Monday, February 23, 2009

Part 4: Our epic edu-tour--Franciscan University of Steubenville


Franciscan University of Steubenville

We left our hotel in Bethlehem to drive to Steubenville, but on the way we first had to trade out our rental car at the Allentown airport, then trade it for another one at the Pittsburgh airport. It was a pain, but it saved us several hundred dollars in rental fees. I won't bore you with the gory details. We had pleasant weather for driving the Pennsylvania Turnpike across the state. Along the way, we recognized names of places that previously we'd only heard in Rocky and Bullwinkle cartoons...places like McKeesport, and the Susquehanna River.

This was only my second visit to Franciscan University of Steubenville, also known as Steubie U, also known as FUS (pronounced foos, as in, "He played foosball;" not fuss, as in, "He threw a big fuss.") For ease of writing, I'll just call it FUS.

Inside the field house, which converts to a church for Easter vigil and other major events


My first visit was to drop off my son, who is now a junior, in August 2007, for freshman orientation. At that time, I was struck with the utter joy that the students and faculty displayed. Walking the hallways of the dorm, one would hear chants of the rosary being said by a small group of students, or someone playing the guitar and leading a small group in praise songs. Several hundred students volunteer a couple of weeks out of their summer vacation to return to school early to help with freshman orientation. The volunteers could be easily spotted by their bright t-shirts and friendly smiles. They were always willing to carry a suitcase, answer a question, or show us where we should go.

The highlight of the weekend for me was the big welcome they had in the field house for all the new freshman and their families. As we entered the field house all the volunteers formed a victory flank and cheered us as we walked past. I wasn't even a student, but I couldn't help but feel welcome there.




They welcomed siblings; they welcomed those who had come the farthest (there was a girl from Hong Kong in my son's class); they put on ridiculously silly skits making fun of themselves and their school in a very light-hearted and joyful way. I saw attractive kids and not-so-attractive kids and they were all hanging out together and all displaying true Christian joy. I felt confident my son had made the right decision, despite the fact that he spent the weekend with a deer-in-the-headlights look of panic that he would soon be left to fend for himself. In fact, some of his last words to me were, "Mom! You never taught me how to do laundry!" (Note for fellow parents of future college students: make sure you teach them how to do laundry before you drop them off at school.)

This time we were here for the Fr. Michael Scanlan Scholarship Competition and we had a better idea of what to expect. Anyone interested in Franciscan University should know about three important aspects of the university. The first is Fr. Michael Scanlan. He (and the Holy Spirit) are the reason Franciscan University is thriving and is an internationally known university.

Fr. Mike was originally sent to the university in 1974 to close it down because enrollment was down to about 400 students and it had the reputation as a party school. He noticed the students were lonely and they lived immoral lifestyles to fill the loneliness. One of the first things he did was to create the Household system, which is rather like Catholic fraternities and sororities, but based on the idea of like-minded service and gifts to the Church.

The third aspect of Franciscan University is the unique Franciscan spirit that thrives there. St. Francis of Assisi was so much more than a bird-bath saint, as anyone at Franciscan will tell you. He rebuilt the structure of the Catholic Church when it was falling into ruin. The excesses of wealth and power were corrupting many within the Church and the poor were not being served. St. Francis dedicated his life to embracing poverty, serving the poor and spreading the Gospel. The spirit of St. Francis of Assisi is evident throughout Franciscan University, from the many friars you see across the campus, to the devotions that are practiced to the spirituality of the many households.

We were looking forward to seeing my son, Giorgio, and going to Mass at the university chapel. We stayed at the Steubenville Holiday Inn, which, I believe, is owned by the university. (I had asked for their special "Franciscan rate.") It is very convenient to the university, as you can simply walk up the hill to the school. A word of warning: the hill up to the university is extremely steep. Not just kinda steep. It makes your heart pump and you'll be breathing heavily by the time you get to the top of the hill.


Christ the King Chapel and symbol of Franciscan University

We arrived about an hour before evening Mass, so we got cleaned up and walked up the hill. I called my son, but he said he'd been to Mass at noon, and he had class, so he'd meet us later that evening. He had rehearsal with his men's a capella singing group, The Beatitudes, so we planned to see him at rehearsal.

It was an absolutely gorgeous evening when we arrived. It was 68 degrees and no wind. We couldn't have asked for a more lovely evening. After Mass we walked back down the hill to have dinner at the hotel restaurant, Damon's, to try the baby-back ribs, which a friend and FUS grad, Fr. Jim, had highly recommended. By the time we finished dinner, it was raining in biblical proportions, so we decided to drive the car up the hill to see Giorgio.

We had a grand time just sitting and relaxing and listening to them warm-up, but we decided to get to bed early since Lizzy had an appointment at admissions the next morning.

Thursday was set aside as a day for the Presidential Scholars to meet with Admissions, get a tour of the campus and attend classes. Lizzy and I talked with one of the admissions counselors, who had just graduated from FUS. She was very enthusiastic about the school and about the Honors Program.


The Honors Program is a mini-Great Books program, directed by a graduate of Thomas Aquinas College (TAC). It is taught seminar style, as at TAC. Honors students take 32 hours of honors seminars which satisfy the entire Humanities and Social Science core, as well as several courses required in the Communications core. All the honors students I have spoken to, including my son, have said these are some of their favorite classes at Franciscan. Students must be invited to apply for the Honors Program, and typically must have at least a 3.6 high school GPA and score at least 1220 on the SAT, or 27 on the ACT.

After our talk with Admissions, Lizzy attended a nursing seminar, which was a four hour class, but she was able to drop in for about an hour. They were evidently expecting a lot of students to drop in that day, because the instructor stopped class to welcome Lizzy and introduce her to the class. She invited me to stay as well, but I decided I wanted to take a break, grab a coffee and browse the campus bookstore.

After Lizzy's class, we went on a tour with other Presidential Scholars and their parents. Our tour guides were great. We had a gal from New Orleans who was a transfer student from Loyola University. She explained that she had been a Fr. Michael Scanlan Scholarship winner of a half-scholarship, but had turned it down in order to take a full-ride scholarship at Loyola. She became so disheartened by the religious studies department there that she transferred her sophomore year to FUS, losing her full-ride and having to take a much smaller scholarship at FUS. (She wasn't offered the half-ride). Over lunch, I sat next to her and got more information from her about Loyola. She was a religious studies major (I don't think they have "theology" there, in order to side-step Ex Corde Ecclesiae). She told me how she was in a special honors program that gave them special dorms, special food, special classes and faculty access, but that her religion professors, one of whom was a Protestant and head of the department, were very much opposed to the teachings of the Catholic Church, saying the Church was going to change it's stance on things like women priests and contraception. According to them, it was only a matter of time. They didn't want to hear any defense of orthodoxy. She became so fed up that she would bring a newspaper to class, sit in the front row and read the paper. When she finally decided to transfer to FUS, she was called into the offices of several muckity-mucks and they pleaded with her to stay. She said her brother, who had been several years ahead of her in the honor program at Loyola, had lost his faith there and was now an atheist.


Surfer Jesus, aka Alpha and Omega

One of the first stops on the tour was the Ss. Cosmas and Damian Science Building. Our tour guides explained the reason for placing this statue, affectionately known as "Surfer Jesus," but officially known as "Alpha and Omega," outside the science building, was to show the integration of faith and reason in all the science programs at FUS. The science instructors at Franciscan pride themselves that they provide their students with a holistic view of science because they don't exclude God or faith, but teach from the perspective of faith and science being perfectly compatible. FUS has a highly acclaimed and very demanding nursing program, whose students have a special ceremony during their junior year, to dedicate themselves and their careers to God. They also have a large number of graduates who have gone on to medical schools.


John Paul II Library

Next, we saw the John Paul II Library, which was dedicated to our late pope before he died. The entrance to the library has flags from every US state and foreign country from which Franciscan students have come.


The Portiuncula

Behind the chapel is the Portiuncula, a 24-hour adoration chapel, manned by students, and built in the style of an old Italian chapel, reminiscent of the sort of chapel that St. Francis of Assisi rebuilt when he was trying to discern God's call for him to "rebuild" His Church.

Lizzy at the creche


The Creche

St. Francis of Assisi made the first Christmas creche, which FUS has permanently on display near the Portiuncula.

Also nearby are an outdoor Stations of the Cross, a Marian grotto, and a memorial to the unborn. The story the guides told us is that several years ago, when Fr. Michael Scanlan was still the president of Franciscan University, a local Protestant pastor called him and said that he had a couple of aborted babies' remains and he didn't know what to do with them.

Fr. Scanlan said, "Bring them to me," and he consecrated some ground and gave the babies a proper burial.

Soon afterwards, the local police called Fr. Scanlan and said, "We heard you have buried human remains on your property without authorization."

Fr. Scanlan replied, "Oh, are you saying they're human?"

The police never called back and they have since buried several more babies there and erected a memorial marker.


The Marian Grotto

Memorial to the Unborn

Lizzy with her older brother, Giorgio, at the cafeteria

The next day, Friday, was scholarship competition day. The parents had the opportunity to hear presentations from various administrators and staff. One of my favorite parts about Franciscan University is their Austrian Program. As my son will surely testify, as have many other students, it is a life-changing experience. FUS has an Austrian campus located in the alpine village of Gaming. Their campus buildings are located in a 14th century Carthusian monastery, the historic Kartause, which Napoleon once used as a stable for his horses. The students study four days a week and have three day weekends in order to have extra time for exploring the local area and several ten-day holidays to give them time to explore further afield. One of the ten-day holidays is planned in advance for all the students. It is a trip to Rome and Assisi. During the other holidays, the students are free to plan their own trips, or take one of the trips organized by the university. My son spent his spring break helping the pilgrims at Lourdes. It was an experience he'll never forget.

During the parents' portion of the day, we were also told about the coming re-structuring of the core curriculum that was being worked on by the board. They couldn't give us any details, other than it would serve to strengthen the liberal arts education at FUS and incorporate both the Honors Program and the Austria Program.

I asked one of the TOR (Third Order Regular, Franciscan) priests about the religious formation of students at Franciscan, namely, what programs are there to help students who may be discerning a call to the religious life?

His answer was that there are plenty of helps at Franciscan. From daily Mass to confessions and spiritual direction, retreats and opportunities to help with various works of mercy. "But," he said, "we are not here to make priests. Our focus is on educating your sons and daughters and to help them become all that God wants them to be." Nevertheless, there seem to be many religious vocations springing from Franciscan University.

Meanwhile, Lizzy was having faculty interviews and writing essays. The final part of the student competition was a chance for the students to exercise their creativity and perform skits together in small groups. Each group was given a set of props (the same for each group), and an excerpt from the life of St. Francis of Assisi, by G.K. Chesterton.

The students were amazingly creative! Of course this group of students was also amazingly talented. The average GPA of the Scanlan scholars was 4.2. Their average ACT score was 32. It was a nice way to end the day and it gave the students a chance to not only display their creativity, but also to get to know each other a little bit and shake off their nervous energy.
Given past statistics, most of those students will end up at FUS in the fall, adding to the academic excellence of the university. By the way, their incoming freshman class this year had an average ACT of 24. (Air Force Academy's average is 29, which, to me, makes FUS all the more impressive).

For those who may be fans of Dr. Scott Hahn...no, we never saw him. And my son, who is a junior, (computer science major), says he's not sure he'd even recognize him. Evidently, his students are all upper-level theology students. So, if you're going to FUS because you want to take a class with Dr. Hahn, you may be disappointed. But, if you're going to FUS because you want to be on fire with love for the Catholic Church, then you won't be disappointed. As Fr. Michael Scanlan says, "Let the fire fall!"

4 comments:

Anna said...

I find this all so fascinating! not to mention the Rocky and Bullwinkle bits, or the visit to Damon's. (there were some in the UK, the best ribs Peter ever ate!)

what a choice for Lizzy! and what a lovely time for you... :)))

Debbie said...

I'm thinking maybe I should write a homeschooling geography curriculum based on the episodes of Rocky and Bullwinkle. And I could also throw in locations of Damons across the globe...what do you think? ;-)

Carol said...

Thank you mucho for your articles on visiting Catholic colleges. Visiting Magdalen some time?

Pax et bonum,

Carol in Korea

Ana Braga-Henebry said...

Thanks--this is such an excellent post!