by S. Kati Hamm
“I touch the future. I teach.” (Christa McAuliffe)
Listening to S. Margaret Mary Fitzpatrick talk about what gives her energy and joy as President of St. Thomas Aquinas College in Sparkill, NY, it is obvious that the potential and greatness of what lies within each student colours her vision of tomorrow’s world. After a two-hour experience at the College, we can confirm that we should all look forward to an amazing future!
It is an interesting phenomenon at this stage of our Congregation’s history that our Sisters are often found working in ministries sponsored by others. Hospitality invites us to see this as an opportunity to welcome the richness that this cross-pollination offers. STAC, founded in 1952 by the Sparkill Dominicans, has a wonderful reputation in both academics and sports. It is listed as a 2016-17 College of Distinction, a recognition by educational peers of a college of excellence. S. Margaret Mary has been president for 22 years. It is a match made in heaven.
When I was there, students were getting ready for a celebration of Earth Day, an Undergraduate Research Symposium and their upcoming graduation. The day of our visit happened to be Denim Day, a world-wide commemoration to focus attention on domestic violence. Six students and a local activist are set up in the hallway with give-aways and information. The group gladly pauses for a photo with S. Margaret Mary, who recognizes the activist and thanks the students for their service.
This is a place where there is a constant exchange of energy with the local and global community. We heard about collaborations with Camp Venture residents, local middle and high schools, St. John’s University and Columbia University Astronomy Dept., to name just a few. One touching moment was when a graphic design professor who had worked on a recyclable fashion project with STAC students and youth from Camp Venture (a not-for-profit provider of family-like care and services to children and adults with developmental disabilities) said that he found this experience best captured for him the essence of why he became a teacher.
What is it that motivates this community of 3,000 to thrive in an environment that promotes research and reflection in the library, looks at sustainable goals in the Global Center for Ethics, and offers a class that examines the question, “Are religion and science compatible?” Could it be the belief that education is about the whole person and a desire to deepen faith, however it shows up in the students?
The mission statement tells us that the college is committed to the Dominican ideals of enlightenment through truth. Quotes of Saint Thomas Aquinas – like “love takes us where knowledge leaves off” — jump out at you from huge banners. And post-it size thought experiments stuck on easels ask, “What would you attempt if you knew you couldn’t fail?”
S. Margaret Mary and her faculty seek to bring the students to the world and the world to the students. Over many years, STAC has offered students mission immersion opportunities in Nicaragua, El Salvador and in Pine Ridge, South Dakota. Classes around these service trips prepare the students to understand the culture, the challenges, the attitudes of mind and heart that they must bring. Upon return, they have time to process the experience and recognize how it will impact them for a lifetime.
In the cafeteria that day, there are close to 30 nations represented, a truly diverse campus. How else does the world come in to the students? Recently, a Chinese businessman named Dr. Wu received an honorary degree because of a unique business model he promotes. He describes an environment where beautiful gardens and bonuses to benefit elders in the workers’ families are just as important as the bottom-line profit. Consider what an impression this might make on the young business majors at this US college.
Having had a taste of what life must be like at STAC, all of us on the tour – with ages ranging from 30 to 80 – are wishing we could go back to college. Elizabeth Seton would be delighted to find in her home state of NY a place where the ministry of education is alive and well. The Vincentian compassion and Dominican truth have mingled on this campus, and have borne much fruit.