Thirty years ago, a community of people wondered if a small Catholic university in Alberta could be possible. Then they worked hard to make sure it happened. The result: St. Mary’s College. Over time St. Mary’s has grown in size and scope, evolving from a college to a university college and then finally a university in 2014. Its student body has also grown from only a handful in the beginning to more than 900 students this September.
“In the last five years alone we have grown by almost 50 per cent, so that to me says we are filling a niche in the community,” says Dr. Gerry Turcotte, president of St. Mary’s University.
St. Mary’s offers something different in a city blessed with several post-secondary institutions. It merges the 2,000-year-old Catholic intellectual tradition of academic freedom and inquiry with 21st century technology and job preparation. As a liberal arts and sciences university it offers a unique experience for students. Students in all disciplines take a broad range of courses like ethics, English, religious studies and a historical survey of founding ideas of Western civilization as part of their liberal arts core.
“We believe that is critical to forming not just ways of inquiry but creating cultural knowledge and training in logic, rigorous thinking and careful analysis,” says Dr. Tara Hyland-Russell, vice-president academic.
St. Mary’s promises a challenging learning environment that pushes and supports students to succeed. Small classes of around 25 students ensure professors know their students personally while eliminating the large lecture hall anonymity of many post-secondary institutions. Students engage with professors rather than an army of teaching assistants so they have direct access to their expertise.
“Our faculty hires are among the most dynamic individuals in their areas,” says Turcotte.
St. Mary’s professors are active in research and involve students in experiential learning initiatives. Whether students are participating in biology studies tracking invasive species, psychology research about animal assisted therapy or studying aging at the nearby United Active Living seniors’ centre, St. Mary’s is weaving together the theoretical and the practical in order to provide students with the most well-rounded education possible.
The education students receive at St. Mary’s is second to none and the experiences prepare students for their lives after university, both professionally and personally. There are more than 35 disciplines at St. Mary’s as well as highly valued degrees in the liberal arts, sciences and education. Up to two years of university transfer courses are available, but after experiencing the culture and academic quality on campus, most students stay at St. Mary’s.
“We focus a lot on accessibility for all students so we have students who come to St. Mary’s to get started. They may intend to transfer somewhere else but then they stay and finish their degree here,” says Bob Hann, vice-president student services.
St. Mary’s does all it can to facilitate student success both in the classroom and with resources like the Learning Centre. The Learning Centre hosts a peer mentoring program, offers support for students with disabilities, and presents great study and workspaces. It has also built a strong foundation for supporting First Nations, Métis and Inuit students. There are First Nations counsellors, learning strategists and elders available, while the indigenous initiatives department creates relationships with First Nations and Métis communities in order to support indigenous learners in a university environment.
The Learning Centre also runs a transition committee made up of high school counsellors, high school and university students, and faculty members focusing on identifying and eliminating the barriers to a successful transition to university.
The transitions program includes a 30-hour weeklong Academic Writing Institute in August to familiarize new students with the demands of university writing so they hit the ground running in September. St. Mary’s also created Math 30 and English 30 equivalency courses to break down common barriers to post-secondary admission. Students can be conditionally admitted and then complete these courses to become eligible for degree entry.
“We also offer an academic skills certificate where we have up to 18 separate one-hour seminars related to success – note taking, study skills, research skills, citation methods – and students can do any eight to get the certificate,” says Hann.
The academic skills program has been very popular, with one-third of St. Mary’s students enrolling in a success seminar each year.
The Learning Centre is only one of the ways St. Mary’s invests in students. Education is a right that should be open to everyone and the school implements programs to make that happen. Nearly 40 per cent of eligible first-year students take advantage of President’s Circle Scholarships based on their high school grades, and one in five students are eligible for student awards.
Humanities 101 takes that financial commitment a step further: this initiative helps the city’s most economically disadvantaged citizens access education. The university raises $150,000 annually to fund the program, which provides 30 students per term with free courses, books, transportation, cultural events, childcare and nutritious meals on campus. These students have encountered various challenges to education including homelessness, violence, substance abuse, health issues and immigration. Since 2009, graduates have used this program to transform their personal and professional lives.
“The goal is to help open a reflective space and expand people’s sense of ability, give a greater sense of belonging and a voice to take action rather than being incapacitated and helpless,” says Hyland-Russell.
Humanities 101 was honoured with the Life of Learning Award (LOLA) last year for its significant impact and leadership in the community. It’s a reflection of St. Mary’s dedication to social justice and focus on making a difference in the world. The university is also developing a new social justice Catholic studies degree that aligns with the university’s core values. These values are important, and students embrace them too. More than half of St. Mary’s students volunteer in the community and are very engaged and involved in life on campus.
One exciting part of campus life is athletics. St. Mary’s is home to the Lightning basketball and cross-country teams. In a short time, these athletes have become strong contenders. The women’s basketball team came in second in the province last year and entered this year ranked ninth in Canada. The cross-county team has qualified for nationals two years and this year two runners finished in the top 10 provincially, earning a trip to nationals. The men’s basketball team hired a new coach and has a strong nucleus on which to build. But there are program challenges the school is looking to overcome.
“We play our road games on the road and our home games on the road. We don’t have a gym,” says Hann.
An expansion called St. Mary’s Central will help. In the next five years St. Mary’s aims to build a residence to turn the school from a commuter campus to a 24-hour campus and support international partnerships, add additional classrooms to accommodate the rapidly growing population, and introduce a gym for teams and the community to use.
The problem is funding. St. Mary’s is the lowest funded of all Alberta’s post-secondaries and it receives no funding for capital and infrastructure. The recent Heritage Centre expansion was 100 per cent donor funded and St. Mary’s Central will be no different. But despite its budget, it provides quality programming and continues to attract world-class artists and academics for programs and lectures. Being one of only three universities in Canada with a stunning hand-written Saint John’s Bible, St. Mary’s has created programs and community events around this amazing resource. The university also welcomed award-winning author Eugene Stickland as its writer in residence.
“We really punch above our weight,” says Turcotte.
For the past 30 years, St. Mary’s University has become one of the fastest growing universities in Alberta with a focus on connection and engagement. At St. Mary’s, education goes far beyond the classroom; students develop skills they can apply in all aspects of life.
“The world is changing a lot so we’re not looking at training students for specific careers that exist now but for an unfolding and complex and interesting world that they will feel confident and competent engaging in,” says Hyland-Russell.
With a strong liberal arts foundation, social justice focus and amazing campus experience, St. Mary’s University students are proving that the small Catholic university in Alberta is not only possible, but it’s a thriving reality.