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Saint Mary's College embarks on life as a 'college that changes lives'

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placeholder September 9, 2013   •   VOL. 51, NO. 15   •   Oakland, CA
Saint Mary's College embarks on life
as a 'college that changes lives'

In the latest edition of "Colleges that Change Lives," Saint Mary's College of California is something of an outlier among the 44 institutions of higher learning:

Fall Preview Days

Oct. 12 and Nov. 9

Saint Mary's College of California

1928 Saint Mary's Road

Moraga, CA 94575

Phone: 925-631-4224


It's the only Catholic college.

It's the only California college.

It's the only college with NCAA Division I sports.

Michael McKeon, admissions director at Saint Mary's, has been on a coast-to-coast tour with representatives of other "Colleges That Change Lives." An audience of 500 braved driving rain in Atlanta, he said in a phone call from Raleigh, North Carolina, where 750 people turned out to hear about colleges. Many of the families brought high school juniors, motivated to begin their college search early.

Just how much influence the designation will have on applications to Saint Mary's remains to be seen; this is its first full admissions season on the list. But among admitted students last spring, McKeon said, the designation had a "favorable impact."

Among visitors to campus, McKeon said, Saint Mary's is seeing some changes. "We see people from states we usually don't see," he said, and there is an increased number of visitors who attend prep schools

While representing Saint Mary's on the tour, McKeon also found himself serving as an ambassador for Catholic education to enthusiastic audiences, explaining, for example, the differences among some of the religious orders that administer the schools.

"It's interesting many people assume all Catholics see the world through the same lens," he said.

He gets to tell the story of academic excellence — liberal arts education is rooted in the Catholic tradition — and the Catholic atmosphere that "influences who we are and what we do."

Saint Mary's also gets some visibility from its athletic program; appearances in the NCAA basketball tournament translates into name recognition.

"Our chief rival is Gonzaga," he might tell a prospect.

Who might answer, "Oh, you are the Gaels."

"We were in the Elite 8 of men's soccer the year before last, and women's tennis and men's golf have had great success," McKeon said, "but basketball starts dialogue."

What does Saint Mary's look for in its freshman class?

"We're looking for a person who can do the work," McKeon said, "and will do the work."

Is the student not only prepared to do the work, he said, "but sufficiently motivated to do the work?"

There's the time and investment of family resources to consider, as well as "the impact of the individual on the rest of the community."

This includes: Will the student be a positive influence and promote cohesiveness?

Saint Mary's looks for students with a strong college preparatory program. But the numbers — grade-point averages and test scores — also require context.

"So many things affect numbers," McKeon said. A student with a 3.5 grade-point average for example, may be the one challenging herself with AP calculus and AP physics, while a student with a 3.9, for example, might not have as challenging courses on her schedule.

Students have the opportunity to tell their stories when they write their applications.

Thirty percent of Saint Mary's students are the first generation of their family to graduate from college; 30 percent would have been eligible for free or reduced lunch at high school.

Trustees will have it no other way, McKeon said. "We are here to serve the poor," he said.

Every Wednesday, from noon to 2 p.m. is community time on the Moraga campus. No classes are scheduled; no meetings held.

"Two hours for people to have no excuse not to get together" is how McKeon describes it. A barbecue is held on one of the quadrangles; the students eat for free; the meal is subsidized for staff and faculty.

A student heaping his plate full of hot dogs and macaroni salad is doing so side by side, with say, a registrar or a professor. It's a time, McKeon said, "to think about each other and why we're here."

"A lovely Saint Mary's tradition," he said.

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