Students begin class at new two-year college at St. Thomas

| September 11, 2017 | 0 Comments

From left, Andrea Mena Rodgriguez, Xavier Abdullahi, Jessica Lopez, Cin Morris and Esteban Farfan talk after class Sept. 7 at the Minneapolis campus of the University of St. Thomas. All are students of the new two-year Dougherty Family College. Dave Hrbacek/The Catholic Spirit

On a campus accustomed to law and business graduate students, a new class of undergraduates was immersed in a biology project identifying birds Sept. 7, the first day of classes for the University of St. Thomas’ new two-year Dougherty Family College.

University president Julie Sullivan had a two-year college in mind early on when she took St. Thomas’ helm in 2013. She recalled being asked by a CEO mentor about that goal for the Twin Cities Catholic institution.

“Ten, 20 years from now, I want people to be looking up at these skyscrapers; I want them to be filled with Tommies, but I want the demographics of those Tommies to represent the demographics of the state,” she said.

She said that vision resembles the Arrupe College program at Loyola University in Chicago, which helps low-income students work toward a four-year college degree and professional career. She learned about the program from its founding dean, Jesuit Father Steve Katsouros, and shared the ideas with her faculty.

The first 107 students at Dougherty Family College begin that foundation for Sullivan’s vision. Many of the students come as first-generation college students from low-income families as they seek opportunity.

“It’s a dream that came true because St. Thomas has been my No. 1 [choice] ever since I was a [high school] freshman,” said Jessica Lopez, a student from Rockford who said her family couldn’t afford to send her to college. “I can’t believe I got this opportunity.”

Dougherty Family College opened to accommodate such students so they can advance to a four-year institution after obtaining an associate of arts degree. Tuition and fees are $15,000 for the 2017-2018 academic year, but with financial aid, actual tuition is as low as $1,000 for the students with greatest need. Benefactors support a portion of the college’s expenses.

Among those benefactors are the college’s namesakes, Mike and Kathy Dougherty, alumni of St. Thomas and the College of St. Catherine in St. Paul, respectively.

“There’s a gap in the achievement of bachelor’s degrees for low-income students who have been educationally under-served,” said Alvin Abraham, the founding dean of the college. “We know that a college degree can support them long term.”

The students take the same core courses that the University of St. Thomas requires, and the credits can transfer to any college in the state. In addition to academics, the students also participate in a required weekly internship program in the spring semester that will give them professional experience with local Fortune 500 companies. The students attend professional development workshops for the fall on Wednesdays, the day reserved for internships.

“We will do an incredible job of preparing the students [not only] professionally but academically as well,” said associate dean Doug Thompson.

The opportunity coincides with a vision Sullivan said she saw in the university’s founder, Archbishop John Ireland. He founded the college in 1885 to serve European immigrants in order for them to become intellectual leaders in their community.

“That was so ahead of his time at that time,” Sullivan said. “He was very concerned that the university had high quality and that it offered a variety of programs, always grounded in the liberal arts and the Catholic faith.”

Students at the two-year college come from diverse backgrounds, including immigrant families. The student body has 42 African-Americans, 33 Latinos, 11 Asians and 14 Caucasians among the 66 female and 41 male students. They also come from more than 40 different high schools in the greater metro area.

Dougherty Family College students participate in cohorts throughout their two years, which is designed to foster academic support and community.

“I feel like it’s a little, small family now,” said Cristian Perez, a student from Minnetonka.

The students are expected to form a tight learning community with full days together, starting with 7 a.m. breakfast followed by their morning classes, lunch and afternoon classes on Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays.

Students attended a three-week orientation before the school year began to get acquainted with fellow students, faculty, academic expectations and college life. The students also joined the freshmen at the St. Paul campus for Welcome Week, an orientation for all freshmen.

“Coming into our first day, we’re not strangers,” said Perez, who hopes to enroll in an engineering program after graduating from Dougherty.

Dougherty Family College students are considered part of the full St. Thomas student body and can participate in any student activities at the St. Paul campus except for NCAA athletics. Students enrolled in Dougherty Family College don’t lose any years of NCAA eligibility, however.

St. Thomas announced the decision to open the college in November 2016. The university hired faculty for the college, which will collaborate with members of the St. Paul campus faculty.

Sarah McCann, who teaches theology, considered it an easy decision to join the faculty when she heard of the opportunity. She worked in K-12 Catholic education before and has joined a graduate education program at St. Thomas in the past year.

“I knew immediately after reading about it, that this is something that was going to transform the experiences of our students,” McCann said.

Dougherty Family College will expand next year with its second class, but the Minneapolis campus offers plenty of space. College officials don’t anticipate the program to exceed 300 students. The personal attention to academic, personal and professional development is expected to be one of the hallmarks of the two-year program.

“I’m really excited about the work that we’re just embarking on,” Abraham said.

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