A Sense of Place

The Christian Brothers run six colleges and universities in the United States, each with a unique character influenced by its location and the students it serves. Writers from each campus share their perspectives.

Christian Brothers University

To turn a clich on its head, one might venture that the Christian Brothers who first came to Memphis jumped out of the fire and into the frying pan.

Three of the four Brothers who founded Christian Brothers College (CBC) relocated to Memphis because of the Great Chicago Fire of Oct. 10, 1871, which destroyed Christian Brothers Academy. The fourth, Brother Maurelian Sheel, was sent from a small novitiate in Pass Christian, Miss., to head the tiny new community. Thirty-eight days after the Great Fire, they took possession of a property that formerly housed the Memphis Female College; three days later they opened CBC for, ironically perhaps, all-male classes. Four years later, they granted the first college degree in the city's history.

Memphis was less than 50 years old in 1871 and home to only 40,000 inhabitants. It was part of the defeated Confederacy, under a corrupt Reconstruction government, and its economy based on the cotton trade and Mississippi River traffic was still coming to grips with the abolition of slavery. Within a few years, it would also face a yellow fever epidemic that decimated the population so much that the state revoked the city's charter.

If Memphis was the Brothers' metaphorical frying pan, their school quickly became a melting pot. The city had been an odd pocket with a sizable Catholic populace within the rural Protestant South, but its eventual growth came principally from the relocation of its rural neighbors, and the percentage of Catholics dwindled rapidly. Today, with a metropolitan population of 1.25 million, the Memphis populace is only 5 percent Catholic.

But the Christian Brothers of Memphis always welcomed students of other faiths, educating and nurturing early generations of the city's Protestant and Jewish civic and business leaders. Samuel Cardinal Stritch, late archbishop of Chicago, once stated, "Christian Brothers College is a Temple of Tolerance, and has done more than any one factor that I know of to break down religious prejudice in Memphis."

After World War II, operating under the Lasallian principles of providing a practical education, CBC cemented a reputation for excellence in educating young veterans and college men in the fields of business and engineering. A glimpse through old yearbooks demonstrates that this reputation spread surprisingly far; the number of smiling young faces from South America, India and the Middle East would have been unusual anywhere in Memphis except on the Brothers' campus.

What was not unusual in the then-segregated South was the lack of African-American faces. No private school in Memphis was racially integrated until 1963, when CBC led the way and accepted its first black student who graduated four years later as co-salutatorian.

Today, Christian Brothers University is known for more than its excellence in business and engineering; the arts and biosciences are also vibrant areas of study, the latter as a response to a growing market in the region. And CBU is still a richly diverse campus. The student body is now 55 percent female, 43 percent minority (32 percent African-American) and only 24 percent Catholic.

Some might see that as quite a change for a formerly all-male Catholic school founded in the ruins of the Old Confederacy. But it's quite in keeping with its long, proud history as a "Temple of Tolerance."

- Cory Dugan

Manhattan College

The first thing to say about the location of Manhattan College is that it is not located in Manhattan. It is in the Bronx. It had its origins as a boarding academy on Canal Street and then moved to upper Manhattan, where it was chartered by the state of New York as Manhattan College in 1863. In 1924, it moved to its present site opposite Van Cortlandt Park at 242nd Street and Broadway in the Bronx at the end of the Number 1 Line of the New York Subway System.

The location on Broadway along the West Side subway line has always motivated the college to adapt its mission to the needs of the succeeding immigrant generations. Even today, a large percentage of the students are the first in their families to attend college. More recently, the attraction of residence life has shifted the student population from mostly commuters to a large majority of boarders. Our boarders have the advantage of both worlds: the sylvan environment of Van Cortlandt Park on the one hand, and the half-hour subway ride to the attractions at the center of New York City on the other.

The college's academic degree offerings evolved to meet the needs of the student population. At first, the liberal arts and sciences provided a Catholic setting for the sons of immigrants to prepare for careers in law, medicine and the priesthood. Engineering was added to take advantage of the opportunities in constructing the infrastructure of a growing New York. As the city emerged as a major financial capital of the world, the School of Business provided a network of Manhattan students for leadership positions in corporate life.

The New York area provides such varied institutions in the field of education that Manhattan College, in order to be competitive, has had to find its niche and keep its standards high. Location may not be everything, but it has played a major role in the development of what we like to consider the premier Catholic college in New York City.

- Brother Luke Salm

La Salle University

La Salle University has been located in the city of Philadelphia since its founding in 1863 and has been in its current location at 20th Street and Olney Avenue in Northwest Philadelphia since 1930. The university's connections to the city and to its immediate surrounding neighborhood are broad and varied, and they include commitments to community service and renewal, engagement in the historical and cultural life of Philadelphia and partnerships with local businesses and organizations that provide educational opportunities for students.

Hundreds of La Salle students devote 25,000 hours to local community service each year. Notable projects have included the Neighbor to Neighbor program, in which students help residents in the nearby communities with household chores, leaf-raking, and lawn-mowing, and the Neighborhood Tutoring program, an after-school homework help program for local children. The university also reaches out to its community through the Neighborhood Nursing Center, where School of Nursing and Health Sciences faculty and students provide health screenings, glucose screenings and health education programs to more than 1,000 local residents each year.

The community surrounding La Salle also benefits from the university's economic renewal efforts. More than half of La Salle's approximately 1,300 faculty and staff members live in Philadelphia, and 20 percent live in neighborhoods adjacent to the university. La Salle has worked with political and civic leaders and others to bring commercial and retail investment to the area and was instrumental in the development of a retail complex that is scheduled to open in 2009.

Students are encouraged throughout their academic careers at La Salle to explore what the city of Philadelphia has to offer for historic, social, cultural and recreational activities. The city becomes a living classroom for students as their professors incorporate the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Opera House of Philadelphia and other theaters, museums, galleries and historical monuments into their curricula. Recently, students have interviewed medical experts at the city's leading hospitals, shadowed at-risk youth enrolled in an anti-violence program at a trauma unit, visited with the elderly at a South Philadelphia senior center and created a digital story map of Philadelphia by photographing and recording city scenes along the Broad Street subway line.

La Salle's connection to Philadelphia can also be seen in its relationships with its media outlets, health-care organizations, nonprofits, school districts and Fortune 1000 companies, which offer students the opportunity for internships, co-ops, work placements and networking. Through the School of Business' Business Scholars Co-op Program, students complete two full-time work experiences as undergraduates, often with accounting firms, financial institutions and other companies based in Philadelphia. As they plan their careers, students of all majors can tap into the vast networks of professionals in the Philadelphia area, including the thousands of La Salle alumni who have chosen to live and work in the region after graduation.

- Marian Butcher

Saint Mary's College

The first campus of Saint Mary's College, built in 1863, was located on the outskirts of San Francisco, some four miles from city center on the Old Mission Road to San Jose. The school's founder, Archbishop Joseph Sadoc Alemany, decided to erect his new diocesan college on an out-of-the-way tract to protect the virtues of its students. For a time, he had considered building Saint Mary's on a square block bounded by Larkin, Polk, Grove and Hayes Streets, but he soon concluded that the property was not only too small but too close to the sinful temptations of the nearby Barbary Coast and Chinatown. Alemany had even dickered with the Methodists to purchase their Collegiate Institute in Napa as a properly safe and secluded location for his new school. He finally settled on the San Francisco site when the deed to the wine country property proved defective.

The Old Mission Road campus was sufficiently remote, but it did not enjoy a clement climate, being constantly exposed to cold ocean winds and damp fogs. Cypress trees were planted as windbreaks, but they provided only partial protection for the students, as did the wooden sheds on the inside wall surrounding the large outdoor playground. On stormy nights, when gales rattled dormitory windows, the younger students would huddle together and pray for deliverance.

In 1889, the Brothers decided to forsake what one student called "a cold, bleak, dreary place" for the sunnier climes of Oakland across the Bay. One wonders what the history of Saint Mary's College might have been like, had it remained in San Francisco as the growing city began to surround its once-isolated campus. Would it have become a large urban university with a considerable contingent of commuter students?

The new Oakland campus, dubbed "The Brickpile" for the hulking building in which it was housed, was located a short distance from downtown on Broadway Avenue, at the foot of what is now called "Pill Hill." Eventually the city would grow up around it. Only a smattering of students from the old school transferred over to the new campus, so it was almost as if Saint Mary's had been given second birth. As in San Francisco, the college continued to cater to the sons of immigrant Catholics, especially the Irish. Lacking room to expand, Saint Mary's moved to the rolling green hills of Moraga in 1928. Again one wonders what its history might have been like, had it remained in what soon became downtown Oakland, especially when the city became a predominantly black metropolis after World War II.

The new Contra Costa County campus was extremely isolated, connected to the East Bay cities only by country roads and a commuter rail line that went on to Sacramento. Calling the new Saint Mary's a suburban school in those early years might even be a stretch, since so few homes looked down on it until after the Korean War. Words like "rural" and "bucolic" come to mind. Today, of course, upscale subdivisions and shopping encircle the picturesque school in nearby Moraga, Lafayette and Orinda. But students must still drive off campus or catch a BART train to find those entertainments and diversions only cities can provide. When I was a professor at Saint Mary's, students would sometimes complain, "There is nothing to do on campus. The place empties out on the weekends. If you don't have a car, you're stranded." One hopes that this situation has changed in recent years.

The composition of the student body certainly has. Since the 1970s, more minorities have come to the beautiful suburban campus, many of them from gritty urban environments. It must be difficult, at first, for some of them to fit in. What does a minority student from an urban ghetto feel like when he or she first arrives on campus and encounters so many affluent middle-class students with nice cars and lots of spending money? This, it seems to me, is the challenge Saint Mary's must now face how to make all its students feel welcome, even when they come from diverse backgrounds. The campus itself may provide the key. The builder of Saint Mary's, Brother Zeticus Joseph Fenlon, wanted the campus itself to be the first lesson the students learned on arrival. What can it teach them? That beauty, harmony and spirituality should rule our lives.

- Ron Isetti

Saint Mary's University of Minnesota

Saint Mary's University of Minnesota's residential undergraduate college campus in Winona is tucked into a scenic southeastern Minnesota Mississippi River valley. The 1,400 students there benefit from the city's-edge location, which is surrounded by scenic wooded buffs and trails used by the greater community for sledding, hiking, running, skiing and disc golfing. Science students at SMU use the trout stream that runs through campus for habitat exploration and research.

The Bachelor of Arts program in the undergraduate college offers 57 liberal arts majors with career preparation and is divided into the schools of Humanities and Sciences, Business, Arts and Education.

The university's Twin Cities campus is located in a diverse Minneapolis neighborhood. The campus is home to most of the programs in the Schools of Graduate and Professional Programs (SGPP); other programs are offered at Winona and satellite locations around Minnesota and Wisconsin. The SGPP serves more than 4,000 adult learners with certificate, bachelor completion, master's, specialist and doctoral programs.

Saint John Baptist de La Salle believed that teachers must teach things relevant to each student's needs, and that educational institutions must meet the changing needs of the urban community. The SGPP offers programming when and where it is needed and constantly adapts to meet the needs of its learners, many of whom are from diverse backgrounds. Unique programs apply theory to daily work situations and are designed with employers; class schedules accommodate working adults.

One form of Lasallian work is carried out at Christ the Teacher Institute for Education (CTIE) at Saint Mary's Nairobi, Kenya campus. The institute's mission is to prepare qualified teachers for secondary schools in Africa, and CTIE graduates are improving the conditions of their communities through education.

Also in Nairobi, the Maryknoll Institute of African Studies of Saint Mary's University offers an intensive learning experience for those who want to learn more about African cultures and religion. A highlight of the program is the field experience, where students research African life by working closely with people in urban and rural areas.

Most recently, Saint Mary's has partnered with the Catholic College of Mandeville to extend its educational mission to Jamaica.

Saint Mary's University is working to make a difference in the world. The characteristics of a Lasallian educational community fellowship, friendliness and care for the individual are demonstrated daily. Faculty know each student by name, and the learning experience doesn't stop at the classroom door. Faculty, staff and students frequently volunteer and work together on community projects.

- Deb Nahrgan

Lewis University

Lewis University's main campus is in Romeoville, Ill., 30 miles southwest of Chicago. It is just enough outside the city to create a comfortable and secluded atmosphere. It provides students with a middle ground between the small towns of north central Illinois and the busy Chicago lifestyle. Lewis' six other campuses are in suburban areas just outside Chicago, creating flexibility and convenience for students, both traditional and working adults.

Because Lewis is so close to Chicago, many professors are working professionals in their fields. This is very valuable for students because they are exposed to the most current education they can receive. They are given first-hand accounts of the "real world" work force, as well as opportunities to take part in and attend lectures and readings. Students also learn from other professionals who work or collaborate with Lewis University faculty through events at campus locations. Its location provides students many opportunities for internships with the hope of better job placement after graduation.

The many degree programs and course offerings attract students from communities around Lewis University, but also other parts of the country. The university also has an international student body, representing more than 30 countries. There are now 3,900 undergraduate students and 1,700 graduate students. Eleven residence halls house more than 1,100 students each year.

Students can participate in more than 30 organizations at the university. Many organizations contribute to inner-city schools and other clubs to help better the education of children.

Lewis has the only aviation program in Illinois with an airport on campus. It also has the Center for Midwest Studies and extensive archives relating to the Illinois and Michigan Canal. The library houses the Canal and Regional History Collection, which includes books, manuscripts, maps and the largest photographic collection of the canal's history and impact. This collection is invaluable to students interested in local history.

Since it was founded in 1932, Lewis has become the 10th-largest private institution in Illinois. It now represents many different cultures and has given many students the opportunity to earn a fruitful education with unending "real-life" resources.

- Madison Seidler