The Catholic Church has had a profound connection with the concept of higher education in the pursuit of truth, dating back a millennium to the founding of the first universities in Europe.
That tradition continues here in the Diocese of Phoenix with the opening of Benedictine University, which marked the beginning of its inaugural academic year with a ribbon-cutting ceremony and celebration Aug. 27 at its new campus in downtown Mesa.
Classes began Sept. 3 for the 93 enrolled students in what the university is dubbing a “lecture-free, collaborative, interactive and technology-enhanced format.”
Benedictine University joins the University of Mary in offering Catholic higher education. The Bismark, North Dakota-based university opened its doors last fall in conjunction with Arizona State University in Tempe.
“A Catholic university comes from the heart of the Church and is founded on Christian anthropology, that is on the conviction that every human person is created in the image of God,” Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted said at the Aug. 27 celebration in Mesa.
“The pursuit of the truth that takes place here, in all fields of learning, helps the Church to support the human dignity of all and to advance the common good,” he added.
Students arrived in August eager to be a part of both universities, depending on which fit their academic needs.
More than 1,000 students considered taking classes at University of Mary in the last year, leading to an expanded offering of courses. Theology and Christian marriage classes are particularly popular this semester, according to school officials. Students can enroll at at the University of Mary for a single course, a minor or a major in Catholic studies or theological studies.
Dr. Jo Markette, director of the University of Mary in Tempe, called the university’s collaboration with ASU a “win-win.” Students can seek a high-quality Catholic education while also attending one of the best public universities in the country, she said.
“The University of Mary provides students that smaller niche community with a Catholic identity to ASU students who find themselves among more than 70,000 peers. We know from educational research that retention rates increase when students feel connected,” Markette said.
She said undergraduate students finished the course eager to engage others in conversation about important life topics from a faith perspective. Non-ASU and non-traditional students are also welcome to enroll.
Some of Benedictine University’s first students are the first in their family to go to college. Freshman Alberto Carrazco is one of them. Many of the first-time college students are in a leadership program geared toward their success in the classroom and in the community.
“We’re leading the trail. You can’t be intimidated to go where no one else has gone,” said Carrazco, who later served on the altar during the first campus-wide Mass.
The university itself is also on the leading edge. An education technology blog recently listed Benedictine University at Mesa as one of 10 universities on the cutting edge of technology. The college’s lecture-free learning environment boosted its ranking.
“It’s something I’m so encouraged and motivated by to begin this new approach to learning — for the students to get involved in their learning and be motivated by it,” Dr. Mick Carroll, president of the Mesa campus, told The Catholic Sun.
“This is more than just granting degrees. This is about transforming people’s lives,” Carroll said.
Degree programs include theology, religious studies, fine arts, communications, psychology, criminal justice and more.
Campus life looks to bloom right alongside downtown Mesa. The two-story academic hall features a computer lab, chapel and community room. Benedictine University has an agreement with the nearby YMCA for forthcoming recreation and intramural programs. It also offers student housing through an agreement with the Phoenix Marriott Mesa a few blocks north of campus.
Tony Siebers, director of student services, noted the Benedictine values, especially time for quiet reflection, present on campus.
“It’s something that will be one of the bedrocks of getting them through that adolescent period,” Siebers said.
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Benedictine University at Mesa
51 E. Main St., Suite 105, Mesa, AZ 85201
University of Mary
Classes meet at the All Saints Catholic Newman Center
230 E. University Drive, Tempe, AZ 85281