Strength Beyond Numbers

Many new members – students, staff and faculty – have joined Saint Mary’s College in the past few weeks, adding to the depth, talent and diversity of our educational community.

We greeted 801 new undergraduates, 626 of them new first-year students, and have continued the trend of increasing academic preparedness among them, with 25% holding “Honors at Entrance” designation and increases in both standardized test scores (e.g., SAT average of 1124, up from 1119 last year) and high school grade point average (from 3.58 to 3.61). We continue to attract first-generation students (37%), and over half of our students (55%) identify themselves as students of color. Our sustained growth in Latino students (26%) brings us closer to meeting our objective of becoming a federally recognized Hispanic-Serving Institution. Female students make up 59% of our entering class. The attached charts and tables provide additional detail and historical trends regarding our newest undergraduates.

We have also welcomed new staff, faculty and graduate students at numerous orientations and workshops. The Academic Senate reception for new faculty members follows the regularly scheduled 3 p.m. meeting on Thursday, September 12, in the Soda Center. Please extend warm greetings to these members of our community. (Learn more about our new faculty members.)

The welcoming will continue next month with the October 11 installation of our new president, Dr. James A. Donahue. This ceremony will be preceded by an interactive discussion of the question: “Catholic Liberal Arts Education in the 21st Century: Who Cares?” on Thursday, October 10, at 7 p.m. in the Soda Center. We will invite members of the audience to join in conversation with our own president as well as participants Dr. Mary Lyons, president, University of San Diego; Monsignor Robert Sheeran, former president of Seton Hall University; and Brother Mark McVann, FSC, professor of Theology and Religious Studies here at SMC. Of course, discussions such as these are a regular feature of life at the College because we care; we understand the indispensible need for human connection and community, the necessity of liberal arts education in a vibrant democracy, the value of an education that is both personally fulfilling and practical, and the power of exploring intersections of faith and reason. Our community is composed of people who have dedicated their lives to advancing social justice as Lasallian educators. 

The most recent edition of Educational Perspectives, a collection of essays solicited by former president Brother Ron Gallagher, offers multiple views about who we are, what we do and why we do it. Jim Sciuto, associate dean of students, notes his “responsibility to guide our students in reflecting on their impact in the world” and the role of our community in providing a “sprit and education” that remain with students forever. Underscoring the power of Catholic higher education, Monica Fitzgerald, associate professor of Liberal and Civic Studies, writes, “I have the freedom to not be neutral, but to create classes that focus on social justice and serve as a call to action for my students….” Jennifer Heung, associate professor of Anthropology, writes about Lasallian pedagogy as acknowledging the “whole person” and recognizing “that each student, instructor, and even teaching moment can be filled with imperfections…. Students start to notice that nearly all aspects of their lives can be areas of discovery and learning…(and) transform from hesitant but interested students into confident and engaged learners.” Rebecca Proehl, professor of Educational Leadership, explains the development of her Lasallian pedagogy:  “…I no longer view (students) simply as self-directed learners who are capable of managing their educational experience… I want my (them) to be touched by their educational journey, inspired to be advocates for social justice, and willing to be risk-takers for innovation.” In addition to echoing our Catholic and liberal arts foundations, these staff and faculty members call attention to Lasallian pedagogy as engaging the uniqueness of our diverse students and calling them to a life of thoughtful reflection and social responsibility.

Articulating arguments about why we care about Catholic liberal arts education and our distinctive, Lasallian pedagogical approach to it is important not just for our own community, but also to those who seek to understand us. During our Sesquicentennial, we showcased shared inquiry, academic excellence and social justice with structured dialogues on issues ranging from interfaith issues and the Catholic intellectual tradition to multidisciplinary approaches to poverty, justice and citizenship. These events, which we called our Great(est) Conversation(s), will continue as a signature feature of our educational community. I invite you to continue proposing events for sponsorship as Great(est) Conversation(s) that contribute to our academic distinction and community of inquiry. (Learn how to submit a Great(est) Conversation(s) proposal.)

Our challenges are multifaceted: continue our trajectory of academic excellence in teaching, scholarship and creative activity; present the enduring, essential quality of the Saint Mary’s educational experience to an increasingly unknowing and skeptical public; increase affordable access to the students most likely to thrive as members of our community; and promote the holistic success of students who have made significant intellectual, social and material investments in us. We have much evidence of success; for instance, this year we reached a new high in undergraduate four-year graduation rates, as 57% of students who entered the college in 2009 graduated in four years, an increase of 7% from five years ago. These achievements are among those captured in our Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC) self-study to be submitted later this month as part of our off-site institutional review in December.

Our readiness to meet the challenge of the changing higher educational landscape is demonstrated across campus, from our formal institutional reports to the discussions we hold at staff workshops and faculty meetings, and the insight, expertise and diversity of our newest members will help ensure the continued success of our students and the inclusive excellence of our community. Please join me in extending our warmest welcome to them throughout the coming year.

Beth Dobkin