Educators are lifelong learners, but it’s not every day that a group of faculty at the University of St. Thomas gets to become students. Through a yearlong seminar, a new interdisciplinary cohort gathers monthly for Engaging the Mission. Participating faculty members are led through monthly conversations about topics that allow them to turn the lens inward on their personal and professional vocations.
Throughout the year, the cohort discusses challenging topics that debate the dignity of the human person, the idea of the common good and what the role of faculty is when it comes to mental health.
“We really focus on the needs of the students and how faculty members can accompany them in their challenges, first and foremost by putting human relationships at the center and demonstrating personal care and attention, which is very much rooted in the gospel encounters that Jesus models,” Vice President for Mission Father Chris Collins said.
The deep conversations among participants spark camaraderie that continue through the final month’s seminar held in Rome. The cohort visits three offices in the Vatican and learns about the current concerns of the Catholic Church. Their stay included Mass at the Vatican and general audience with Pope Francis.
“You have a sense of the history of the Church, the beauty, the architecture and the art and how the tradition has evolved,” Collins said.
Although Rome may be a new city for some, the trip is life-changing for all. The experience sculpts the cohort’s outlook on their role at the university. Not only are they renewed after such an impactful trip, but the group also brings more back to the campus than just souvenirs.
“When people go through this, they come back and they’re like seeds for the mission, placed all through campus,” Professor of Theology Bernard Brady said.
The group is composed of faculty with various religious beliefs. Seven different departments were represented in the group of 15 participants who traveled to Rome in May.
“It was phenomenal to be able to work with so many people across the university, and to hear so many diverse perspectives,” said Associate Dean of Engineering and 2019 cohort member Deborah Besser. “There’s great knowledge and wisdom across the campus.”
Although conversations may wrap up without consensus, the cohort walks away from each seminar laughing and catching up.
Creating a sense of unity despite these various beliefs, the cohort builds relationships amongst faculty from different colleges and backgrounds.
“That’s the beautiful part,” Besser said.
Not only is this important for the overall health of the scholars, but it betters the experience of the students they teach on campus. Students walk away with more than a diploma; they get a holistic education.
“We’re trying to form a community of scholars,” Collins said. “A whole community of learning, friendship and support. That makes a difference.”
Marcella de la Torre, a management professor in the Opus College of Business, agreed. “As a faculty member participating in the Engaging the Mission Seminar, I was able to connect with other faculty from across the university and formed new friendships,” she said. “The in-depth readings, videos and discussions pushed us to reflect on our roles at the university and how we engage with the mission in a meaningful way. That deeper connection to the mission and values of the university makes us relevant and helps us see how our contributions have positive societal impact not only for the students but colleagues and the communities we serve.”
In a nation where higher education often is viewed as a transaction, the cohort organically fosters a culture of human-centered ideas and innovations rooted in Catholic principles.
“This is very human-centered, what we’re trying to do. People have a variety of interests and concerns that are outside one’s academic discipline,” Collins said. “It’s a community of scholars and learners together that helps shape things differently.”
This was the original idea Father Larry Snyder, the immediate past vice president for mission, had when he cultivated the first Catholic intellectual cohort in 2018. As a professor, it can be easy to get caught up in curricula, scholarships and department initiatives. The cohort provides an opportunity for people to get exposed to new perspectives and understandings about the university’s Catholic foundation.
“We’re all doing our own thing, teaching our own classes (and) this is an opportunity for people to widen (their) spectrum up a bit and realize they’re participating in something bigger,” Brady said.
The sixth cohort is set to launch this fall. Faculty can find more information on the Engaging the Mission seminar by visiting the Office for Mission’s website.
“If you’ve already made the step to come to St. Thomas, then maybe the next step is to think about how your skills, knowledge, talent can add to the goals at St. Thomas,” said Besser. “It was a really great experience.”