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Small Schools, Big Rewards: Diversity is our Future, We Must Embrace It

 

Milton Javier Bravo, Ph.D. ’07 recently contributed an article about Saint Peter’s to Conversations on Jesuit Higher Education, the official magazine of the National Seminar on Jesuit Higher Education. The article, titled “Small Schools, Big Rewards: Diversity is our Future, We Must Embrace It,” celebrates the University’s commitment to serving first-generation students as a model for other Jesuit institutions. The full article can be viewed below. Bravo was recently appointed to the position of vice president for mission, values and inclusion at Edgewood College, an institution located in Madison, Wisconsin, rooted in the Dominican tradition.  

In many Hispanic/Latinx cultures, Advent is a moment in the liturgical calendar to experience with family and in community.

Las posadas, a tradition that typically takes place from December 16 to 24, is a popular Catholic practice of symbolically accompanying Joseph and Mary as they seek shelter in expectation of the birth of Jesus. Families join processions throughout the town, singing and praying, while stopping at houses that provide the community with rest, food and beverages, similar to the Holy Family who, searching for a place to rest, ultimately stayed in a stable.

During my undergraduate years, a group of classmates and I brought this practice to Saint Peter’s University. Encouraged by a community of staff, students and faculty in campus ministry and the Latin American Student Association, a group of us went from academic offices to student affairs offices, bringing villancicos (Christmas songs), prayer and food to members of our community. Sharing this tradition is still one of the most memorable experiences of my undergraduate years.

For my classmates and me, our ability to find a home and to share our Hispanic cultural religious practice at Saint Peter’s was mainly due to faculty and staff who were willing to accompany us as first-generation undergraduates. Mission ambassadors, particularly theology professors and campus ministry administrators, welcomed me and others like me and encouraged us to share our voices and narratives with the wider University community.

I didn’t know at the time how profoundly this student development experience—the experience of being embraced and affirmed, of being welcomed home—would inform my future, including leading me to pursue further degrees in theology and education. Now, as vice president for mission, values and inclusion at a small Dominican Catholic college in the Midwest, I can truly appreciate how my own small college helped shape a new generation of lifelong learners and leaders by embracing and affirming us.

Future graduates make themselves known at accepted students day at Saint Peter’s University where 50 percent of students are Hispanic/Latinx, 20 percent are African American, and eight percent are Asian.

Since the 1960s, more than 70% of the U.S. Catholic population growth has been attributed to the Hispanic community. We currently make up 40% of all U.S. Catholics, and 50% of U.S. Catholics ages 14 to 29 years old. These demographic shifts continue to have a profound impact in Catholic colleges and universities across the country, including the rise in the number and significance of Hispanic Serving Institutions (HSIs)—institutions whose undergraduate population is 25% (or higher) Hispanic, and of whom half qualify for Pell Grants.

Saint Peter’s University was a trailblazer in this regard, becoming a Catholic HSI over 20 years ago, and educating a first-, second-, and now a third-generation of Hispanic/Latinx students. As more colleges become HSIs, there is now enough evidence to suggest those colleges will have more access to additional financial resources (such as Title V funds and philanthropic partnerships), become more diverse and inclusive of other communities of color, and, in the case of Catholic and Jesuit institutions particularly, will be seen to live out their mission.

When we look back at the history of Saint Peter’s, which is now celebrating its sesquicentennial, it is not surprising that, like many Catholic colleges and universities, it was founded to educate people from immigrant and marginalized communities. What may be surprising to many is the extent to which this institution still serves those on the margins by giving them access to a life-changing education.

For all of us invested in the future of Catholic higher education, we are at an inflection point: we either embrace our diverse and first-generation students by making our institutions their new home, or we fail to live up to our founding mission and vision. For those at Jesuit institutions, this means either embracing or rejecting the call to form people for others, to see God in all things and in the diversity of people, to make real a preferential option for and with the most vulnerable.

In this way, Saint Peter’s stands as a model for other Jesuit institutions and as a kind of invitation to them to return to their roots. These institutions are invited to become more culturally responsive in their pedagogy and in their spiritual formation. They are called to acknowledge, celebrate, and learn from all of our unique multicultural communities—Asian Pacific Islander, Black/African American, European American, Hispanic American, Native American/Alaska Native, as well as from marginal groups like migrants, refugees, and other people on the move. They are challenged to invest in new recruitment and academic advising strategies to admit, enroll, retain, and ultimately graduate the next generation of diverse leaders—a commitment which also requires intentional strategies for retaining faculty of color and hiring administrators who are reflective of and attuned to a diverse student body.

Saint Peter’s University provided a happy home for me and for other first-generation students searching for a community that would embrace and affirm us. Because of this, I am proud to say that I am the product of Jesuit education, and I look forward to seeing many more Jesuit institutions respond to the invitation to follow the example of Saint Peter’s.