A Legacy of High Potential as "Dr. D" Returns to Faculty


After 12 years, John Dennis has stepped down as director of the High Potential Program, leaving his mark on a program illustrative of Saint Mary's mission to educate the underserved.

Since its inception in 1973, the High Potential Program has provided an "academic boot camp" to hundreds of first-generation college students, predominantly Latinos and African Americans, with summer coursework, mentoring, and enriching cocurricular activities, such as weekend camping retreats, and cultural outings.

During Dennis's tenure, the College-funded program more than doubled in size, enrolling 49 students in 2004-05; 44 will enter the program this fall. The program boasts graduation rates of 64 percent, compared to the national average of 41 percent for low income students in four-year colleges, according to a recent Department of Education study. But perhaps the biggest contribution is in self-confidence.

"HP had been in the closet, as if acknowledgement of their status might make students uncomfortable," says Dennis of the program when he signed on. "I thought, 'This is crazy, this program is the embodiment of the Lasallian tradition,' so we made it powerful and beautiful. We had other students envying our students and tagging along to get the HP experience."

The benefits can be widespread. "It's important for students to share their stories and to honor their lives. They can be a tremendous inspiration to others," says Dennis.

After 26 years at Saint Mary's, the colorful and charismatic Dennis is himself a legend on campus. At his farewell celebration in May, Vice Provost for Academic Affairs Frances Sweeney, called "Dr. D" a blend of Don Quixote and Saint Francis: "Like Quixote, one who pursues his dreams, yet equally a follower of Saint Francis, extremely grounded in faith and spirit, a channel of God's peace."

This year, Dennis will teach Collegiate Seminar, African literature, a Jan Term course on death and dying, and a Graduate Liberal Studies course on "Race, Gender, and Ethnicity." A national search is underway for a new director.