When I was presented with the task of answering the question “What does Gonzaga mean to you?” my first reaction was that there was no way I could convey what Gonzaga means to me in words. Gonzaga has been a part of my life since I was about 9 years old when my oldest sibling, Michael Berl (class of ’95), left for Spokane in the summer of 1990. I still remember my parents in their thick east coast accents pronouncing it Gone-zaw-gaw, a mispronunciation that still hurts my ears today. But at nine, I didn’t know any different. Nor did I realize that over 20 years later I would say, in the most basic sense, that what Gonzaga means to me is home.
I’ll never forget the summers my brother would come home from Gonzaga and talk about how amazing his experiences in school had been. I was so jealous, at age 12, of all his travels abroad while studying at the Gonzaga-In-Florence program. I think I knew then, but wouldn’t realize it until later, that those were the experiences I wanted for myself. Gonzaga was offering my brother a sense of pride, a welcoming, inclusive community and an education that went far beyond the classroom. These are characteristics that I also associate with home.
When it was finally my turn to choose where I wanted to go to college, Gonzaga was at the top of the list. Of course I did apply at other schools and weighed my options, but at the end of the day, all signs pointed to Gonzaga as my new home. As it turns out, it was one of the best decisions of my life. Gonzaga provided a home for me not only in Spokane while I was in college, but also in Florence, Italy. The unique experience I had spending a year in abroad has directly shaped who I am today and created a true bond with those who became my Florence family.
After graduating in 2003, I decided to continue onto grad school at Boston University. While studying in Boston, I was constantly looking for that same community-oriented and homey feeling that I had found at Gonzaga. As it turns out, the only place I was able to find that experience was by tracking down fellow alum and creating our own game watches. There was no official Boston Alumni Chapter yet, but we were resourceful and found the small amount of Zags living in the area to create our own Gonzaga home in Boston. It was in Boston when I realized that my experience at GU was truly unique.
Upon graduating from Boston University, I stayed on the east coast and eventually, following in my big brother’s footsteps yet again, moved to New York City. One of the first things I did was sign up immediately for the Alumni Chapter. As it has been said before, but New York City can be a small city, and to me when I was with my fellow alumni, we were all home again in Spokane at Jack and Dan’s. I had never met any of these people before, but it didn’t matter. We all shared that common experience of Gonzaga, a bond that is hard to break. I was proud wearing my Gonzaga gear around the big city, (even if most people thought it was the high school in Washington, D.C!). Whenever people asked me where I went to school, it was an immediate conversation starter. I got a lot of, “You are the first person I have ever met that actually went to that school. I just know about their basketball team.” But once I shared my amazing experiences with them, they were instant Bulldogs too
It wasn’t until January of 2008 that everything would come full circle for me. I was a bridesmaid in one of my best friends from Gonzaga’s wedding. It was held at St. Aloysius on a cold but gorgeous snowy winter day. My friend married a Gonzaga Prep alum who was friends with many of the people with whom we had studied in Florence. It was at that wedding I met Ryan Clifford. Ryan, a G-Prepper himself, had many of the same experiences and friends at Prep that I did at Gonzaga University. Although he went to Villanova, we soon discovered our mutual love for GU. The second time we met was at the WCC Tournament in San Diego in 2008 and it was there I met Ryan’s parents, Craig and Georganna, and discovered their passion for the University Community. Even though neither Craig nor Georganna had undergraduate experiences at Gonzaga, they were very much a part of the Gonzaga family. Ryan and I often joke that he has more Gonzaga “gear” than Villanova and sometimes feels more like a Zag than a Wildcat…unless of course Villanova is in the Final Four.
When I met Ryan, I was still living in New York. After about a year and a half of us dating long distance, I finally took the plunge and moved back to Spokane-a place, after graduating, I never thought in a million years I would end up calling home. After a few months, Ryan and I were engaged and then married in my hometown in the Bay Area. Our wedding party consisted of five Gonzaga University Alumni and four Gonzaga Prep Alumni, a pretty strong representation of the Blue and White.
I have now been a Clifford for almost two years and was welcomed into Ryan’s family with open arms. The Clifford’s truly understand the meaning of Gonzaga Family and are great examples of it every day. It’s amazing to see how both my new Clifford family and my Berl family were both touched so dramatically by Gonzaga especially since neither family is from Spokane originally. Case in point: my sister is an alumna of University of San Diego…she joined the Gonzaga Alumni Chapter in Denver. The Gonzaga Family is welcoming and it cultivates honest relationships that touch anyone who comes in contact with one of its family members. I recently read a quote that touched me, and I believe can help sum up what Gonzaga and the Gonzaga Family means to me: “Home is not where you are from; it is where you are wanted.” I know that wherever I am my Gonzaga family is there for me, and wherever Gonzaga is I am home and wanted.