on post-retreat surveys, Twist says, “I’m blown away by how much people love the program as a whole.”

Twist attributes the retreats’ success to not only the location but also the intentional approach the team takes to retreat design. “We get those satisfaction rates because we put so much thought into everything we do,” he says. “We also continue to experiment, because every generation is different. It’s always an unfinished program.”

Community in diversity

The pandemic caused discontinuity and disconnection around the world, and at Georgetown. In response, contemplative programs at the CCC are helping to offer creative ways to repair and reconnect the Georgetown family and nurture a spirit of belonging.

In addition to ESCAPE programs for first-year and transfer students, the CCC hosts a variety of faith-oriented retreats in Catholic, Dharmic, Jewish, Muslim, Orthodox Christian, and Protestant traditions. Other groups gather for interfaith or nondenominational contemplative experiences, including transformative retreats for staff such as the Prisons and Justice Initiative team.

In Spring 2022, four ESCAPE student leaders wondered what a retreat for Black students would be like, as a way to help restore a sense of community after the pandemic. With support from Campus Ministry, Veronica Williams (C’23), Kwabena Sekyere-Boateng (C’23), Annaelle Lafontant (SFS’23), and Saleema Ibrahim (SFS’23) designed the program called The Cookout to welcome Black students of all faiths or no faith for a 27-hour experience at the CCC.

This proved a balm for students who might feel isolated or invisible on Georgetown’s campus, says Melody Emenyonu (H’24), who attended the inaugural event and is now one of the leaders of the twice-annual retreat. One of her favorite aspects of the program is the Affirmation Circle which takes place at the end of the retreat.

“There are two circles of people, an outer one and a small inner one,” explains Emenyonu. “The outer group stands facing out with eyes closed, and the inner circle faces out with eyes open. The leaders invite the inner circle to tap someone who will make a difference or already has, someone who made the weekend better, someone they want to get to know better. It’s entirely anonymous, and everyone gets tapped. It’s a great way to feel closer as a community.”

The program also includes an optional Interfaith service. “It’s very moving because it makes me feel closer to the people who come, but also closer to God. It allows me to see God through other people’s eyes.”

Protestant Chaplain Reverend TauVaughn Toney adds that The Cookout offers opportunities for students to have conversations about shared experiences, while also giving them a chance to appreciate how diverse Georgetown’s Black community is.

“There are Black students from every faith tradition imaginable, various political affiliations, and from across the country and around the world,” says Rev. Toney. “They are all able to gather together and find joy in the spirit of community. Knowing they have that community empowers and encourages them to come back to the greater Georgetown community knowing that they are not alone and that they belong at Georgetown. That’s what the Jesuit value of Community in Diversity is all about.”

A deep commitment to contemplation

After years of dedication and hard work to find a location and build the CCC, Arthur Calcagnini saw his dream become a reality. He passed away in 2019, but his legacy lives on, with Nancy Calcagnini tirelessly committed to expanding their shared vision for the ever-evolving center.

“Arthur was personally invested in building the center, and he spoke at ESCAPE almost every year since its inception. He believed that young people needed space away from all the pressures of college life, which can be fun but also stressful. They need that quiet place to go into themselves and listen to their own heart. It allows people to discover who they want to be, what gives them joy and pleasure.”

She adds that after Arthur’s difficult health challenges, including cancer, they were overjoyed to be there for the opening of the CCC in 2013. “It was such a thrill for both of us that he got to see it dedicated. A very personal, very emotional experience for both of us and for our whole family.”

Their vision for the center became a reality, and thousands of people continue to benefit from the Calcagninis’ commitment to nurturing the contemplative life of the Georgetown family.

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