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My W&L: Paqui Toscano ’16

“I have come to love W&L for . . . the people I have met here and the sense of community we have fostered together.”

As I think about my Washington and Lee experience thus far, I can’t seem to get out of my head a particular sentence from Marilynne Robinson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel “Gilead,” a beautifully complex book throughout which the aging narrator John Ames reflects upon his life. “I love this town,” Ames thinks to himself as he finally achieves much sought-after inner peace, begotten by a revived sense of community with his surroundings and loved ones. The town to which he is referring is Gilead, a small pastoral village in Iowa, quaint and endowed with a sense of heritage largely rooted in the Civil War. Sound familiar? Yes, I suppose I’m being heavy-handed here, but in myriad ways Gilead reminds me of Lexington, and I think this similarity is all the more meaningful to me because I have come to love W&L for the same reasons that Ames ultimately comes to love Gilead: the people I have met here and the sense of community we have fostered together.

This was already true by the end of my freshman year, but the degree to which I relied on my W&L family became all the more apparent to me after an accident I suffered two summers ago now. Struck down by a truck while riding my bicycle, I suffered a spinal cord injury that left me paralyzed below the waist until, as my occupational and physical therapy revved up into full gear, I slowly but surely re-learned how to walk.

Within days, I received a care package from one of the deans, complete with a water bottle and hat–both of which saw daily use as I navigated my therapy regimens. One close friend sent me a string of postcards; another one wrote me a letter; while still another sent me a shirt with an inspirational saying across the front. Professors sent me get-well cards and flowers expressing their sincere hope that I would be able to return to W&L. One of my friends sent me a book on the Supreme Court; others sent care packages with cookies and DVDs. One even visited. And most adorably, one faculty member sent me a W&L teddy bear that, admittedly, I hugged once or twice, especially as the school year commenced.

For me, this was the hardest part. I felt exiled from the place and so many of the people I cared deeply about. Despite the geographical distance, however, I did not feel alone. One of the student affairs staff members sent me a video of the convocation processional with a caption that read, “We miss you.” My best friends kept me in the loop–FaceTiming became part of the routine. I had a professor take time out of her schedule to conduct an independent study with me while another one recorded all of his classes so that I could audit them. Still, another faculty member personally went to financial aid to secure my spot as a research assistant when I returned.

Indeed, once I did come back to W&L, the research assistantship was in fact waiting for me and my classes were moved to handicapped accessible buildings. Public safety and the amazing, but now tragically deceased, Sergeant Larry Stuart were always more than willing to help me make it through the day; and the wife of one of the university’s vice presidents drove me to physical therapy twice a week. I also received a truly meaningful note from another administrator’s wife. Other faculty members had me over for dinner to celebrate my return, and professors gladly met with me in accessible locations. For my birthday, several of my closest friends bought me a cane. How fitting that the purpose of the present–from people who played such an invaluable role in the rehabilitation process–was, literally, to support me.

The same professors who took the time to support me throughout my recovery have taken the time to support my academic and intellectual growth as well. With indefatigable energy, they constantly motivate me to be the best I can be, as both a person and a scholar. My English advisor, for instance, gave me the opportunity to more fully explore the literature of Marilynne Robinson by hiring me as a research assistant this past summer. I was encouraged not only to help her better understand the corpus of fiction grappling with questions of faith, but was also empowered to explore my own intellectual passions in the process.

Likewise, my Classics advisor made it possible for me to attend a research trip with her to Ercolano, Italy, a small town in the Bay of Naples where the ancient city of Herculaneum is located. Not balking at the prospect of having someone with a spinal cord injury on the field team, she not only invited me to apply for the trip, to which I was eventually accepted, but was also willing to fly out with me. Because of her, I have had this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to study the epigraphy–or ancient wall inscriptions–of one of the best preserved sites of the Roman empire, scratched into the plaster of walls by everyday, run-of-the-mill Roman citizens. It has always been a goal of mine to go to Europe to study first-hand the culture and language of the Roman world which has been such an important part of my academic journey, but I wasn’t sure if this goal would ever become a reality, especially so soon after the accident. Walt Disney once said that “all our dreams can come true if we have the courage to pursue them,” but courage is one of those virtues that is sometimes hard to muster up. Yet, the W&L community which was there for me–those professors and close friends who helped me transition back into the real world again–also helped me rekindle my sense of inner-confidence. They helped me realize that my dreams could still come true.

The most wonderful aspect of “Gilead” is that John Ames is thankful, and it is this thankfulness which truly shines through at the conclusion of Marilynne Robinson’s masterpiece. He is content–and feels blessed. In the midst of the sometime stressful academic rigors of college, which have nonetheless helped me grow and develop as a critical thinker and intellectual, and the sometimes overwhelming demands of extracurricular activities, it is easy to lose sight of the bigger picture–the picture we collectively paint together at Washington and Lee. Like Ames, I too am thankful, ineffably appreciative of the people I have met here who have played such an important role in inspiring me to persevere. Yes, my accident could have been worse–and, indeed, far worse things happen to people every day–but I had certainly never faced anything like it before. And the one thing that helped me make it through–and which still helps me through those difficult moments–was knowing that I was not alone, in large part, thanks to my W&L family. It is hard to believe that I have only known some of my most trusted mentors and best friends here for two years, because W&L has become such an important part of my life. It is more than just a place, a mere college campus, with beautiful red brickwork and grand, white columns. It is a home; it is my Gilead.

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Hometown: Kettering, Ohio

Majors: Classics and English

Extracurricular Involvement:

  • Student Judicial Council justice
  • Student Recruitment Committee member
  • Research assistant for Classics Prof. Rebecca Benefiel
  • University Big
  • Wind Ensemble member
  • Peer Tutor
  • Student Body Constitutional Review Committee member (freshman year)

Off-Campus Experiences: I was a participant in the Herculaneum Graffiti Project. Our mission was to study, record, and digitize the epigraphy-or ancient inscriptions scratched into the wall plaster-of Herculaneum, an ancient town that was destroyed by Vesuvius when it erupted in 79 AD. I was also a summer research scholar this past summer for Prof. Gertz in the English Department. I was working with novels that grapple with themes of faith and belief.

Post-Graduation Plans: The plan is to most likely go to law school with the hope of eventually working for the government or work in some other capacity in which I can deal with Constitutional issues. The idea of trying to pursue a career in academia has crossed my mind as well, however.

Favorite W&L Memory: There are so many memories from freshman year that really stand out, but one weekend we had a birthday party for Earl Warren, whom I greatly respect, after one of my friends bought two Earl Warren-themed birthday cakes from Sweet Treats. That same semester, I also stayed up until 6:00 a.m. one morning with two of my friends, just talking about life and politics and this and that as well as waking up at 5:00 a.m. on a different morning to watch the Australian Open championship match with another friend.

Favorite Class: All of my classes have left such an impact on me, but English 299 (focused on speculative fiction) with Prof. Wheeler was a wonderful experience. It was a class that really helped develop my critical thinking, discussion, research and writing skills, and the poetry we discussed left an impression on me because of both its complexity and power.

Favorite W&L Event: Midnight Breakfast–always a great time.

Favorite Campus Landmark: There’s something about the Colonnade that really resonates with me. The stately red brick façade of the buildings coupled with the grandeur of the columns represents to me the sense of history with which W&L is endowed–the tradition of honor that we hold dear and the mutual respect we have for each other that pervades this campus. I will say, though, that the former Gaines game room also has a special place in my heart. My friends and I spent quite a bit of time there throughout our freshman year.

What’s your passion? In one word: literature. I’ve always loved to read, but since I’ve been in college, I’ve become very interested in contemporary (especially American) fiction, particularly the literature of Marilynne Robinson. That being said, I also find ancient Greek and Roman religion and Classical literature fascinating, especially the speeches and dialogues of Cicero. Constitutional law and theater (as an audience member) are definitely up there too, though.

Why did you choose your major? I grew up in a family that really put an emphasis on reading and encouraged me to read and write, so English seemed like a natural major to pursue, although the decision really was clenched after a Recent American Fiction class I took freshman year. As for Classics, I took Latin my freshman year to fulfill my language requirement. My passion for the language was rekindled; I realized I really liked the close-knit feel of the department; I was inspired by the faculty members; and wanted to learn more about the foundation of our western civilization.

What professor has inspired you? Professors Gertz and Benefiel–my two major advisors–have inspired me a great deal. They are inspirational scholars, teachers, and people who have opened up so many doors for me these past two years and have been and continue to be amazingly supportive figures throughout the recovery process.

Advice for prospective or first-year students? Make the effort to go to office hours and forge relationships with your professors. And avoid procrastination at all cost.