The setting is Professor Joanne Pierce’s religious studies seminar at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass. For today’s conversation on Hindu concepts and beliefs about the afterlife, Pierce has invited a colleague, Mathew Schmalz, to join the group. Schmalz is an associate professor of religious studies and an expert in the field of Hinduism.
“Do you guys talk in the dining hall about ways you can get into heaven?” asks Schmalz.
At first, most of the class laughs at the question. Then the students begin to provide some answers. One says she does not know enough about heaven to discuss it; another says simply that it frightens him. One student mentions that he hopes heaven is not a pressing issue—he’s only 19, after all.
Schmalz explains to the students that although they may think they know what happens when a person dies, individual understandings of the mechanics of dying vary even within Christianity. He urges the students to resist the temptation to define things in a cut-and-dried manner when sharing worldviews.
As the conversation continues, it is apparent that these freshmen have not only done the assigned reading, but have also reflected on it. One student brings up a previous lecture on Buddhism and points out a parallel among nirvana, moksa and heaven, in that all three are forms of release from physical existence. Others ask well-formulated and thoughtful questions about the connections between Hinduism and Catholicism and discuss the ultimate goals of humanity across different worldviews.
When class ends, the students file out, joking that now in the dining hall they will be discussing getting into heaven. It is clear that this seminar is a step beyond a typical freshman 101 course.
Pierce’s course is part of Montserrat, a new program at Holy Cross designed to enhance the academic and campus experiences of all first-year students. By immediately immersing students in an intensive academic experience complemented by residential and co-curricular activities, Montserrat integrates three parts of college life that are often treated as separate—learning, living and doing. “As part of Montserrat, we want to encourage students early in their academic careers to ask essential questions of life, of studying and experiencing God,” said Pierce. Her sentiments about the program reflect the college’s commitment to care of the whole person.
“Taking things together reflects our Jesuit roots and ideals,” says Nancy E. Andrews, director of Montserrat. “Montserrat provides a sense of community, belonging, contributing to something larger, which is central to developing the whole person.”
The concept for this program for first-year students grew from the success of the college’s First-Year Program. Established in 1992, the First-Year Program gave 150 students each year the option of living in the same residence hall and taking a yearlong course together. “Students involved with F.Y.P. were doing statistically better as student leaders, in academics and in post-graduate decisions,” says Timothy Austin, vice president for academic affairs and dean of the college. “And so, as part of a comprehensive curriculum review, we decided to redefine the program and offer a similar, though much more comprehensive, opportunity to the entire incoming class.”
Engaging the World
Montserrat has five thematic clusters—The Self, The Divine, Global Society, The Natural World and Core Human Questions, each of which includes seminars, like Pierce’s, that examine a theme from a variety of perspectives. Courses vary greatly. “Finding Identities: Coming of Age,” for example, is a team-taught course that examines adolescence from the distinct yet overlapping perspectives of psychology and literature; “World Religions, World Music” is taught in the fall by a religious studies professor and in the spring by a member of the music faculty. There are 44 yearlong interdisciplinary seminars, each one limited to 17 students. In seminars the students are encouraged to interact, ask questions and offer opinions. The environment allows them to engage in the “Jesuit ideals of being open and attentive to the world, and the way God acts in the world,” says Pierce.
Students in the same academic cluster live together in the residence halls, where they can easily continue and share discussions from different seminars and participate in events with faculty, administrators and special guests. Co-curricular offerings also help to connect academics to real life and to connect the students with one another themselves through ongoing common experiences. Activities have included field trips to nearby museums, participation in environmental initiatives, town meetings on election night and Inauguration Day, retreats and expert panels. Guest lecturers have included the Caribbean writer Maryse Condé and Baba Brinkman, author of The Rap Canterbury Tales.
Two class chaplains are ed to follow students throughout their four years at Holy Cross, providing ongoing spiritual resources and a sense of continuity. “Spiritual life is integral to student experience, and we’re really focusing on deliberate integration,” says Marybeth Kearns-Barrett, a chaplain for the class of 2012. The chaplains continue past programs like Student Programs for Urban Development, a community service organization; retreats; and alternative spring break and immersion trips. This year, they have increased the Escape retreat offerings to three times a year to encourage freshmen in Montserrat to have spiritual as well as academic interactions. The point is to help the students integrate faith into everyday life, to introduce them to St. Ignatius Loyola, to reflective practices and the history and traditions of the Jesuits.
The mountain of Montserrat, in Catalonia, has a special meaning for a Jesuit college. At the Benedictine abbey on this mountain, St. Ignatius Loyola, the founder of the Society of Jesus, laid down his soldier’s weapons and started a new life devoted to faith, study and service. Students coming to Holy Cross in their freshman year should be ready to change their lives and find a vocation. “Ignatius completely changed his life at Montserrat, which takes a leap of faith,” says Nancy E. Andrews. “We’re hoping that Montserrat gives students faith in themselves and the courage to follow their hearts.”