Hat Trick | DECADE

How will Alvernia stay at the leading edge in the decade to come?

Several of the university’s longest-tenured scholars and top instructors say the answer is to hang on to what makes the university distinct now: Alvernia’s commitment to student success, training them to be critical thinkers, problem solvers and effective communicators (the heart of the school’s liberal arts curriculum) — and its core Franciscan values.

Those values — service, humility, peacemaking, contemplation and collegiality — create an ideal environment to foster student growth and development as well as providing a superior environment to attract top faculty and staff.

“When I first came here, it was said to me that Alvernia is a way of life,” says Dr. Tim Blessing, professor of history and political science, who has taught at the university since 1993. “Twenty-plus years later, I can say it’s a statement that rings totally true and our values play a big role in that.”

To Dr. Donna Yarri, professor of theology, these Franciscan values are evident in how the university infuses the study of ethics throughout its curriculum.

Yarri teaches many classes that are part of Alvernia’s General Education curriculum — from which every student takes classes — including morality, theology and ethics. Discussions around topics like genetics and technology keep course material fresh, but Yarri says the ultimate questions remain the same: “What are our values? How do our values impact the choices we make?”

“I think it’s critical that our students graduate from Alvernia with a foundational value system that can guide them throughout their careers, no matter what professions they seek,” says Yarri. “That will be as relevant in the future, maybe more so, as it has been in the past. And it is why our values remain so important.”

That said, most students have their eyes on a different prize when selecting a college to attend. The Higher Education Research Institute at the University of California, Los Angeles, found in its 2014 survey of American college freshmen that there was one major motivation for starting college: “To be able to get a better job.” That’s why Edgar Hartung, chair of Alvernia’s Criminal Justice Department, says it’s imperative for the university to demonstrate students’ success in the job market and stay connected to professionals in the “real world.”

“I think we need to keep our traditional values, but teach the skills that employers want and need,” says Hartung, who started teaching at Alvernia in 2003 after a 27-year career in the FBI. “If not, we’re going to fall by the wayside.”

Which makes the institution’s growing commitment to experiential learning and a liberal arts curriculum so right for the times. “They both provide what the market is looking for right now,” says Hartung.

It’s a point made clear in a recent Association of American Colleges and Universities survey of nonprofit and business leaders that queried them about what they wanted to see in college graduates. What matters most — more than academic major or where someone attended college — are skills in interpersonal communications and critical thinking as well as problem-solving abilities and adeptness in collaborating with others who hold different viewpoints.

“These are precisely the skills that our students gain from our General Education curriculum that is built around the liberal arts,” says Blessing. “From it, students are shaped into skilled writers, speakers and critical thinkers who understand current events and can form their own opinions about what’s happening in the world.”

It’s a direction that is evident in Alvernia’s approach to real-world education — infused with theory-based classroom learning and grounded in a values-based, liberal arts foundation. “This foundation ensures a well-rounded education that helps students acquire critical problem-solving and analytical skills — as well as the ability to apply skills in real-world settings,” says Blessing.

Further studies bring to light the importance of real-world, engaged learning experiences in preparing students for success in the job market after they graduate. “More important than where you go to school is what you do while you are there,” says Hartung. “That includes things like internships, practicums, service work and research projects as well as involvement in student organizations and activities.”

According to Hartung, Alvernia is a place where students are highly engaged, on and off campus, in leadership roles, course projects, community service, athletics and the arts. “That’s what makes the largest impact when it comes to contributing to how well they are prepared for a successful life after college, and it’s why it is so important that it remain a focus in our future.”

Instinctively student-centered
One element of Alvernia’s future success centers on its ongoing commitment to students in maintaining an outstanding faculty, according to Yarri. For Alvernia’s part, it has nearly doubled the size of its faculty since 2002. Today, 110 full-time faculty members teach an undergraduate student body that is about the same size as it was 10 years ago. This allows a 12:1 student-to-faculty ratio, and an average class size of less than 20.

Those figures are important because they enable students to have easy access to faculty members who, for many, become caring mentors and provide an added layer of support. “It’s one of the things we hear the most from our students, that their strong relationships with professors make a world of difference in their satisfaction and academic success,” says Joseph Cicala, vice president of University Life and dean of students. And according to a 2015 Gallup poll, it is just as critical elsewhere, too. The research cites a strong correlation between students having faculty members who care about them and excite them about learning as a top factor that influences success and well-being after graduation.

While many of Alvernia’s faculty members are prolific scholars who are engaged in research and in creating knowledge in their field of study, first and foremost they are dedicated to teaching — something that is equally key to the university’s ongoing success.

Blessing says professors’ ability to keep up with emerging trends makes them nimble enough to adjust to changes in the areas they teach. For example, Blessing has taught a class called The History of Medicine and Disease that is heavily influenced by emerging data from the healthcare field. Hartung also notes that the Criminal Justice Department is developing new programs in cyber crime and homeland security to address the growing influence of these areas in the field.

Blessing sees hope in the types of students who are coming to Alvernia. The university, like similar Catholic colleges in the region, is facing challenges such as a shrinking number of high school graduates and competition from the dozens of colleges in eastern Pennsylvania. But the 500 students who started at Alvernia this fall came with stronger academic backgrounds than ever before, and they came to Reading from a wider variety of geographic areas.

To keep this up, Blessing says Alvernia needs to strengthen its student recruitment in Philadelphia, New Jersey, Maryland and beyond. The university’s lower-than-average tuition (about 20 percent lower) compared to other private universities in the Mid-Atlantic region is one obvious selling point, he says, but prospective students also need to see that the school is instinctively student-centered.

“The culture of Alvernia is very welcoming,” he says. “We really are Franciscan in the sense of taking care of each other.”