Among the Best

Sept. 18-24, 2003
VOL 122 NO. 32
Among the Best
Students walk toward Grewen Hall on the LeMoyne College campus
By Blessed Sacrament staff/ SUN contributing writers
SUN photo(s) Paul Finch
Catholic colleges and universities are among the country’s most prestigious learning institutions. Polls of America’s best colleges consistently recognize Catholic institutions of higher education as top schools.

What sets apart Catholic college and universities from secular institutions is what makes them so appealing to students and families. Present on campus is a blend of learning, faith tradition and social elements that serves to educate the whole person. “Catholic universities and colleges have something unique to offer students,” said Father Charles Beirne, SJ, president of Le Moyne College. “Students receive an education deeply rooted in liberal arts and sciences and one that offers a distinct combination of faith experience and social justice.” A Jesuit college founded in 1948, Le Moyne was ranked by the 2004 U.S. News & World Report as one of the top master’s schools as well as a “Best Value School: Great School at a Great Price.”

Le Moyne belongs to a network of 26 superior Catholic colleges and universities in New York State. While there is no set-in-stone criterion that characterizes a Catholic education, Catholic institutions maintain similar values and principles. They offer students a solid liberal arts program centered on a strong Catholic identity. Catholic colleges and universities welcome students from all religious backgrounds and provide them with an environment in which religious inquiry and all faith traditions are respected and encouraged. Without forcing points of view or beliefs on students, Catholic colleges and universities broaden students’ understanding of Catholic doctrine in a way that will enable them to live better lives.

Catholic colleges and universities aim to create a framework for students within the Catholic tradition, said Joseph Levesque, president of Niagara University, a Catholic university recognized by the 2004 U.S. News & World Report as a “Best Value School.” “A Catholic university, such as Niagara University, has values that are clear and faithful to the Catholic tradition, and they are professed and taught and lived very clearly and openly across campus,” said Levesque.

Religious studies, though a solid part of the curriculum of Catholic colleges and universities, are only a small part of a Catholic institution according to Levesque. Faith values manifested inside the classroom coincide with all aspects of campus life. Students at Catholic colleges have distinct opportunities to participate in daily Mass, prayer and campus ministry. In the Christian tradition of “care for the whole person,” campus ministry calls students to integrate faith and learning, said Father Bill Dolan, SJ, theological consultant for campus ministry at Le Moyne. “Students deepen their own faith through worship and through sharing their own gifts,” he said.

The Catholic college and university is interested in educating students who will devote themselves to improving the lot of all people, added Father Dolan. Campus ministry is one way a Catholic college or university brings this statement to fruition. The Alternative Break Program at Le Moyne, offered through campus ministry, gives students a chance to travel nationally and abroad to meet and learn from those who suffer from injustice, and to work to alleviate suffering through charity. “The trips are meant to teach students how to incorporate Le Moyne’s five values –– prayer, community, service, simplicity, and social justice into their daily lives while they are in college and beyond,” said Father Dolan. “One way to educate students as a whole is to expose them to other cultures.”

Education of the entire person is a recurring theme of Catholic colleges and universities, said Dr. John Langdon, professor of history at Le Moyne. It was at the core of Le Moyne’s philosophy when he graduated from the college in 1967 and when he returned as a professor in 1971. “At Le Moyne, we try to develop and improve the mental, physical and emotional faculties of our students,” said Langdon. Studies prove that Catholic colleges and universities provide an exceptionally supportive academic and social environment for the students they enroll. This is largely attributed to professors who are profoundly engaged with their students in fulfilling the college’s mission and spirit.

This quality made Beth Elacqua realize Le Moyne was the right college for her. “When I visited Le Moyne I fell in love with who was in it. I met the entire science faculty and it was intriguing to hear that some of them travel as far as from Canandaigua to do what they love,” said Elacqua, a sophomore. “They really take a genuine interest in their students.” Levesque believes the small communities present at Catholic colleges and universities allow professors a greater opportunity for one-on-one attention. Niagara has an enrollment of 3,510 undergraduate and graduate students. The ambiance of Niagara’s close-knit community is one of its many draws. “We have an outstanding faculty that are accomplished teachers who are able to do research and publishing with our students,” Levesque said. “Being a small university that knows each other well, we are able to stress our focus on our students.”

Focusing on the student begins before students arrive on campus at Catholic institutions of higher learning. Administrators know that adjusting to college can be a challenge, especially for first-year students. But schools are rising to the occasion. A wealth of resources is available to assist students at Le Moyne. Three years ago, the college implemented an innovative “learning community” option for in-coming students designed to foster both academic and personal success. The several learning communities existing at Le Moyne help new students get acclimated to college life and make connections with peers, faculty and courses. Learning communities are smaller groups of students who generally take two courses together that center on a particular theme. Some learning communities are focused on specific majors, such as biology; others focus on a specific interest, such as performing arts, and others (called core learning communities) focus on assisting students with the transition from high school to college. Typically, first-year students in learning communities are assigned to the same residence hall and the same floor.

Learning communities make it easy for students to learn cooperatively and meet students with interests similar to their own, according to Tamara Westlake, coordinator of academic initiatives at Le Moyne. “Learning communities are a great way for students to transition from high school to college,” Westlake said. “There are issues that can wreak havoc on a student’s first year. By joining a group of students with similar interests learning communities help alleviate some of these problems.” Thomas Tarbox, a sophomore at Le Moyne, said that learning communities made his journey to college easier by allowing the performing arts major to meet other students in the same field of study. “The most important benefit of a learning community is networking,” said Tarbox. “College revolves around networking and knowing people. If you know people who are interested in similar things, there is a better chance you will succeed.” Meeting students with similar interests is just one of the many benefits for students who enroll in a learning community. Participation in learning communities bridges the gap between classes and residential life, pointed out Westlake. Faculty members who teach learning community courses meet periodically with resident life staff to keep an open line of communication between academics and residence life. These meetings are valuable for students, said Westlake. “Sometimes there can be a disconnect between what students learn in the classrooms and what they take home,” said Westlake. “Speaking with a resident advisor [R.A.] or a resident director [R.D.] will help a professor to see why a student is not performing well –– maybe the student has living issues that are making him/her unsuccessful that the R.A./R.D. can explain to him/her.”

Students are reaping the benefits of learning collaboratively and relationship building. Elacqua is an R.A. in St. Mary’s Hall at Le Moyne. As a first-year student she belonged to a biology learning community with ten other young women. Now, as an R.A., Elacqua works with young women in the biology learning community. Learning communities are valuable learning and social tools, she said. “Students in learning communities appreciate the fact that if we do not understand something said in class, we can walk down a span of six or seven rooms and find someone who is able to steer us in the right direction,” remarked Elacqua, who was also a part of a biology learning community as a first-year student. “You are learning and forming bonds with your peers.”

Currently, there are approximately 120 students participating in a learning community (either curricular or residential) at Le Moyne. The living-learning option has caught on rapidly with colleges. Westlake believes learning communities are a viable option for higher education institutions hoping to retain students during the challenging first year of college. “Students typically leave or transfer during their first year of college. Colleges are recognizing that when you offer students opportunities such as learning communities, students are more likely to experience higher levels of satisfaction both academically and personally,” she said. The admiration and affection of the public for Catholic colleges and universities is reflected in the professors and students who fill their halls. It is not a coincidence that students are happier at Catholic colleges and universities and have a better chance of graduating in four years than at a secular college. When an institution exists that nourishes academic, spiritual and social needs, its students meet success not only in the classroom, but also in life as well.

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