A Space for Everyone; For Everyone, a Space.

The Calcagnini Contemplative Center Celebrates 10 Years as a Haven for Hoyas

By Jennon Bell Hoffman

A group of students configured in a pyramid with a student midair in a jump split.

Akil Cole (C’24) “jumping for joy” at the CCC with members of the Class of 2024.

In the same way a home is more than four walls and roof, the Calcagnini Contemplative Center (CCC) is more than a retreat space. For the past 10 years, the CCC has been a place for rejuvenation, for discovery, for contemplation, for renewal, for community. Made possible by a generous donation from the late Arthur Calcagnini (C’54) and his wife Nancy, the CCC has spent the first decade of its existence providing a welcoming space and opportunity for reflection beyond the Hilltop.

Perched atop the loamy Shenandoah Valley, and only 90 minutes from Georgetown in Bluemont, Virginia, the CCC became a reality, after many years supporting the ESCAPE retreats, Arthur and Nancy envisioned a dedicated home for the program. Eventually, other retreat programs were offered at the CCC making it a space—physically and spiritually—for Georgetown students, faculty, staff, and alumni to foster connection, contemplation, and community. This October, the CCC celebrated its 10-year anniversary of hosting retreats and events for the GU community, with no signs of slowing down.

A large part of what makes the CCC so beloved and integral as an extension of Georgetown University is that it’s an accessible respite from the rigor and fast pace of campus life. There are many programs for students, including the keystone retreat for first-year students, ESCAPE, as well as half-day or weekend retreats for other programs, like the medical school. A newer program that really embraces finding the students’ where they are is The Cookout retreat, which focuses on the Georgetown experience for Black students on campus. The Cookout aims to promote joy, hope, and community, and support for Black students by “drawing on the values and practices of Georgetown’s Ignatian heritage and other spiritual traditions.”

Akil Cole (C’24) a co-coordinator for The Cookout, has witnessed the positive effects a space like the CCC has on Georgetown students looking for connection. After his first year was spent online because of the pandemic, Akil was having a hard time transitioning to life on campus and finding others to befriend and bond with. He also noticed that the first- and second-year students seemed to keep their heads down, eyes averted, rarely smiling while walking around campus.

“At the time, I was having a lot of difficulties on campus and didn’t know to what extent I belonged. I didn’t see a whole lot of other Black students and that’s kind of isolating here. I was very seriously considering transferring to another school and actually ended up taking a gap semester that fall,” says Akil. He attended the first Cookout in April 2022 and the experience changed his perspective on his time at Georgetown.

“One of the prime reasons I did come back was the community that I got to experience at The Cookout. It’s created for Black students by Black students at Georgetown and being able to put a name and face and experiences and similar colors and foods and stuff to people around campus that look like me…I was like, “Okay, I can go through this Georgetown thing.”

The Cookout, and other retreat programs like ESCAPE or faith-based retreats, work with Campus Ministry to develop a retreat itinerary that aligns with Georgetown’s mission and Ignatian values, while fostering opportunities for groups to deepen their bonds and make meaningful connections to others in the GU community. As a co-coordinator for The Cookout, Akil knows just how important it is to have a welcoming space that allows people of different backgrounds and experiences to find common ground and feel like they matter.

“My experience was really profound. I wanted to be able to recreate or at least pay it forward for other students because I know that feeling of belonging is a really important piece of going to college,” says Akil.

Thanks to the large multi-purpose rooms and several spaces for discussion and smaller break-out groups, the CCC is the perfect space to hold intensive talk sessions, enjoy peaceful reflection space, and rambunctious rap battles and dance parties.

“I love the CCC! It’s so nice and architecturally, a beautiful space. The rooms are spacious, and the multipurpose room can hold our group without feeling cramped,” says Akil. He says the set-up of the CCC works for any group, including The Cookout, because it’s adaptable to the needs of the event. “We try to have programming where everyone has a chance to interact as a large group, interact in small groups, interact individually or just take time away from themselves. We also will make it a point to introduce new people to one another, so I love that there’s good spaces—different cabins, the farmhouse, outside—to do that without being interrupted and still having fun as a group. It just works well.”

The retreats at the CCC are typically day retreats, or overnight, which Akil says is the perfect amount of time to step away from the intensity of school or regular life and reenergize yourself.

“I went on a day retreat to get away from all the things and it was exactly what I needed. There’s a lot of stuff on campus and being able to just spend time reading and writing and looking out at the valley…I have nothing but good things to say about the CCC facilities.”

Although Akil says many students tell him they wish it was longer, he likes that the community and closeness created over the retreats is then carried back to campus, expanding the feelings and experience into everyday life.

“That [participants] feel comfortable to be themselves and for them to say, ‘I want to do what you’re doing because I want to help people feel the way I feel right now,’ that is everything. If I get like one person come back saying that, it’s great, and for multiple people to say that to us is really gratifying.”

That feeling—the sense of personal belonging and peace and having a space by which to explore that—is exactly what Arthur and Nancy Calcagnini envisioned for the CCC 10 years ago. That the mission and values are still taking root and filling the cups of the students, faculty, and community today is what the Hilltop experience is all about.

Akil Cole (C’24) is a student in the College of Arts and Sciences, studying Interdisciplinary Studies with a focus on peace and sustainability.

Jennon Bell Hoffmann is a freelance writer and editor living in Chicago.