Integrating academia and student life

In The Idea of a University, Blessed John Henry Newman has some remarkable comments about university education, particularly if that education is Catholic.

“I only say, if there be Religious Truth at all, we cannot shut our eyes to it without prejudice to truth of every kind, physical, metaphysical, historical, and moral; for it bears upon all truth” (Cluny Media, 2016, p. 49). And another: In the liberal arts education, “the conversation of all is a series of lectures to each, and they gain for themselves new ideas and views, fresh matter of thought, and distinct principles for judging and acting day by day” (p. 114).

It is difficult to think of very many Catholic universities that integrate both strains of thought—On one hand, the Catholic faith’s influence on all the disciplines within the university, and on the other hand, students and teachers in active conversation with each other, constantly learning one from the other. However, at the University of Mary in Bismarck, N.D., these two elements of Newman’s theory about the Catholic university are being implemented through an innovative and unique way in their Residence Life Scholars program.

This program is remarkable because it integrates both academia and the personal lives of the students. Those who have recently earned their doctorates in areas such as theology, philosophy, literature, history, art history, or a related field, are hired both to teach classes in their particular disciplines and to live on campus in one of the residence halls. The program started small, with one Residence Life Scholar (RLS) living in freshmen female and male residence halls, respectively, but with this coming academic year there are plans to include sophomore residence halls as well.

The RLS lives with the students, prays with the students, and is available to answer questions relating to any topic of concern. In addition to his or her own discipline, this scholar also teaches courses in UMary’s Catholic Studies Program, founded by Dr. Don Briel, whose recent passing will leave a gap in the development and promotion of Catholic education.

In such a way, the scholars are meant to embody Newman’s principles of Catholic university life: Academia is not strictly for the classroom, but should also flow into everyday living, which includes the spiritual life of the students and teachers.

“I want to be a professor who impacts students,” Dr. Julie Yarwood told me. She is an assistant professor of history and resides in the hall for freshman women. Yarwood was the first RLS to join the program. “It was really important to me to find a position at a university that saw the formation of the whole person as essential.”

Although many have noted the divide between the academic and student life at universities, few have sought to integrate them. The RLS program has done just that, with testimonies from the students to prove it. “Their [the RLS] example is inspiring. Their presence helps me become a more holistic person,” said Shanna Stevenson, a UMary senior, majoring in elementary education and psychology. She cites the fact that seeing the scholars at Mass, praying in the residence hall chapels, or simply grading papers on weekends has helped her to be inspired in her own personal life.

Blane Schriock, a sophomore majoring in theology and philosophy, with a minor in Catholic Studies, told me that Residence Life Scholars “shape us as whole persons through [embodying] the Benedictine values. If we only see them in the classroom, we’re not able to see them as a whole person; we don’t know anything about their lives.” Such a presence, it would seem, is essential for young students, especially freshmen, who are away from home for perhaps the first time. As evidenced in the testimonies of the students, the presence of the RLS in the residence halls has certainly shaped their personal and spiritual lives for the better, giving them a solid example of someone truly living the Catholic faith.

Not only does this integrative program positively influence the spiritual lives of the students, it allows them to see that the teachers are people too, with individual lives, who are doing their best to live out the Catholic faith. Moreover, as Dr. John Macias, assistant professor of philosophy and the RLS in the North Hall for freshman men, explained, “Half the students I know I haven’t had in class…. I’ve been able to attend many of their events, such as games or performances…. The students see that I am not just a teacher, but a person.” This close interaction enables students to feel freer to approach the RLS with questions about assignments, approaching professors, and many other—perhaps difficult—situations.

Macias gave a specific example of how he has helped shape the student life community in his residence hall. Along with his RA, he has helped to establish households throughout the hall, all named after inspiring Catholic men, including St. Thomas More, Blessed Pierre Giorgio Frassati, Karol Wojtyła (Pope St. John Paul II), St. Maximillian Kolbe, J.R.R. Tolkien, and Vince Lombardi.

These men were “Catholic in different sorts of ways,” says Macias. “Four saints and two individuals who are not yet canonized; several clergy, several laymen, some singles, a writer, a football coach.” Macias hopes to establish a legacy with these households, so that someday, a senior who sees a freshman wearing a T-shirt from one of these households can approach him and share a common bond, having been in the same household in his own freshman year.

Raymond Young V, a junior majoring in business administration and minoring in Catholic Studies is full of praise for Macias’ work: “I see the fruit of what he’s doing with different students. When he hosts chili or gumbo nights, those community building times with the professors are really important for the students.”

An essential feature of the program is its emphasis on the university’s Benedictine—community, prayer, service, hospitality, moderation, and respect for persons. UMary focuses on one of these values each month, and RLS plays a vital role in planning activities surrounding that value, helping the students to think about how it influences their daily lives.

Yarwood told me how the month of April will focus on one of the secondary Benedictine values, conversatio, which means “manner of life.” The university chose conversatio for one of the final months of the school year so that students could consider how they have changed throughout the academic year. How have they grown spiritually? How have their Catholic lives deepened? The RLS, along with the Resident Assistants in each of the residence halls, seeks to stimulate discussion about these kinds of questions while reflecting on Benedictine values with the students.

Yarwood believes that the RLS program is filling a gap in Catholic education, a gap that Newman saw long ago. “The same questions being asked by Newman are being asked today. What does that mean in this context? What does that mean for this world? We have a history and a tradition to draw from: How are we going to do that, given our culture today?”

The RLS program is answering the questions about education being asked today, all within the history and tradition of Newman’s Idea of a University. As can be seen through the testimonies of the students, this program has been such a success that it is expanding. UMary is looking for qualified individuals in three positions: one female for the freshman female residence hall (here), and two for the male and female sophomore residence halls respectively (here and here). The hope is to continue the experience of having an RLS beyond freshman year, to help address the specific needs of being a sophomore. Interested parties may send a letter of interest and a resume here.

In short, UMary’s Residence Life Scholar program is addressing important needs within the culture of a Catholic campus, most especially by integrating the academic, personal, spiritual, and moral life of the students. Given its success, this program is sure to set a precedent for other Catholic campuses that are similarly striving to strengthen their students, thereby enabling them to enter into modern society with the essential spiritual tools that such an integrative education offers.

VERONICA ARNTZ graduated from Wyoming Catholic College with a degree in the classical liberal arts. She is pursuing a Master of Arts degree in theology from the Augustine Institute.

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