By Suzanne Buzek
One minute, Jeff Girton didn’t have plans for New Year's Eve; the next, he and his sister, Amy, were packing their suitcases for New Orleans. That they made the decision on Dec. 30 didn’t matter. In fact, traveling at a moment's notice is a hallmark of Girton's vacation planning.
“It’s 12 hours to get to New Orleans," says Girton, residence hall director for Husman Hall. “I was thinking, ‘Oh, this is ridiculous. New Year's Eve is in less than 24 hours and we haven’t slept yet.’ My sister kept teasing me like, ‘Well, if you want to be lame, that’s fine,’” Girton recalls. “So I started looking up hotel prices, and 17 hours from when we first started talking about it, we were in the French Quarter.”
New Year’s Eve was Girton’s fifth trip to New Orleans, but the Crescent City is by no means an exclusive destination; His wanderings have carried him as far as the Bahamas and Connecticut and as near as Chicago and the Wallace House Bed and Breakfast in Covington, Ky.—which he calls his “secret getaway.” While the actual amount of time Girton spends planning may vary somewhat, two things are constant: his suitcase and camera.
“My favorite vacations now are the ones where I take my camera,” says Girton. “I love taking portraits. It’s a little intimidating to go up to a stranger and ask to take their picture, but if you just strike up a conversation with them, it’s easy.”
As much as he loves sharing in the community at Xavier, Girton finds comfort in traveling alone. But he is not reclusive. He consistently makes new friends in the course of his travels. For example, on a trip to New Orleans this past summer, Girton left the hotel with a camera and wandered around all day, taking pictures and just getting to know people.
“I met this woman, Sabrina, who was trying to get people into the restaurant. I was going into the restaurant anyway, but I spent 15 minutes just talking to her, asking her what her favorite dish was,” Girton recalls. “She told me about how her husband died in Katrina. She really opened up to me about some very sad things, yet she was all smiles.
“One thing about New Orleans is that everybody wants to tell you their Katrina story. Some people are too afraid to ask those questions about it because they don’t want to bring up bad memories, but I think that talking about bad memories is a way of processing them and getting over them. I didn’t pry or anything, and nobody ever complained, but they were willing to share their experience and hardship and how they overcame it.”
Since joining Residence Life three years ago, Girton has consciously shifted his work ethic to be similar to that of his approach to the people he meets on his travels: having an open mind, and taking the time to really care for others.
“I was trained as a youth minister and have found that this job is like doing the youth ministry without the religion part, in a sense,” says Girton. “Whenever I see residents who are struggling with grades or just having a hard time, that’s a chance for me to put the paperwork aside and to just ask how they’re doing. If nothing else, I just listen and let them know that somebody at Xavier cares about them," he says. "I’ve even learned on these trips that people don’t slow down enough to interact with each other, and I have countless opportunities to do just that.”