MESA — The mess of light rail construction still takes over downtown, but a growing presence of college students is also becoming part of the landscape. Benedictine University’s only U.S. campus outside of Illinois wrapped up its first year May 11.
Valley students left grateful to be part of a historic class, proud of their accomplishments and eager to return to a more fully developed campus when school resumes in the coming months.
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David Edwards won’t be a student much longer. He is on track to graduate next fall, but the philosophy major and vice president of the Catholic Student Alliance still wants to leave a legacy at Benedictine.
“I want to play whatever part I can to build the Catholic culture here,” Edwards said.
The campus already has a crucifix in each classroom, daily Mass and weekly “Ben Hour” where students and faculty build community and discuss the 10 hallmarks of a Benedictine education. Still, Edwards knows there is always room to grow in relationship with God and hopes to see the chapel become more inviting.
Jessica Maroon from Ahwatukee finished her freshman year a stronger Catholic.
“When you’re younger, your parents put that faith on you. When you’re in college, you own your own faith,” Maroon said.
She thought outside the box — and the diocese — for a “How to read a Church” project. Maroon piled into a car with two classmates for a day trip to San Diego. They studied a church, went to Mass, spent time on the beach and returned within 24 hours.
Benedictine students went above and beyond when it came to community efforts too. One time, the washing machines for Helen’s Hope Chest in Mesa broke down, so Benedictine students took over a local laundromat to ensure children entering the foster care system had clean clothes to choose from.
The university’s ROTC students helped revitalize four houses and students in a leadership program partnered with the fire department to distribute info packets door to door. Others made television commercials for local businesses. Rotaract students were also active.
“I think we’ve made a little impact and we’re working on it and growing. We’re setting a big standard,” said Robyn Gowdy, a business major who just finished her junior year.
Tony Siebers, director of student services, said BenU’s presence brought awareness of what young people are capable of.
“For us, it’s the best of our faith on display,” he said.
Students in future semesters will have other chances to get involved via service learning hours and BenU’s Cooperative Education Program. The internship gives students work experience and partners with Benedictine to tailor coursework to meet job competencies.
Benedictine’s problem-based learning model also empowered some students. They learned in a lecture-free environment that stressed collaboration. Dara Handy, a fine arts major, likened it to homeschooling where students do the work on their own and return to professors for discussion
Asking deep questions and seeking answers at BenU are helping Laura Sanchez, a communication arts major, consider adding theology or religious studies to her academic program. Benedictine students also made connections within the community. Their 116 days at the “on campus” dorms through a partnership with Phoenix Marriott Mesa were so great that staff threw them a farewell party.
A dozen Benedictine students and 11 others enrolled at one of Mesa’s three other private colleges — also in their freshman year — lived there with classmates visiting to study, hang out or get a good meal at the hotel’s café.
“These students have been amazing,” said Karen Hunt, the hotel’s director of sales. The mother of three college students herself and a Catholic said they all impacted her life.
She said regular hotel guests who often came for corporate events or meetings enjoyed having the younger crowd as guests too. She expects the dorms to consume a full floor of the hotel next year.
That’s largely due to Benedictine’s launch of a mascot and competitive sports program this August. Many athletes have been recruited from out of state to fill the men’s or women’s golf, cross country, tennis or volleyball teams.