The harsh reality of life is that sometimes, things won’t go the way we plan, but when that happens, we have to keep going, and “when a door closes on you - just breathe.”
That was at the heart of the advice that Jesse Balcer, M.S. ’11, Director of Athletics and Recreation at Chestnut Hill College, gave when he addressed a room full of students, faculty, and staff at the Agape Latte event in late February. As the keynote speaker, Balcer shared thoughts on overcoming anxiety, following your passions, discovering your purpose, and how those things all connected to his own life’s journey, reflecting back on his time in college and all of the ways his path changed since he first graduated in 1996.
Putting aside aspirations to become a professional baseball player, Balcer graduated with a degree in psychology and quickly found a job to support his new family. He began working at a place called Project Hope, before becoming a juvenile probation officer in the city of Philadelphia. As the years went on, Balcer wondered if this was something he wanted to do for his entire career, so he began exploring other options. His path, as he told everyone, would change again thanks to an opportunity that didn’t even exist when Balcer first graduated college.
“I was 25/26 years old, still trying to figure out what I wanted to do,” Balcer recalls. “I had decided I was going to get a degree in education and become a high school teacher as I was already coaching high school basketball. And that was going to be it, until I got the call from Chestnut Hill College saying I got the job to coach the men’s basketball team.”
It was 2003 and the start of a new era for CHC. The college had just gone co-ed and looked to add men’s sports to its athletic portfolio. Basketball was the first, and Balcer was hired to build the program from the ground up. But the position was only part-time so Balcer continued working his juvenile probation officer job by day and coached the CHC team at night. It was a contrast that Balcer appreciated. Even more so, Balcer loved the people he met in his coaching job, noting, “I loved the people here, loved the kids I was coaching and loved what we were all about at Chestnut Hill.”
Balcer found success as a coach and eventually as a full-time employee at CHC. But then another opportunity presented itself as Balcer applied for the position of Athletic Director. He didn’t get it, but as he says, that was a “turning point” because for nine years he learned under the new athletic director who became his mentor, and eventually, when that same door opened again, Balcer was ready. He applied for the job and was appointed the College’s sixth Director of Athletics and Recreation in 2018.
While the road there had its twists and turns, Balcer finally found himself in athletics, something he had always wanted.
“My path to where I am right now was all over the place and I wanted to share that so that you can understand that right now in college, no matter what grade you are in or what state of mind you are in, that everything is going to work out just fine as long as you follow the things that inspire you,” Balcer said to students in attendance. “That’s where you are going to find that next door and the next door is the one that is going to lead you to something that you really want to do. Because if you follow those things that inspire you, you’re right on track to being the person that you want to be.”
Founded in 2006 on the campus of Boston College, Agape Latte is a nationwide student-led series that aims to bring community together through caffeinated, faith-filled conversations. Currently, over 50 colleges and high schools participate in Agape Latte events every year. Chestnut Hill College began offering Agape Latte events in 2018, growing from a small club to a campus-wide initiative offering two events a year.
“For campus ministry, we think successful programs give students a chance to explore questions about meaning, belonging, and purpose,” said Anna Ryan-Bender, Director of Campus Ministry. “As a space that highlights student talents, community, and storytelling, Agape Latte checks all these boxes.”
Ryan-Bender joined staff from Mission and Ministry, Campus Life, and Athletics, in working with the Student Government Association, Student Athletic Advisory Committee, and other student leaders to make this year’s Agape Latte event possible. Together, the group met to discuss the students’ vision in order to craft a program that truly was by students, and for students.
In addition to Balcer’s keynote, which Ryan-Bender described as “a powerful testimony of self-doubt, vulnerability, and resilience,” Agape Latte featured some CHC-inspired trivia, poetry, and musical performances by students, Sarah Chachoute '23 and Julia Straface '23. And of course, lattes, in both the hot and cold-brew variety. But most importantly, the event marked a return to live, in-person community, something that has largely been missing due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Agape Latte brought members of the community together during a time where we need a sense of ‘togetherness’ more than I think we realize,” said Morgan Orloski ’22, one of the co-organizers of this year’s event. “We were able to listen to some wonderful and brave students share their passions of music and poetry with such a welcoming audience. Lastly, Jesse Balcer showed us through his story that we are all on a journey and no matter how far away you may think you are from where you should be, you might just be surprised by the beauty offered behind your ‘setbacks’ or ‘wrong turns.’ I’m thankful to have been a small part of such an event!”
If you missed Agape Latte, the student performances are available to view on Chestnut Hill College’s YouTube page (Sarah's performance AND Julia's performance). Balcer's keynote address can be viewed below.
The next Agape Latte event will take place in the Fall.
- Marilee Gallagher '14