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The Hawk News

The Student News Site of St. Joseph's University

The Hawk News

The Student News Site of St. Joseph's University

The Hawk News

Saying goodbye when you don’t know how


A tribute to St. Joe’s Susan Fenton

Susan Fenton changed St. Joe’s for me. She was a mentor, a storyteller and a teacher in every aspect of the words. She was someone who was truly important to me.

Susan Fenton, M.F.A., associate professor of art, appeared at a time in my life when I needed someone to shake me awake and say “Stop listening to other people and do what makes you happy.” When she did that to me, I listened.

When I found out about her death, I was devastated. How do you say goodbye to someone you weren’t expecting to have to say goodbye to? I wish I knew.

When I attended her memorial mass on Feb. 5 and met her husband, son and daughter, I cried the entire time.

Outside, the weather was unseasonably warm. In the hours leading up to Susan’s mass, I didn’t think much about how it would all go. I just knew I had to be there.

When I got to the Chapel of St. Joseph, a modest group of people was waiting to be seated. We only filled up a handful of chairs in the first five rows, but it didn’t matter. The important people were there, and it was important for me to be there.

To have lost someone who sparked so much change in my time at school was difficult to comprehend. I hadn’t given myself the room to grieve, and this memorial was the only way I knew how. 

When I met Susan as a sophomore, I wasn’t sure where my interests fit in on campus. I knew I liked to take pictures and work creatively, but it wasn’t until I nervously walked into Boland Hall for the first time and was handed a Pentax K1000 that everything clicked.

Susan’s Darkroom Photography class gave me a reason to do more and a chance to rediscover something I knew I was passionate about. Shooting film is fun, tangible and something different. I can’t conceive what my college experience would have been like without it. 

With Susan’s guidance and reassurance as I took on my first semester of photography, I learned just about all I needed in order to confidently purchase a Pentax K1000 of my own.

Even now, I look for pieces of inspiration from her whenever I go out to shoot a roll of black and white film.

While she was my professor, Susan gave me assignments that challenged me and forced me to look at my world differently, but she would never have asked me to pass up a good shot because of her.

That’s what I liked the most about her. Susan appreciated everyone’s art, even when it varied so greatly from her own. She wanted us to capitalize on our own unique interests and perspectives, which is a lesson I believe we could all take from her.

I valued time in her classroom so much that the one time when I couldn’t show up, I felt guilty. If Susan always showed up for class, why shouldn’t I? But when I talked to her about it, she was more than understanding.

She wasn’t the kind of professor who expected her students to be perfect all the time. She acknowledged that we were only human and in turn made herself the most relatable professor I’ve ever had.

There were days when I would have assignments missing or low quality prints from the night before. And even though I had nothing to do for three hours, I would go to class anyway.

It’s important to show up for the people and things that are important to you, even if you don’t know why.

Susan knew our experiences outside of the classroom were just as valuable as the experiences inside the classroom, so she was encouraging even when it wasn’t necessarily in her favor.

Throughout her memorial, as I let myself cry, I started to feel better. Not being able to grieve properly had put a serious weight on my chest. Throughout this semester, I had been walking around lost in how to feel about almost everything.

But this moment was therapeutic. Having the chance to say goodbye was important.

It has been a gift to have someone like Susan in my life. I could say that she pushed me to see and do more in the space that I had made for myself on campus, but what she really did was help me grow outside of the boundaries I was comfortable with.

It’s hard to say goodbye to someone you weren’t expecting to have to say it to. But as one of my most impactful mentors throughout my time at St. Joe’s, Susan Fenton gave me more than I could have asked for.

So thank you, Susan. Thank you for the countless rolls of film, long hours in the darkroom, a beautiful portfolio, a lifelong passion I wouldn’t have discovered without you and so much more. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

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