By PRISCILLA GREEAR, Staff Writer | Published April 11, 2003
After six years of planning, envisioning and fundraising, Southern Catholic College has welcomed its first class of 71 students from 15 states.
The administration and initial faculty members are forging ahead now to realize their vision of an academic community in North Georgia where students will be rigorously formed in the Catholic intellectual tradition.
Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory and Archbishop-emeritus John F. Donoghue will celebrate Mass at the college in late November to dedicate the campus and chapel, located by a quiet waterfall and glassy lake at the foot of a hill where the 100-acre site is nestled amidst the Blue Ridge Mountains.
Administrators and teachers are striving to create a nurturing liberal arts college with “a fully integrated education grounded in natural and revealed truth, ” with Catholicity permeating the curriculum and student life. SCC is led by president Jeremiah Ashcroft, Ph.D., and has seven faculty members, with about nine expected to be added next year to accommodate student body growth.
“We’ve had a great beginning … We want people to recognize that this is their college,” said Ashcroft. “We’re excited about the growth and we’ve begun efforts to put together our second class for next fall. The response of young people to this project is growing every day.”
The college initially is offering majors in English, business, psychology and integrated sciences and a humanities major with a concentration in history, theology or philosophy. An early childhood education program is under development. All students are required to take a core liberal arts curriculum, which investigates the human condition and man’s relation to God, nature and community; there are required classes in 11 fields including English, theology and philosophy. The study of liberal arts is not viewed as an end in itself but as a means to develop critical thinking skills and to “bring the student into an encounter with the incarnate truth” reflected in the study of the creative arts and historical and philosophical writings.
The first classes of students also have the unique opportunity to help shape college life, whether by establishing campus groups and traditions or by helping to pick the mascot.
“We’re putting our activities together right now based on student interest and student need and this first class is driving that. I think there’s excitement about the fact that they are all leaders in this new college,” Ashcroft said.
He reported that all students are receiving some form of financial aid and spoke by way of example of two particular young men interested in math and science who are grateful to be there.
“This is their best opportunity to receive a college education,” he said. “They’re bright, enthusiastic, hard-working, and I’m proud to have them as part of us, but what makes it possible is the generosity of our donors.”
He is also proud of the highly qualified faculty they’ve selected, delighted to receive highly qualified faculty applications. “These people are committed to excellent teaching. They are scholars in their own right but committed to students’ success.”
The founders’ goal is no less than to become the premier Catholic college in the Southeast, creating “moral and ethical leaders who will enlighten society and glorify God.” SCC has applied to the American Academy for Liberal Education for accreditation, which it hopes to receive in the next year to 18 months.
In an interview in his office alongside Ed Schroeder, chairman of the board of trustees, Ashcroft spoke about the vision for the college curriculum rooted in the tradition of a search for truth.
“If you look at the history of Catholic higher education from the Middle Ages forward, there is a very proud and disciplined tradition,” he said, which he experienced as a student at the Jesuit Le Moyne College in Syracuse, N.Y.
“Through the Catholic intellectual tradition, philosophy, theology, the sciences, mathematics, history all inform us of the truth and that’s the path of the Catholic intellectual tradition and we want to be part of that,” he said. “An important aspect of the church has been their insistence on intellectual attainment, intellectual growth for the people. They recognize the more we understand, the better we know God. It’s hand in hand. I think that one of the reasons we wanted to establish this institution in Georgia was there is not another institution of higher education (with its main campus) in Georgia that represents the Catholic intellectual tradition.”
“I think for all of us, certainly for the board of trustees, this entire effort is an expression of our faith,” the president added.
The campus is located in a pastoral setting on a two-lane road near GA 400, about 45 miles north of Atlanta and some 12 miles from Dahlonega. The college purchased the former Gold Creek Country Club and converted a conference center with a wood deck overlooking a lake into the educational center. It contains offices, classrooms, study, recreational and liturgy space and dining facilities.
Nine white, two-story guesthouses were converted into “residence villas.” Freshmen housed this year in the residences, which are separated by gender, have generous hotel-like suites, two people to a large room with two double beds, private bath, upstairs and downstairs lounges and mini-kitchens. The next class will have three students in a room with private bath.
A new residence hall is next in line to be built along with an activity center, including a gym and classroom space, with a plan to add a new building a year. Currently some offices, the library and workout facilities are in modular units.
Thirty percent of the inaugural class is minority students, Ashcroft said, and there’s a good balance between men and women. Southern Catholic College leaders feel a particular obligation to reach out to minorities, he said, particularly to the Hispanic Catholic population, which is growing rapidly in this region. He’s “extremely impressed” with their preparedness for college and spiritual life.
Dean of Spiritual Mission Kelly Bowring, Ph.D., who earned his doctorate in sacred theology from the University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome, is responsible for assuring or at least advocating that “Catholicism becomes vitally present and operative” on every level of the college, its doctrine and moral virtues are integrated, and that the faith is at least respected in all areas of campus life.
Bowring refers frequently to forming the college in accordance with “Ex corde Ecclesiae,” a 1990 apostolic constitution written by Pope John Paul II.
“In the area of academics, I assist in uniting the two pillars of Catholic academics—faith and reason—at the heart of the university, serving to guarantee the distinctive Catholic character of the institution in all areas of academics and that the entire academic curriculum is rooted in the principles of the intellectual life as set forth according to church documents on Catholic higher education, including ‘Fides et Ratio’ and ‘Ex corde Ecclesiae,’” said Bowring.
“In the non-academic area, I serve to ensure that the university campus itself is ‘an authentic human community animated by the spirit of Christ’ and that all student organizations, including campus speakers, respect and reflect sound Catholic teaching.”
Bowring articulated Pope John Paul’s teaching that the Catholic university is a microcosm of the church, a macrocosm of the chapel at the center of its campus, and that the true head is Christ, just as he is head of the church.
The college also aspires to form students with a responsible concern for society and some are already getting involved in Dawsonville volunteer fire and rescue work, a mentoring program and blood drive on campus and monthly service at the soup kitchen at the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Atlanta.
They’ve formed music, pro-life, drama and other groups, and a newspaper, and plan to establish Knights of Columbus and Kiwanis chapters. Soccer, cross country, volleyball, softball and golf clubs have been organized; the campus when purchased included lighted tennis courts and a 27-hole golf course.
“It’s a really exciting time to welcome the students to campus. To see them engaged in academic study, to see them engaged in social activities and bonding with each other has just been a real thrill,” Ashcroft said. “We all have the same goal, which is attainment of eternal life, and these young people are really an inspiration to me—good, solid young people who come here to be part of an exciting mission. We recognize this is the first step towards a long history and when we look at some of the great colleges and universities in this country, they all had to begin.”
He expressed gratitude to members of the archdiocese and beyond who have supported the college and encouraged others to spread the word. “This college would not be if not for the sacrifices of hundreds of people who want this college to succeed.”
Student Danielle Armstrong of Madison said she heard about the college while on a Catholic youth retreat and decided to apply.
“I was kind of scared about that (newness),” said Armstrong. “It’s good. I like it. Classes are pretty good, students are nice and friendly and get along … You feel safer than at other colleges.”
Lawrenceville resident Oscar Felipe Gonzalez, whose family moved to Georgia from Colombia, feels “comfortable” at the college. He likes the spiritual dimensions of campus life—daily Mass, a full-time chaplain and time to pray the rosary with other students. He is a student ambassador and joined the golf and soccer clubs. He plans to major in business and likes the availability of teachers.
“I wanted to keep going to Catholic school, and I saw this in Georgia and thought it was great,” he said. “I came here to visit, and I was pretty sure they had a good program.”
Caitlyn McLoughlin from Los Angeles was attending a state college and then a junior college each with over 30,000 students and was feeling lost when a friend showed her an ad for the college in the National Catholic Register.
“It’s so far away and completely different than L.A., but I just felt called almost to come be a part of this brand new college, and I felt the Lord was watching out for me and he wasn’t going to let me make a mistake,” she said.
“The teachers…know who you are and are willing to help you in your studies. The people too, it’s like an extended family. Like Danielle was saying, it’s a very safe environment,” said McLoughlin, who is getting involved with the liturgical music team and pro-life group.
Southern Catholic was conceived in 1999 when founder Tom Clements and other Catholics began meeting to discuss how to build community and decided that a college was the best way to bring people, energy, faith and knowledge together. Planning and fundraising began led by board chair Clements, and land was originally purchased in 2001 on another site in Dawsonville. But fundraising lagged, particularly after Sept. 11, and the original 2002 opening date was delayed. In 2004 Schroeder, retired international operations president of UPS, became chair of the board, and leaders decided to purchase the current property with existing buildings and infrastructure and sell the other site. They found renewed momentum to raise support and funds for the college.
Clements spoke to students at a September orientation weekend about the mission to create moral and ethical leaders.
“We created Southern Catholic to change the world. We want to lead by example,” Clements said. “Now that doesn’t necessarily mean you all are going to be presidents of your own company or principals of schools. Some of you will be leaders raising a family, some will graduate and will be moral and honest examples to your bosses where you work and those people will be touched and changed. Leadership requires courage of conviction. Not all leaders are in the limelight.”
“We took a risk, and we loved. We created Southern Catholic for you,” he continued. “Now it’s yours. You have taken a risk to come here. Continue to listen to the whisper, continue taking the risk, build your love of God so that you can love others freely and you will be who you want to be.”
Richard LeBlanc Jr., vice president for academic affairs and a computer science professor, also feels called to Southern Catholic and with his wife has bought a house across the lake from the college. A 22-year member of Holy Cross Church in Atlanta, he followed the developments at the college for years and was then asked to apply for the position. After interviewing, he became convinced that it was “where the Lord wanted me to be,” after 27 years in various teaching and executive positions at Georgia Tech. He was glad to join an institution committed to fostering both academic excellence and a vibrant faith dimension.
“I’m very much drawn to the mission of Southern Catholic, the idea of combining both the intellectual and spiritual development of the student,” LeBlanc said.
He now oversees implementation of all academic programs at SCC and hires faculty while also teaching. He emphasized the academic advantage for students.
“Because we’re small, students coming here are getting a lot of very personal attention from faculty, who are here because they want to be here and want to teach in this place … Students will get an extra level of interaction with faculty to help them grow at all levels.”
The professor acknowledged the challenges as week by week he and others figure out the best procedures regarding everything from registration to midterm grade reporting, drawing lessons from their prior experience. He’s also found that freshmen are challenged in leading the way, not having upperclassman to help socialize them to the college experience. “We’re trying to be better every week and I know we’ll be better next semester and next year, but I think students by and large are getting a really good experience,” he said. “Those willing to grasp things and jump on with what we’re offering are having an excellent time.”
The core curriculum provides “a really good, integrated experience” that enables students to develop strong communication, reading and critical thinking skills needed for many types of jobs. The philosophy and theology provide a needed base of moral thinking and reasoning, he added. The integrated science program is geared for students who plan to go on to professional degree programs in medicine or dentistry.
LeBlanc offered an example of how the Catholic tradition might be evident even in a physics class. Whereas in a secular school a professor might teach the Big Bang Theory and simply say no one knows where the universe originated, “from the Catholic intellectual tradition you can begin to talk about the fact that we believe the universe was created by God and we want to try to understand things we see in science both through the standard scientific method as well as through what we understand in theology, so in a sense we can have a more complete picture.”
He also noted the strength of their interdisciplinary humanities program in history, philosophy and theology that gives students a greater breadth of understanding of the interconnectedness of these fields. LeBlanc added that the University of Dallas has strong interdisciplinary humanities programs and he has been impressed by how their doctoral students have “a breadth of thinking that is just wonderful. They’re not so focused that you see them as very narrow people.”
He looks forward to helping students here attain that same breadth of knowledge.
“As a Catholic I think this is a great thing to add to the Archdiocese of Atlanta and this part of the state … I like just that in doing this job it’s personally OK for all of me to be visible. At a state university the spiritual side has to be pretty invisible to the students,” he recalled. “I like the fact that this job deals with all dimensions of our lives. That is one of the things that makes education here great. It’s not only about being aware of the piece of the world we study, but we’re willing to talk about and understand the interconnectedness of all things we study.”
William Fenton Jr., who was vice president for institutional advancement for eight years at Barry University in Miami, Florida, now holds that position at SCC. A graduate of the University of Notre Dame with a master’s degree in education from Stanford University, he’s working to spread the news about the college, to attract good students who want to participate fully in campus life, and to do the critical work of raising money to grow and expand. He said the students are not only excited and want to be there but have “pretty good credentials” and an average SAT score of over 1,000—strong for a first class.
“It’s been a great experience to come and help raise money and awareness not just in the Atlanta area but in the region. One of our goals is to get Southern Catholic noticed and be the college of choice throughout this region. We really feel we have a great college going here and we want to become the Catholic college of choice for the Southeast,” Fenton said. “We think we already have got a great group of students and faculty that sets us apart from other Catholic colleges in the Southeast. We’re hoping that people get to know us and come visit us and support us.”
For information visit www.southerncatholic.org.