By Megan Lupo
Leaning back with ease on top of the Rider berm, legs streched out and hands planted on the ground to keep him sitting upright, senior English major John Modica reflected on his past four years at Rider.
His posture was the personificiation of how professor of English Jack Sullivan described Modica.
“Authoritative and casual, that’s what I love about John,” Sullivan said.
Waving at students that yell his name from their car windows as they drive around the campus mall, Modica said that a mere four years ago, he wasn’t the most sociable.
“So, I wasn’t the most outgoing kid when I got to Rider. I spent most of my free time either in the library or in my room just because I didn’t find making friends very easy,” Modica said. “I was very homesick — I’m an only child — so going away to school wasn’t particularly natural for me. I was the first person in my family to go away to school to begin with.”
But Modica learned to adapt and, because of that, he thrived. As he wraps up his undergraduate experience, he can check off a list of myriad organizations that he was involved in and accolades he has received that has made his name known and widespread.
During his time here, he developed into much more than just a “Rider student” due to all the opportunities presented to him. He became an Alpha Phi Omega (APO) brother, a Relay for Life committee member, a Rider Service leader, an orientation leader, a Petey Greene tutor, a Sigma Tau Delta recipient, a Theta Chi brother, an Undergraduate Research Scholar Awards (URSA) recipient, a Drag Race champion, the Student Government Association (SGA) president and beginning in fall 2018, he will start his life as a University of Virginia (UVA) graduate student.
Walking from the SRC to Moore Library in a black cotton shirt and a forest green J. Crew jacket, he presented himself with more genuine confidence than he did coming into Rider during his freshman orientation in the summer 2014.
“I was so overwhelmed. In fact, I came in a dress shirt and jeans that day, and it was so hot. It was such a mistake. I remember running around the activities at night like ‘oh my god, I’m so uncomfortable. I hate this,’’’ Modica said. “I really tried to put myself out of my comfort zone, especially because I think the orientation leaders really emphasize ‘you’re going to get just as much out of this as you put into it.’ And so I knew that as uncomfortable as I was, everyone else around me was also super uncomfortable, too. I could tell everyone else was awkward no matter how they played it off. So I was like ‘well, f— it.’ I’m going to be the person that goes out and tries to engage people and just enjoy this experience.”
Even though Modica didn’t form lasting friendships during the two days, he pushed himself out of his comfort zone and was inspired to reciprocate an environment where it’s accepted to be uncomfortable or nervous in unfamiliar territory when he was on the orientation staff in the summers of 2015 and 2016.
“It’s hard coming to college, but it’s not something to be afraid of. And if you are afraid, that’s OK. But there are so many other people that are also afraid. I don’t think anyone is really willing to admit that,” Modica said. “But I’m willing to admit that going to college is terrifying for everyone, and we need to bond over that instead of just trying to ignore that.”
Citing that his first summer as an orientation leader was one of his favorite memories, he said it was not only because he got to motivate and encourage the impressionable freshmen that were just like him, but because he was able to bond with the twleve other staff members by embracing vulnerability.
“When freshmen come to Rider, I think that people have this illusion that the orientation leaders are going to lie to you. Absolutely not. We are told ‘do not hide the truth of your experience when you come to Rider, but simply show them that there are things that might not be so great but also that the reason why we are orientation leaders is because we love it here,’” Modica said. “We would not be standing up on that stage if we did not love this university with all of our hearts. And that’s also what we couple that with. We will show you what the faults are, but we are also going to remind you that the good things outweigh the bad, tremendously.”
Modica’s freshman year was mainly defined by joining SGA after being pulled to their information table at the Fall Awareness Fair by his orientation leader, Lucia White. He was introduced to former SGA vice president Ryan Hopely and former SGA president Allie Koury, who expressed interest in his involvement.
Despite his introverted nature, Modica interviewed to be Hopely’s Senate Aide and got the position. Hopely became a mentor to Modica, just as Modica followed in his footsteps and became a mentor to many later on in his academic career.
Modica’s passion for changing the campus climate was fueled by Hopely’s desire to make improvements at a student level.
“We used to sit in [Hopely’s] room on Tuesday nights and talk for hours and ask ourselves, ‘What could we be doing to make Rider better? We love our time here, but we really want to see this school be better.’ So, we took our frustrations with our time here and asked how we could filter those feelings through SGA because we saw that as the medium for getting this done,” Modica said. “Especially because Ryan, being an executive officer, got to see SGAs at other schools and the cool things they did. And he would tell me that we, the students, would need to be the ones to bring those things forward.”
Although Modica was only in his first year at college, he worked with Hopely to restructure the entire SGA organization, which has been around since 1969, to orient toward creating projects and initatives, rather than just hosting events, institutionalizing legislation and realigning representation in the Senate.
“We had to think for ourselves. And again, that is what in part motivated the restructure. I did not want students to join SGA just for the sake of joining SGA,” Modica said. “I want students who have certain issues or topics that they want to talk about so that I can show them that they can follow their ideas through SGA.”
He contributed to changing the course of SGA for the future to benefit the students and because of his ability to be involved in meetings with higher-up officers, he ran and won for executive vice president.
Additionally, as he embodied the mantra that student involvement betters the campus community, he became a Rider Service leader and helped faciliate the National Days of Service. Because of his role, he helped “revitalize trails, replant a butterfly sanctuary and beautify the grounds.”
He joined the campus service fraternity, APO in his spring semester because of its inclusivity and became the New Member Class President.
Modica’s sophomore year was rocked by the announcement of 13 major cuts made by University President Greg Dell’Omo.
He expressed regret in his choice to not express his anger, as opposed to feeling obligated to defend the administration because he was SGA’s then-vice president.
“I hate the perception that student leaders on this campus are employees or administrators or staff. They’re not. We have just as much as a right to be mad and to be frustrated,” Modica said. “I had wished if I could go back to that moment that we would have been feistier. Maybe have expressively said, ‘This isn’t right. You can’t just come into a university, and then say you are going to cut 13 majors right off the bat. And not have a plan for how students are going to be treated. Not have a plan if they are going to graduate with their degrees. That’s not right.’ The university has to be committed to the student, not to the bottom line. And in that moment, I felt like the university was prioritizing its bottom line.”
Continuing his sophomore experience as a year of revelations, he changed his major from finance to English. Although he loved English, he first pursued finance because he thought that its vow of financial stability guaranteed his happiness, yet that wasn’t the case.
Amidst his struggle in staying a finance major, he took Literary History I with English professor Katherine Maynard. This class required a presentation per student. Modica already presented weeks earlier when Maynard mistakenly called on him to present on a piece. When she made the realization that he gave a presentation on a piece he didn’t prepare for, she was stunned and told him to reconsider becoming an English major. Modica did.
“My happiness just changed immediately. I could just feel a weight lifted off my shoulders because I finally accepted that this is what I really wanted to study,” Modica said. “This is something that I am passionate about. Regardless of how secure it is nowadays to try to become an English professor, which isn’t, I’m very fortunate to have the opportunity to pursue something that I love. And so why waste that opportunity?”
In one of his first English required classes, he had written a paper on “Go Set a Watchman” by Harper Lee. His professor, Nowell Marshall, told him to develop his argument more, and Modica, in turn, created a proposal for URSA, which he was accepted for.
Modica expressed amazement at the fact that he only recently declared his major to be English, and he had the chance to conduct a yearlong research project for the university.
He continued working on his URSA throughout his junior year, in which the study guide he created was implemented at high school in West Babylon, New York.
His URSA journey did not come easy for him. He felt a constant pressure to be perfect, which took a toll on his health.
“I felt like I was wandering in the dark. And I was terrified. And I would spend hours and hours and hours working on it nonstop. There were some weekends where I would start working on it Friday afternoon, and I would not sleep until Sunday,” Modica said. “And I would crash, just because I got so absorbed in the work that I didn’t realize that I was spiraling. And that’s so damaging.”
During his third year, he strayed away from APO, and joined the then-colony Theta Chi, despite originally having no interest in Greek Life due to the perception that fraternities are made up of straight, sporty men.
However, Modica realized that Theta Chi became a space for gay men like himself.
“How much does it mean that the first brother of this fraternity of this campus was an openly gay man? That’s very significant. And that’s something that I still take great pride in. I think very few fraternities would have let that happen. I was welcomed into Theta Chi with open arms. I was the first person to sign a bid at Rider,” Modica said. “We wanted the best leaders, the people with the highest GPAs, people from all disciplines to really create a fraternity that is representative of excellence. What does it mean to be the best at Rider? And that’s what Theta Chi was intended to reflect. And that’s been our guiding principle for the past year and a half.”
Theta Chi became was reinstated as a chapter the next year when Modica was a senior.
Junior year was a year of expanding Modica’s palette even further into the unknown. He participated in Rider’s first drag race, despite the intense fear of putting himself out there, yet he, afterwards, reflected that he became truly himself.
“I got through the competition and realized that it wasn’t so much about being perfect, as having fun. And loving myself and reminding myself that I am going out there and make a fool out of myself, be funny, be ridiculous because everyone who is going up on that stage is terrified. And if I was going to make an ass of myself, ‘well I hope I gave you a good show, folks,’” Modica said. “I know that I was super messy, but I was willing to own my messiness. That’s what you need to do. You need to own your messiness and turn it in something positive.”
Also, because of his influence, knowledge and constant presence in SGA, he ran for student body president and won.
With his role, he improved SGA further by re-branding the organization to focus more on tapping into the potential of student leaders and re-establishing the vision statement.
“Hopefully, the legacy that I tried to leave behind is that I want us to take ourselves seriously. I want this university to recognize that we are the future of Rider, and we need to be treated as such. They need to be willing to turn some of its fate over to the students,” Modica said. “And I think out of anyone, we can represent that the best. And I want that to be at the forefront of Rider’s philosophy going forward is that we are going to be involved, we’re going to be smart, we’re going to be successful. Let us help make Rider an institution that any student can be proud of. It has been a tumultuous year. It’s been a big learning process for me, recognizing that hard work isn’t just important, it’s also building a good team, having fun.”
In addition, Modica began working on his senior thesis, which was a reflection of all that he has accomplished at Rider.
“All of my academic interests kind of spiraled into this project, and I’m immensely proud of it. It has stressed me the hell out,” Modica said. “But it’s been so much fun, being able to work with all the faculty who I love on one project and seeing all of their ideas and influences on me come together into one single paper, which I’m very, very proud of.”
However, like with his URSA, he would stay up for hours and not take care of himself. He did not want to disappoint those that held him in high standards, which he admitted was extremely damaging
“It’s very isolating to feel like you have everyone’s expectations on top of you. And I know at the end of the day, all those people will love me regardless. But that’s how I internalize those expectations,” Modica said.
Whenever the work had gotten too much, he would de-stress by going on runs. He claimed to have lapped around Rider over a hundred times.
He also sought counseling to re-center himself and remind him of the importance of his well-being.
Despite his destructive neurotic behavior when he wrote his URSA and thesis, he continued this pattern when he applied for graduate schools.
He would stay up all night writing and rewriting his two-page statement of purpose for five months until the application deadline on December 14. Afterwards, he suffered a breakdown.
On Feb. 20, he received his acceptance letter to UVA.
“I went through two moods very quickly. One was incredible jubilance. Second, I would almost describe it as incredible disappointment because I had just realized that I had spent the past two years, driving myself crazy. Did I really need to waste all those hours, just that way I could get this acceptance?” Modica wondered. “I would not trade this acceptance for anything in the world. It is the most valuable thing that I have gotten in a very long time. But at the same time, my time is valuable, too. I sacrificed my humanity because I wanted to get into graduate school.”
Modica offered advice to those in the process of applying to graduate schools to not imitate him.
“Don’t let it kill you. The world will go on. Enjoy the time that you have. And don’t always think about tomorrow. Sometimes, just focus on enjoying today,” Modica said.
Thinking of how far he has come, Modica felt his maturity and growth from being a shy kid at orientation in his lime green shirt.
“My biggest achievement is that I think I’m leaving Rider knowing what I want. Not just for my professional life, which I do think I have a better idea of, not just for my academics. I know what I want out of myself and out of other people,” Modica said. “I used to be someone who would maintain friendships, maintain relationships, even just maintain acquaintanceships, just for the sake of it. And I have learned not to accept anything, except genuine love from the people that I keep around me.”
And those around him will miss his authenticity.
Sullivan said, “I told him the other day that I’m heartbroken. ‘I can’t believe that you have to leave.’ He said, ‘Don’t worry, Dr. Sullivan. There will be new people here that will be just as cool. There always are.’ And I thought that was charming but no. There won’t be. I’m devastated. I told [Associate Professor of English] Vanita [Neelakanta], and she said, ‘That’s the only thing that he said that was not true.’”
Published in the 4/25/18 edition.