How a First-Year Course Unexpectedly Transformed the Path of Two Seniors

Two female graduating seniors talk with a female former professor.
Class of 2024 members Delaney Walch (left) and Catherine Cannamela (right) reunite with Ginny Ryan, their former Montserrat lecturer.

Catherine Cannamela '24 and Delaney Walch '24 didn’t expect an early experience to change their lives. 

As a first-year student in fall 2020, Delaney Walch ’24 thought she was clear on her career aspirations: She wanted to be a doctor. The interests of Catherine Cannamela ’24 were more broad but she thought she’d find a focus sometime by the end of her second year on The Hill. The women’s experience in Holy Cross’s Montserrat first-year student program altered their academic plan.

“It was truly transformative,” Cannamela said.

Montserrat courses span a student's first two semesters at Holy Cross and introduces them to the liberal arts. In addition to work in the classroom, there is often a counterpart in the community through the College’s Donelan Office of Community-Based Learning, Teaching and Engaged Scholarship (CBL).

Ginny Ryan, a former Montserrat lecturer who retired in 2022, taught Cannamela and Walch that fall and said her role was to develop a course that would “change the hearts and minds of those students who were open to change.”

As a senior, Cannamela wrote her honors thesis on dismantling ableism through community engagement, a topic she chose after her experience in Ryan’s Identity, Diversity, and Community Montserrat class.

“I never had any exposure to the realm of disabilities,” she said. “The way Professor Ryan framed the discussions through Catholic social teaching and service with others encouraged me to develop my interest in disability studies, to see things that I hadn’t before.”

“Students are curious, they want to be transformed. We can guide them through that process,” Ryan said.

They learned to be present in the moment.

Ginny Ryan, a former Montserrat lecturer

Identity, Diversity and Community

Ryan described Cannamela and Walch as unselfish, motivated self-learners. Her course, which focused on disability ethics and studying differences, required students to be patient and humble. 

“It could have been intimidating. I exposed students to something they might not have previously thought of clearly or coherently,” Ryan said. “I watched them struggle through some periods as they became more aware of and saw things they might not have before in themselves and others. They learned to be present in the moment.”

Walch, a neuroscience major with a concentration in gender, sexuality and women’s studies, said she was a little wary of the course at that time: “I was more focused on getting good grades and securing medical internships. I thought the Montserrat course would focus more on religious studies. It was so much more than that.”

Ryan used Andrew Solomon’s book “Far From the Tree” to help guide classroom conversations. “Going through chapter by chapter, hearing people’s stories, talking about how certain characteristics can feel isolating, but that everyone experiences differences at some point … It resonated with me,” Walch said.

In spring 2021, Walch contacted Donelan Office Director Isabelle Jenkins ’10 and was connected with a nurse practitioner who was organizing a series of discussion panels for medical students in which intellectually and physically disabled adults share their experiences of ableism in health care with the medical community. “That’s when I had a big realization that this is what I might want to do,” said Walch, now a CBL intern.

Cannamela, also a CBL intern, had a similar experience working with the Worcester Public Schools’ (WPS) Transition Program, which provides support after high school for young adults with disabilities.

“I didn’t notice I was hesitant to interact with someone with disabilities until I came face to face with someone. I felt uncomfortable,” she said. “I knew that I had to challenge my own internal biases. It was powerful being able to call those out and grow in that way.”

Once COVID-19 restrictions were lifted and Cannamela was able to have more in-person experiences with the Worcester students, she formed genuine friendships. “It’s one thing to learn about someone is nonverbal, but it’s completely different to experience that and learn how to communicate in different ways. It doesn’t make it any less of a relationship, a friendship,” she said.

Ryan, who still hosts annual reunions with former Montserrat students, said the students learn that they are not necessarily teachers or fixers: “They are humans who are standing alongside other humans and developing critical connections.”

It’s mind boggling to think that all of this, all of my experience, my life-changing decisions, came from my Montserrat.

Delaney Walch ’24

The Montserrat Effect

Ryan’s Montserrat course “became the most defining and central part of my Holy Cross experience,” Walch said. “I thought I wanted to be a doctor. Professor Ryan’s class and my experience from it and the connections I’ve formed overtime made me realize I did not want to be a doctor. I wanted to seek social justice and help change the world in a different way.”

Over the past four years, Walch has worked and connected with organizations including WPS Transition Program, L’Arche Boston North and the Summit Campus in Worcester, a dormitory community for neurodiverse young adults. Through this, she has redefined her career goals to include advocacy work, either through policy or nonprofit outreach. She wants to emphasize a social model of disability, which suggests that disabilities are caused by the way society is structured, as opposed to a medical model, which views a person’s disability as caused by their differences. 

“It’s mind boggling to think that all of this, all of my experience, my life-changing decisions, came from my Montserrat,” Walch said.

For Cannamela, Ryan’s Montserrat course and the subsequent four years have been “the most instrumental of my learning and growth.” So much so, she’s dedicated her honor’s thesis to the topic: “I want to focus on building relationships rather than being part of a society that continues to create hierarchies that emphasize our differences.”

She partially arrived at her topic through spring break immersion trips to L’Arche sites and her work with the WPS Transition Program. She continues working with the WPS program, planning weekly activities on and off campus, picking an area of campus to explore, from the science atrium to the dining hall to the career center. “We explore together. We’re peers and we’re experiencing young adulthood together,” she said.

Cannamela, who will work full time at the L’Arche site in Haverhill, Massachusetts, after graduation, doesn’t know if any of this would be possible without Ryan’s Montserrat class.

“I don’t know what I would be like if I hadn’t met Professor Ryan or been part of her Montserrat. She opened the door for me and from there I experienced more through CBL and spring break immersion. I’ve found what I’m passionate about and through that she helped me find who I am,” she said.