F&M Stories

Students Build Mindfulness on Camino de Santiago

More than 200 miles, 13 days and countless blisters— added together, they make the experience of a lifetime.

From May 17 to June 1, 2023, 10 students and three staff members embarked on the Camino de Santiago, a journey of over 300 kilometers, or 15 miles a day, from León to Santiago, Spain. This trip was part of the F&M Mindfulness Program led by Joseph Pritchett, director for faith and meaning, along with Louise LoBello, digital & special collections librarian, and Susan Mennicke, associate dean of international initiatives. 

The Camino originated in the Middle Ages as a religious pilgrimage to the shrine of St. James the Great in the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. While many still follow its numerous routes through Spain and surrounding countries for their spiritual growth, the Camino is now popular among hikers as a mindful retreat from modern life. 

Pritchett, who previously walked the Camino independently in 2022, wished to bring a group of students along for an “immersive, unique and transformative” experience. It was not a prerequisite for students to have a religious connection to the trip, though some did; he hoped the rest would “cultivate their own purpose” along the way. 

Student leader Emma Stronge, a rising junior from Monroe, Conn., felt immediately drawn to the mission of the trip. Stronge attended Catholic schools throughout her childhood and recalls learning about the Camino during high school Spanish class. She set out to connect with her spirituality and challenge herself both mentally and physically. 

“Walking 15-plus miles a day is definitely not easy,” said Stronge, yet she made an effort to stay optimistic and present. Stronge is no stranger to physical challenge; after participating in the First-Year Outdoor Orientation Trip, or FOOT— a four-day backpacking excursion on a section of the Appalachian Trail— before entering Franklin & Marshall, she returned as a trip guide the following summer. These hiking experiences left her well-prepared to be the student leader on the Camino. In this role, she modeled resilience and encouraged her peers when they became discouraged. 

Rising sophomore Ellie Gibson said that the most challenging part of the experience was adjusting her expectations about the walk’s difficulty after the first day. Soon, however, fueled by the mission for self-exploration and empowerment, the Pennsylvania native conjured new strength to persevere. When faced with a particularly steep hill, she repeated the mantra “I am strong; I am able; I can; and I will.” 

Stronge felt a similar sense of determination to complete the hike, rather than take a cab to their next stop. She ultimately was the only student on the trip to log every mile by foot. This did come at a price, though— a total of nine blisters. 

“We just kept complaining about our feet,” she joked. The 10 students from all different class years, majors and backgrounds found common ground in their shared experience of the physically and mentally demanding journey. For many, the bonds formed with their peers and fellow hikers would become lifelong. 

In addition to the compostela, a certificate marking a walker’s completion of at least 100 kilometers, received for reaching Santiago, the hikers gained feelings of achievement when they completed the journey. For Stronge, reaching the shrine was highly emotional for more than just its spiritual significance.

“I had an overwhelming sense of accomplishment,” she said. “I proved to myself I was able to do it.” 

When asked if she would return to the Camino, she answered quickly. “Oh yes, 100 percent.” She encourages anyone to challenge themselves on this spiritual and cultural experience.

“Anyone can do it… [when it got difficult], I told myself, I just need to keep walking,” said Stronge.

“My biggest takeaway from the trip would have to be to prepare, prepare your body for this hike, prepare your mind for changing, and prepare yourself to incorporate what you learned into your ‘normal’ life.”

– Ellie Gibson

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