Breaking Away

This is a breakaway year.

I don’t mean breaking away from the past, or any particular thing that might have constrained us. I mean breaking away from the pack, pulling ahead of our competitors, ready to take a big leap.

Our inclusion in the recent publication of Colleges That Change Lives[i], announced in an earlier campus message, and our distinction of being the first Catholic and the first California institution among the 40 colleges cited, certainly signals a breakthrough in public awareness about who we are and what we do. When editor Hilary Masell Oswald visited campus last year, five years after the most recent edition of the book, we talked about what I found distinctive about Saint Mary’s. This was shortly after the release of Academically Adrift[ii], so I focused on the “value proposition” of Saint Mary’s. I have always believed, and continue to believe, that we are exceptional in surpassing expectations about how much our students can achieve relative to their preparedness. Our faculty cited in Colleges That Change Lives – Myrna Santiago, Shawny Anderson, Robert Bulman, Steve Cortright, Denise Witzig – are clear and compelling in their articulation of the difference Saint Mary’s makes. If you read the chapter, you’ll find students also citing the contributions of our science faculty and our staff.

There are good reasons for us to get this recognition now, at this particular point in Saint Mary’s history. According to this year’s National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE) results, our freshmen and seniors rate us higher than students at “Far West Private,” “Carnegie Masters-Large Institutions,” and “Catholic Consortium Schools” in all five NSSE indicators of Effective Educational Practice: Level of Academic Challenge, Active and Collaborative Learning, Student-Faculty Interaction, Enriching Educational Experiences, and Supportive Campus Environment.[iii] In many cases, these results were the strongest they’ve ever been at Saint Mary’s. Our CIRP College Senior Survey for 2012 shows the highest level of self-reported skill improvement we’ve ever had in 12 of 15 categories (e.g., understanding of national and global issues, critical thinking and problem solving, leadership skills, knowledge of different peoples) – and higher than “4-year Catholics” and “Privates” in every single category.[iv]

Accolades apply to our graduate and professional programs as well. According to our most recent alumni survey, over half of our graduate students received a raise and/or a promotion after earning their degree; over three-fourths are likely to hire a Saint Mary’s College graduate; 94% of respondents say their degree prepared them for work in their field; and 93% said the education and degree was worth the cost. We are delivering value and making an impact across all of our academic programs.

Of course, these are the reports provided by our students, and they reflect student satisfaction and perceived improvement, rather than measures of actual performance that can be compared outside of the College. This is part of the assessment challenge to both validate what we do and give us the information we need to improve.

At the same time, the Saint Mary’s model of shared inquiry in inclusive community, while never completely captured by surveys and standardized assessments, provides the distinctiveness that enables us to break away. The 150-year history that we celebrate this year provides clues about the paths that converged to bring us to our present identity.

When Saint Mary’s was founded, the Christian Brothers started by giving immigrant boys the education that was most relevant to their lives – at that time, degree programs included commerce, civil engineering, and law as well as classical languages of Greek and Latin (which, by the way, the Church in Rome told the Brothers to stop doing. The Brothers kept teaching Greek and Latin for over 20 years until the ban was lifted). Over the decades, the Brothers added a debating society, art, and theater. During WWI, 856 Saint Mary’s students served our country in battle. In 1942, during WWII, Saint Mary’s was one of four naval, pre-flight training locations in the country. My father attended that naval academy. And around the same time, we launched the program that would eventually become Collegiate Seminar.

The Christian Brothers have always known that education transforms, that it serves humanity, and that great ideas aren’t just in great books, they’re in us. They’ve known that to think really well, you’ve got to assume you don’t have all the answers. You’ve got to take chances. You’ve got to hear some things you might not like. They’ve taught us that being their partners at this particular Catholic college requires the engagement of all learners, of all faiths, and of those with no faith at all.

The Brothers at Saint Mary’s began by providing students with career preparation infused with love and spiritual support, a blend of vocational training and faith. Their Lasallian catechetics “respects the individuality of each person…. (It) begins by taking into account the character, the social situation, and the personal vocation of each student” and brings students “to the point where they can take over progressively the work of their own formation...."[v] This commitment grew to be embraced by all who are educational partners in this unique, Saint Mary’s College community.

Along the way, the Brothers increasingly recognized and encouraged the intellectual as well as professional life of students. They built a liberal arts foundation to expand the “discovery of the secrets of the universe… (that) gives rise to questions about the ultimate meaning of things.”[vi] The Brothers charged themselves with creating the communities of conversation where ultimate meaning could be examined and human potential could be unleashed.

Great conversations require us to think deeply, speak well, and participate in a diverse community of shared inquiry. As Saint Mary’s emerged from the first 100 years, two concurrent trajectories – the focus on transforming students through education, and the importance of shared discovery as being a key to transformation – came together. Now, at 150 years, Saint Mary’s has become a place of discovery, shared by a diverse community of partners, where the Church can do its most inclusive and broad thinking, intersecting faith and reason, and centered on students with the understanding that their discovery of a life worth living is our most important mission.

That really does, as our Brother President Ronald Gallagher has said, “set us apart.” We are breaking away; hang on and enjoy the ride.

Beth Dobkin

[i] Pope, L. (Author) with Oswald, H.M. (Editor, 2012). Colleges That Change Lives: 40 Schools That Will Change the Way You Think About Colleges. NY: Penguin.

[ii] Arum, R. and Roska, J. (2011). Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses. Chicago: U. of Chicago Press.

[v] The Brothers of the Christian Schools of the World Today: A Declaration (1967).

[vi] Ibid.