Students are seen in a collegiate seminar class in 2011 at Saint Mary's College of California
Alison Wiley/CNS, Saint Mary's College
Saint Mary's among schools said to 'change lives'
The "kind of complete community" Saint Mary's College of California creates "attracts student, faculty and staff who really want to be engaged," said the school's president, Christian Brother Ronald Gallagher.
That community is getting some national recognition with the inclusion of Saint Mary's in the 2013 edition of the guidebook "Colleges That Changes Lives: 40 Schools That Will Change the Way You Think About Colleges." Saint Mary's is among the top 40 U.S. colleges cited in the book — and the only Catholic college and the only one in California.
"It's that kind of community that the book stresses is part of that strong relationship between students and faculty and staff," Brother Gallagher said in a telephone interview with Catholic News Service.
The selection of Saint Mary's for the book makes "our students, alumni and faculty proud, especially since it's our 150th anniversary this year," he added.
The Lasallian liberal arts college describes itself as being "rooted in the life and work of St. John Baptist de La Salle," founder of the Christian Brothers and patron saint of teachers.
The evaluations of schools for the guidebook are based on professor, administration and student assessments; the progress of graduates; and the school's culture overall.
For example, one factor the book considers is the results of a survey that some Saint Mary's seniors complete called the Cooperative Institutional Research Program conducted by the Higher Education Research Institute at the University of California at Los Angeles. In it, students gave reviews that outscored students from other schools in several areas.
According to the book, more than 61 percent of Saint Mary's seniors say their knowledge is much stronger than it was when they arrived as freshmen, compared with 51 percent of students at other colleges. About 56 percent say their critical thinking skills are much stronger, compared with 47 percent at other colleges.
Lastly, 41 percent of Saint Mary's students say they are much more able to get along with people of other races and cultures upon graduation, compared with 27 percent at other institutions.
The book highlights aspects of the school such as its diversity. One-third of the students are eligible for federal Pell grants, which are based on financial need; half are ethnic minorities; and 95 percent of the professors have a doctorate in their field.
The nonprofit organization Colleges That Change Lives was created after Loren Pope, education editor of The New York Times, wrote a book with the same title. Pope died in 2008; Denver-based education journalist Hilary Masell Oswald currently revises the guidebook.
The original book, released in 1996, highlighted the 40 schools Pope thought provided the best college experience based on nontraditional evaluations. In 1998, the same-named organization began partnering with colleges to educate families and students on how to choose a college that is right for them.
Marty O'Connell is currently executive director of the Colleges That Change Lives. Representatives of the organization have been traveling around the country for 15 years, speaking to growing audiences of no fewer than 400 anxious students and parents anxious about how to choose the right school.
To evaluate a school, O'Connell told CNS, "you need to know how to ask the right questions. Saint Mary's does that, they encourage students to ask if this is a good fit, they don't try to strong arm you into going to their institution. We are very proud to have them as part of our membership."
Besides the academics, culture and postgraduate reviews of the school, a feature that made it into the book is the look of the campus itself. Saint Mary's takes such pride in its aesthetics, school officials call it the "most beautiful campus on the West Coast."
Greeting students and visitors on campus is the chapel guarded by a statue of St. John Baptist de La Salle with the school's motto inscribed on it: "Enter to Learn. Leave to Serve."
The motto is "not terribly sexy, especially for the typical 18-year-old. But Saint Mary's sticks with it. It's a guiding principle important to 21st century students and alumni — and to American culture," said the book.
The school's roots are what 2006 graduate Jahmese Myres would say made all the difference. Currently working in the area of workers' rights and economic justice, Myres drew what she calls her "professional and personal" calling from the community at Saint Mary's.
"The deciding factor in choosing Saint Mary's was the warm reception that you get when you're there from the campus community," she told CNS.
Myres leaned on the campus community at the end of her college career when her mother died and faculty, staff and students came to her funeral services.