Projects challenge students to grow in faith, knowledge

Catholic colleges and universities across the country are engaging students with unique programs aimed at helping them grow in faith and knowledge.

The Fred Rogers Center at St. Vincent College in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, was developed in the spirit of Fred Rogers, the iconic host of the PBS children’s television series “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.” On another part of campus, the college’s Bearcat B.E.S.T. program incorporates the school’s Benedictine mission of service to others by giving special-needs students a college experience while transitioning from high school to independence.

At St. Catharine College in St. Catharine, Kentucky, the partnership with the nearby Berry Center is a good fit for living the Catholic commitment to the social justice of land stewardship and community engagement.

And at St. Anselm College in Manchester, New Hampshire, the course on women in prison takes the students behind the walls of a prison where they witness the human side of the issue rather than just theory and statistics.

Childhood learning

Fred Rogers was a Latrobe native and a friend of Archabbot Douglas Nowicki, and the center at St. Vincent College that includes Rogers’ archives was being planned before the television host died in 2003. The program at St. Vincent focuses on giving meaning to technology while helping children to grow “as confident, competent and caring human beings.” Participants, including the selected Rogers Scholars, hail from a number of disciplines.

“There are business majors who want to work in the children’s media business, and science majors who plan to become pediatricians,” said Mary Beth Spore, dean of Social Services, Communications and Education, and associate professor of education. “There are students who have an interest in child psychology, children’s studies, early education, children’s literature, film, digital learning, teaching and many applications. I see this as part of a more pervasive and growing interest in all issues concerning children, not just in the digital media field but also in their well-being, health, poverty issues and justice.”

Rogers Scholar Adam Burgh of suburban Pittsburgh was attracted to the program by his desire to continue Rogers’ work.

“I loved watching Mister Rogers when I was a kid,” he said. “That absolutely influenced my decision, and this will enable me to learn some great strategies from an amazing teacher. My goal is to become a high school history teacher, and I plan to use a lot of media in my classroom. This will work nicely with that.”

Rogers Scholar Julianne Bartko of McKeesport, Pennsylvania, is a senior communications major with a minor in children’s studies.

“I have come to understand the power of media in the lives of children and how important it is to create meaningful, creative and educational content,” she said. “As my televised neighbor in my childhood, Mister Rogers illustrated important lessons centered on creativity, quiet time, making mistakes, personal communication and so much more.”

His legacy of becoming a compassionate voice for the social and emotional development of children is consistent with St. Vincent’s mission, and with the Church’ teachings on human dignity. His quiet times with children have been compared to silent prayer.

“Fred Rogers always reminded us about the children that nobody paid attention to, the children who didn’t have the advantages that other children have. They are like the children sitting around your dinner table,” Spore said. “I think that tugs at the heartstrings of our students.”

Special education

The acronym in the Bearcat B.E.S.T. program stands for Building Excellence through Skills Training. Benedictine Father Philip Kanfush, the program’s executive director, is a board certified behavior analyst, licensed behavior specialist, a certified brain injury specialist and has multiple teaching certifications. He developed the grant-funded program at the request of parents of teenagers with intellectual and developmental disabilities, and it was launched in the fall of 2015. The spring semester has 11 students from Westmoreland County school districts who are eligible for free special education until age 21.

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Students participate in the Bearcat B.E.S.T. program. Courtesy photo

Classes are held in the former coffee house of the monastery’s historic grist mill. Courses include language arts skills, public speaking, writing, personal finances and banking, emotional regulation and social, vocational and employment skills. Students can audit certain regular classes, and they have full access to campus life.

“They have lunch in the cafeteria and can participate in and even plan student activities,” Father Kanfush said. “One belongs to the equestrian club, some go to yoga classes, and one of our guys volunteers as a manager with our women’s basketball team. Others are working with a team of undergrads doing research at the Rogers Center.”

Students who age out of the program may have opportunities to continue in the future.

“We want to work with the kids and mold them in the hopes that their dreams and interests can come true,” Father Kanfush said.

Ecology

According to its website, the Berry Farming and Ecological Agrarianism Program at St. Catharine College in Kentucky “is founded on the lifework of activist, farmer and writer Wendell Berry.” It reflects the pillars of prayer, study and community of the founding Dominican Sisters of St. Catharine, who run a nearby cattle ranch.

Shawn Lucas, assistant professor of sustainable agriculture, called the program a vision that moves beyond the very essential level of scientific basis by incorporating a holistic attitude of agriculture and the community.

Testimonial
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Spaulding

The Berry Farming Program really ties into the pope’s encyclical regarding the environment. Caring for the earth is a duty of our Catholic faith, and we have a moral obligation to protect the planet. ... This program has given me the challenge to live a life more economically, socially and culturally responsible and to draw connections between people, the land and food.”

“The practice of sustainable agriculture is related to both the social and ecological justice tenets that are bound up in the Dominican pillars,” he said. “Our program articulates well with Catholic social justice, and I think through community leadership, we are trying to be good stewards of the land.”

The program offers a bachelor’s degree and minors that merge the sciences and the arts, and the classes may be taken for general educational requirements.

Students are studying production systems that will benefit local farmers and are educating people about how economics, policies and laws affect the farming community. They are interested in community leadership that can improve lives, create jobs and stop the exodus from rural areas.

“So this is definitely drawing in more than people who are interested in farming or in sustainability or ecology issues,” said Leah Bayens, program coordinator and chair of the earth studies department.

The program started in 2013, and the first cohort is set to graduate in May. Students have interned with farms and organizations, including a Catholic Charities program that teaches refugees how to produce food. They’re involved in farm markets, educational outreach, working in the fields of the campus farm and planning spring crops for the college’s new Homeplace Farm.

The Berry Center program is expanding with a focus on better practices for increasing stewardship of the land on small to mid-size sustainable farms.

“Ultimately, we are working to build a community-based food system,” Lucas said.

Social justice

When Alexandra Williamson of Saugus, Massachusetts, signed up for the Women in Prison course last semester at St. Anselm College in Manchester, New Hampshire, she initially didn’t know that they’d meet half the time at the nearby New Hampshire Correctional Facility for Women.

Williamson, a senior psychology major, declined Professor Elaine Rizzo’s option for students to drop the course that might stretch them beyond their comfort zone. They would have to undergo background checks and orientation at the prison, travel off campus, then hurry back for their next class.

“It was a [once-in-a-] lifetime opportunity that I would not be able to get anywhere else,” Williamson said. “I stayed in the course.”

The experience reflected the Benedictine founders’ mission to encourage the lifelong pursuit of the truth and to facilitate students’ intellectual, moral and spiritual growth.

The class had nine students and six participating inmates.

“That’s not unusual for the topic,” Rizzo said. “Courses involving women and crime don’t draw a lot of students. It’s a more specialized area, and students are more attracted to courses that deal with violence, drugs and things that are covered more by the media.”

Students weren’t permitted to ask about the crimes, but the inmates voluntarily told personal stories about addictions and sexual and other abuse.

“One of the biggest lessons for my students was that they all went in with preconceived notions about who criminals are, and they all said they changed their outlook,” Rizzo said.

Senior psychology major Kayla Lanagan, 22, from North Dartmouth, Massachusetts, came away from the class knowing that the women “are not their crime.”

“This idea has stuck with me regarding the world at large,” she said. “People are not their mistakes, and no one is born inherently bad. I went into class knowing that these women would teach us more than we could learn in a lecture of power points, but I had no idea how much each one would bring to the table.”

Williamson learned that female inmates are judged more harshly than men because, she said, “In our society, it’s sadly more acceptable and expected for a male to be incarcerated.”

The students gained a better understanding of the perplexity of crime and punishment — and of Catholic positions on social justice. They explored the issues of punishment for the sake of punishment versus restoration of the offender, the victim and the community.

“There’s an understanding that there are ways to respond to crime that maintains human dignity and allows for strengthening the community and working with the offender in a much more comprehensive way,” Rizzo said. “Mercy is one of the things that my students started thinking about, and that’s important, especially in this Year of Mercy.”

Maryann Gogniat Eidemiller writes from Pennsylvania.

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