With their attention on the future of Catholic higher education, student affairs professionals from across North America recently gathered at the University of St. Thomas. Thirty-two schools from the U.S. and Canada attended the 2023 Association of Student Affairs at Catholic Colleges and Universities (ASACCU) conference, all with the goal of finding ways to better support and inspire students.
The four-day conference on the St. Paul campus brought together 128 conference attendees for a variety of roundtable discussions, expert presentations and opportunities to connect. Much of the work centered around the current challenges facing higher education, including the lingering consequences of the pandemic and issues related to human dignity.
University of St. Thomas President Robert Vischer acknowledged those challenges but delivered a message of optimism – telling attendees that together, they can break through barriers to create transformational experiences for students.
“This association is absolutely vital to the future of Catholic higher ed. These gatherings are vital not simply because of the knowledge that is conveyed, but because of the relationships that are built and strengthened,” Vischer said. “This work has never been more important, and we shouldn't settle for anything less than a joy-filled life for each one of our students.”
A summer family reunion of sorts, dozens of repeat conference goers welcomed first-timers to share ideas about how to best serve students and their institutions. Breakout sessions featured topics on supporting student faith development, interdepartmental programming and caring for the well-being needs of the campus community.
There were numerous opportunities throughout the week for attendees to engage with thought leaders in Catholic education, including university presidents. A keynote panel titled “Journeys in Catholic Higher Education” featured former University of St. Thomas President and current leader of Santa Clara University, Dr. Julie Sullivan. Sullivan emphasized the importance of the work that student affairs professionals do daily, especially in a time of such technological change.
“You are key to this time when young people are finding that sense of affirmation and belonging, and discerning a purpose,” Sullivan said. “What we do in Catholic higher education is to help people be human. We help them find their unique humanity to care for and love other humans. This is such crucial and fulfilling work.”
Dr. Robert Kelly, University of Portland president and a new member of the St. Thomas Board of Trustees, joined Sullivan on the keynote panel. He encouraged attendees to lead their respective departments with a focus on mission, rather than simply reacting to crisis.
“If you’re constantly leading from crisis, it’s not life-giving. It diminishes your spirit and what you’re trying to do,” Kelly said. “It’s really important that we keep that love and passion for students there in the forefront of everything we do.”
Institutions that made the trip to St. Thomas for the conference included Villanova, Notre Dame, Viterbo, and Catholic University of America. In addition to the formal schedule, plenty of free time was built into the schedule for relationship building and exploration. St. Thomas worked with St. Catherine’s University, the College of Saint Benedict, and Saint John’s University on Night on the Town events, which featured a Mississippi River cruise and a dinner detective murder mystery.
“The conference reminded us of the transformative power of Catholic higher education and our collective commitment to purpose-driven engagement as student affairs professionals,” said Manuela Hill-Munoz, conference co-chair and director of innovation, creative content and changemaking at St. Thomas. “The chance to gather at the University of St. Thomas will forever hold a special place in our hearts as a celebration of the vibrant tapestry that unites us in our pursuit of educational excellence and the values that guide us.”
Founded in 1999 by student affairs professionals working at Catholic institutions, the ASACCU hosts an annual summer conference at a member institution. Planning is already well underway for next year’s conference at Villanova University.