Wednesday, February 24, 2016

St. Mary's College of California: Liberal Arts with a Catholic Core

Liberal arts seems to be getting short shrift these days.  A recent article in the New York Times reports that some states are considering cutting funding of liberal arts to increase funding for STEM programs. 

Luckily, some colleges still promote liberal arts through their curricula and discussion-based pedagogy.  St. Mary’s College of California is one, and it is this emphasis on the liberal arts that earned it a place among the Colleges that Change Lives Consortium.

I have just returned from a visit to St.Mary’s College, only a short drive away in Moraga, yet its pastoral and serene setting making it seem much farther from the hustle-bustle of the San Francisco Bay Area peninsula.  In a discussion with Associate Admissions Director Patrick Lorenzo, my colleagues and I learned about the school’s Lasallian mission of “entering to learn, leaving to serve.”  The Christian Brothers founders’ core principles stress “quality education,” an “inclusive community, and “concern for the poor and social justice.”   These were all evident during our visit to the school as we encountered friendly and helpful students, witnessed service outreach programs, and learned about a new program launched in religious pluralism.

Required courses at St. Mary’s include a one semester per year humanities or Great Books class and two courses in religion—the first is a kind of “Bible as literature” analysis and the second can be one of many options from explorations of other religions to Christianity to ethics and philosophy.  The school’s “jewel” program span across its three schools of business, liberal and sciences: biology, psychology, communications, English, Political Science, marketing and finance and a new business concentration in digital media. 

In addition to the liberal arts curriculum, the school operates on a traditional small college 4-1-4 calender with a very popular “Jan Term,” or 4 week term for students to explore non-traditional

classes and accompany faculty on world-wide travel for academic or service purposes.  Our tour guide had just returned from a month in Italy exploring Renaissance art.  Semester long study abroad programs are also popular with St. Mary’s students.

Despite its broad and inclusive curriculum and community, St. Mary’s “vibe” is still quite Catholic.  Chapel attendance is optional yet there appears to be no other on campus worship opportunities for students of other faiths.  Crucifixes adorn hallways in classroom buildings, even inside the brand-new recreation center with its gleaming exercise machines and climbing wall. Some non-religious or students of other faiths may feel uncomfortable here.  Nonetheless, the college is clearly making efforts to open dialogue about faith and other faiths and its commitment to open and critical inquiry through the liberal arts is noteworthy.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Sonoma State University Highlights

Some counselor colleagues and I took an extensive tour of Sonoma State University’s campus yesterday.  What a beautiful place and convenient location—a two hours drive from the Bay Area, just far enough away for many students, with easy access both to the coast and to the Sierra Nevada mountains.

In addition to admiring the bucolic campus, we were impressed by the residential housing for undergraduates, particularly the freshman complex where all students are in themed units divided in
suites combining singles and doubles.  More than fifty percent of sophomores also live on campus and upper class students find affordable apartments and houses to share nearby.
While the university’s most popular majors include business, psychology, sociology, biology and kinesiology our tour guide also noted the criminal justice and environmental studies majors and highlighted the competitive pre-nursing and BS Nursing program.  I was particularly struck by Sonoma’s State faculty/student ratio of fewer than 30 students per class.  

Another innovative program is the Hutchins School of Liberal Studies where students can simultaneously pursue an inter-disciplinary major and earn an elementary education teaching credential in four years.  This program gives students a chance to interact in small seminars with impressive faculty in art history, history of science, geography, and anthropology, among other disciplines and reminds me of similar programs in private liberal arts colleges.

Finally, we had a chance to tour Sonoma’s new (2011) world-class Green Music Center, which brings renowned musicians in all many genres to exquisitely designed Weill Hall and not only gives Sonoma State students access to concerts but also is used by the Music Department for performances and rehearsals. 

Students and families considering a relatively low-cost school with impressive programs, small classes, excellent residential options, and an attractive location, should add Sonoma State University to their college list.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Considerations for developing the college list: small liberal arts schools and out of state public universities

I’ve written previous blog posts about visiting small liberal arts colleges and the benefits of an education at a small school: close relationships with and mentoring from faculty, small class sizes,
and the chance to be a “big fish in a small pond,” among others. 

If you’d like to learn more about specific schools and why a liberal arts education might be the right fit for your son or daughter, you may want to attend an upcoming presentation on “Colleges that Change Lives” at Sequoia High School in Redwood City on Thursday, February 18.  Maria Furtado, Executive Director of this consortium of small liberal arts colleges will discuss college rankings and popular misperceptions about college admission, the strength and worth of a liberal arts education, and offer tips for students and parents on how to manage the college search.

On another note, I’ve noticed a trend in the past few years of my advisees applying to out of state public institutions. Some do this because of the increasing competitiveness of the University of California schools.  But others are attracted to large research universities for different reasons—school spirit, excellent facilities or specific academic programs.  A recent article in the Washington Post analyzes this trend.

Whether your high school student is considering a large university or a small private college, informing yourself now about the advantages and disadvantages of each will help you as you guide your child in developing his or his college list—and as you consider the financial investment you will make.