Often, when considering the cornerstone of the college internship, it is so easy for our collective consciousness to categorize it as a stepping stone toward something greater, or an opportunity to secure the promise of something greater, whether that be career security post-graduation, an increase in wealth for a given time or even the opportunity to network with career professionals. My own experience, however,was some of these things, for sure—But above all else allowed me to find oneness with my own spirituality in a way I still find remarkable beyond belief.
After dropping out of the Dublin study abroad program due to my own personal fears about the spread of the pandemic in Ireland at the end of 2022, I was hasty in my effort to find an alternative to the experience I would have had abroad. After all, I was a very career-conscious people-pleaser in my junior year, and missing out on a guaranteed internship put a sizable dent in my perceived security.
So, I did what any paranoid college junior would do, and spent my nights from 11:00pm to 3:30am filling out applications on Handshake, Indeed, Ziprecruiter, and every other job site you could think of. Obsessive? Yes. Did I yield anywhere near the number of responses I had hoped for? Absolutely not.
It seemed like all hope of escaping this vicious cycle was lost, until the very next afternoon, when an email came into my school inbox from an international Christian service organization called The International Order of The King’s Daughters and Sons, where a very personable recruiter asked me if I would be interested in sitting down for a virtual interview.
I’ve never been an overly religious person, per se, and at first, I was admittedly turned off by the idea. Something about the genuineness of his language intrigued me, though, and with an open mind and an open heart, I decided to give the interview a shot, and just two weeks later, after two very fruitful face-to-face conversations, my mind was changed and I had secured a PR/Social Media Manager internship position with IOKDS, where I would be housed at the organization’s international headquarters at the Chautauqua Institution for the majority of the summer of 2022.
The Institution looked absolutely stunning visually, and its history and culture were something even more majestic to behold. Walled off from the world and situated on a picturesque lake, and advertised as the last surviving community of its kind, I would come to find that Chautauqua was almost a proverb in and of itself; The last surviving place of its kind on earth, and a haven for upper-middle-class people in search of an escape, Chautauqua was designed as an artistic utopia for the sharing of spiritual, cultural and artistic ideas about the world. Chautauqua is a collectivist utopia that survived hundreds of years when others in upstate New York had failed.
When you enter the monolithic gates, and take a walk down the Brick Walk, the first thing you notice is the peculiar design of the houses. Every building, whether administrative or residential, has a large porch, and all throughout the day, the sounds of people happily talking, singing, playing musical instruments and sharing stories can be heard reverberating through every street corner. The internship director explained to me on the first day that most people emphasize decks in the back of their houses over front porches, and thus will largely keep to themselves, to have privacy. Making every porch in Chautauqua a centerpiece inspires folks to have conversations and connect with their neighbors.
There was no formal security at Chautauqua’s various events – even with big-name stars like Jay Leno, Ben Folds and Brian Stokes Mitchell. There were no traffic violations in Chautauqua; Cars are not allowed within the grounds, and bikes are made accessible to all visitors, so accidents are less likely and far less dangerous, and the air is clear and free of automobile pollution. All nine religious denominations on the grounds work together on one council, and set their programming so that guests, no matter their affiliation, would have the opportunity to engage with every religious tradition, and setting a model in which each congregation speaks highly of its neighbor congregations and encourages guests to experience it all.
Now I’m no believer in the supernatural, nor the religious, and I never have been, but make no mistake: There is an innate magic within the walls of this place, and I believe, after my summer experience, that every person who enters finds it for a reason, and leaves the grounds healed and changed in some way.
I lived and worked on the grounds with IOKDS alongside four other college students that summer, all of whom found the Institution at various points in their lives.
Then, on the morning of August 12, 2022 – just under two weeks after I had returned home, I opened my phone and my heart sank:
Novelist Salman Rushdie was stabbed repeatedly by an assailant as he gave a speech before the Chautauqua community that very morning.
Disturbing video showed the aftermath, as people I had grown to love – older people, younger people, people of every race and nationality, who had sat on their porches singing and laughing and telling stories, were screaming in terror, their heads darting every which way in sudden, burdensome paranoia and their feet were frozen to the concrete ground, as they stood in the pews of the amphitheater, where they watched emergency teams carry Mr. Rushdie’s limp body away to the nearest hospital.
“It could never happen here,” they all said. “Chautauqua – this place is the last haven in a world where our political leaders, our neighbors, our friends act out of hate.” “Here, you can feel like you belong, no matter who you are, or where you came from.”
Suddenly, in what seemed like the blink of an eye, the hundreds of years – fourteen generations of unfettered peace was shattered like a broken wall mirror. The Institution and its community would never be the same, as security was set to increase tenfold going forward, and increased police presence and protection would be a requirement for the summer 2023 programming.
I visited again during the off-season with my girlfriend, to show her this place that changed my life so many months ago, and what I saw was the aftermath of a day of terror. The porches were empty, save for one quiet, sneering soul, and all that remained were the ghosts of the people who once strummed “The Parting Glass” on banjos and acoustic guitars from their rocking chairs. Police cars and security barriers filled the once-bustling town square, and restaurants and storefronts of beloved Chautauqua novelty shops and restaurants were closed down. Blizzards howled through the nine days and and eight nights of our stay, and on our last day, we trekked to the far side of town to find the old stone labyrinth, protected from the snow by a covering of rugged oak trees.
As we approached, I could hear the faint sound of bells from the branches – a wind chime. It was hanging from an extruding branch of one of the tallest trees. We walked the twisting pathway one more time, into the center and back out again, and as we walked back home through the snow-covered gates, the amber sun began to set into the deep blue of Lake Chautauqua.
I turned to my girlfriend, tears in my eyes, and asked if she’d come back with me again.