Falling in Love with a City: A Letter from the President

May 7, 2022

Dear Minerva Community,

There is a scene in the film “Lady Bird” in which the eponymous Lady Bird, played by Saoirse Ronan, sits across from her Head of School, Sister Sarah Joan, expecting to be disciplined for a youthful indiscretion. Instead, Sister Sarah Joan praises Lady Bird’s writing:

Sister Sarah Joan: You clearly love Sacramento.
Lady Bird: I do?
Sister Sarah Joan: You write about Sacramento so affectionately and with such care.
Lady Bird: I was just describing it.
Sister Sarah Joan: Well, it comes across as love.
Lady Bird: Sure, I guess I pay attention.
Sister Sarah Joan: Don’t you think maybe they are the same thing? Love and attention?

During the pandemic I taught myself to draw by sketching some of the people I love most. I make no claims for the results but the experiment allowed me to not just consider but to experience how symbiotic love and attentiveness are. In the case of these drawings, I found that I had to abandon my preconceived notions of how these people I knew so intimately appeared and instead, out of deep affection, commit many hours to the minute particulars of light and shadow. In those hours, in order to achieve anything meaningful at all, I had to be fully present. This is, as Sister Sarah Joan suggested, as good a definition of love as any: a willingness to be fully present and attentive, to see, to hear, to know. And, yes, one can fall in love with a city.

In the 1990s I fell in love with Philadelphia — with Ortlieb’s, a jazz club equidistant from Chinatown and Fishtown alongside the Delaware River; with the people accessing the mobile clinic at the North Philadelphia Needle Exchange as a first step towards health and the people who, like myself, volunteered to help them; with films by Fritz Lang and Yasujirô Ozu at the Roxy Screening Room; with the people dancing in the courtyard of an urban commune adorned with art, in a location whose exact address I cannot now recall; with Sunday mass at Old Saint Joseph’s Church; with the Duchamp collection at the Philadelphia Museum of Art; and, yes, with the occasional cheesesteak in South Philly.

This is all, I realize, more intelligible to me than it is to you, and that is to the point. You will fall in love with your own cities, as you will your own people. At Minerva, we don’t believe in the gates that too often separate a university from its city; we likewise reject the tourism of too many study abroad programs. What we stand for is immersive and experiential learning, with a purpose. What we offer is, as John Dewey once put it, “more opportunities for resistance and tension, more drafts upon experience and invention, and therefore more novelty in action, greater range and depth of insight and increased poignancy of feeling.”

Recently, several of our students created a film about the Tenderloin district in San Francisco, a short distance from where they study and live. Having experienced the whole city during their semester-long residency, they might have made a different San Francisco film, featuring the vibrant Mission District, opulent Pacific Heights, bustling Financial District and laid-back Ocean Beach. Their film about the Tenderloin is unflinching and in many ways, deeply saddening. It is also an extraordinary act of love for this neighborhood and the people who live there, some of whom tell their own stories in the film. In their very attentiveness the filmmakers create space for the inherent beauty and dignity of people to emerge from struggle and sorrow. I encourage you all to see it when it debuts on May 7th.

My request to Minerva students joining us in San Francisco for the first time this fall is that you be open to the possibility of giving a place and the people who live there the complete attention of your full self. My request to our current students preparing to live and learn in Taipei, Hyderabad or Buenos Aires, is that you continue to do so. To our alumni, as you reflect on your experiences in these cities as well as Berlin, London or Seoul, find the right way to tell all of us, the Minerva University community, about what you learned, and who you met, and which experiences you are taking into the future.


Mike Magee
Minerva University President