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By PJ Williams

March 19, 2024 – A Jesuit education has long been the gold standard for forming compassionate, intelligent, and well-rounded men and women for others. Many who do not know the Society of Jesus are at least familiar with the alumni of their schools. However, for some college-bound students, Jesuit higher education is not an affordable option. Fairfield Bellarmine is working to change that.

Bellarmine is a two-year associate’s degree program grounded in the Jesuit tradition, serving the needs of students in the greater Bridgeport, Conn., area. Part of Fairfield University, Bellarmine opened in the summer of 2023 to an inaugural class of 44 students.

“We offer the same core curriculum program that any Fairfield University student would take,” explained Fr. Kevin O’Brien, SJ, vice provost, and executive director of Fairfield Bellarmine. “That includes philosophy and theology, math and English, science and humanities. The curriculum fosters critical thinking and communication skills.” In their second year, students focus on one of four tracks: business, computer science, health studies, or liberal studies.

Bellarmine is located in the former St. Ambrose parish in the East End of Bridgeport, about seven miles from Fairfield University’s main campus. St. Ambrose was opened in the 1920s but was closed a decade ago. “We’ve repurposed the parish property to become a college campus, and the students have really lived in the place and made it their own,” says Fr. O’Brien.

Fairfield Bellarmine is not the first Jesuit community college program. That distinction goes to Arrupe College. Located on the downtown campus of Loyola University Chicago, Arrupe College opened in 2015. Fairfield University President Mark Nemec previously worked at the University of Chicago and was inspired by what Loyola University Chicago did with Arrupe College. When Nemec came to Fairfield, he wanted to explore what it would look like for the university to offer a similar program.

“At the same time, Bishop Frank Caggiano of Bridgeport was looking to develop a community college program to provide more avenues to higher education for Catholic high school graduates, particularly those from low-income backgrounds,” explained Fr. O’Brien. To help meet this need in Bridgeport, no student attending Fairfield Bellarmine pays more than $1,000 a year. The remainder of the $15,000-per-year tuition cost comes from federal and state grants and philanthropy.

While students at Fairfield Bellarmine share similar economic backgrounds, there is much more to them than that. “They’re resilient. They’re willing to do whatever it takes,” said Nakia Letang, director of admissions at Fairfield Bellarmine. In her role, Letang has become deeply familiar with the inaugural class. “Some of them worked 30-plus hours a week in high school while also supporting their family,” she said. Nearly all the students at Bellarmine are the first in their families to go to college. “These are some amazing, smart, incredible students. They have so much potential.”

Because the program is part of Fairfield University, students from the Bellarmine campus enjoy all the privileges of any Fairfield student. They can take advantage of the university’s clubs, athletics, performing arts, and academic support resources. There is also a shuttle that runs between the two campuses to help Bellarmine students access these resources.

Bellarmine is designed to be just for commuter students. “All of our students are local and all of them intentionally wanted to stay local,” said Letang. For these students, being close to loved ones is an important consideration when looking at colleges. “Many of the students said, ‘I need to stay close to my family. I need to be present for younger siblings or to help out.’”

As with any associate’s degree program, students have the option to continue their education at a four-year institution like Fairfield or begin their career after two years. “We are building a robust internship and career counseling program to help students discern their future path,” explained Fr. O’Brien. To help make the path to a four-year degree more accessible for those who want it, Fairfield University has committed to enrolling 35 Bellarmine graduates per year with full-tuition scholarships.

Kayanna Mills, a member of Bellarmine’s inaugural class, hopes to be one of those students. During high school she had considered going to a state community college but enrolled at Bellarmine because of the opportunities it presented. “It has been wonderful, and it is starting to feel like home,” she said. “I hope to continue my education on the big campus at Fairfield University to earn my bachelor’s degree in nursing.”

For some students, graduating after two years and starting their career is more prudent than completing their four-year degree. This can be due to a need to support their family or the fact that the field they have chosen does not require a four-year degree. Bellarmine expects that many of their computer science students will want to begin their career once they graduate.

No matter what students plan to do after graduation, Bellarmine faculty and staff are there to support them. They accompany these talented young men and women and help them become the person God calls them to be. “We create a culture of care, I call it ‘authentic care,’ a care that isn’t based on ‘what I want for you’ but ‘what do you want and how can we get you there,’” said Dr. Pamela Tolbert-Bynum Rivers, associate dean for academic affairs at Bellarmine. “I hope that those who never felt that they were college material—or even if they felt it, never thought that they would be here because of structural barriers— are able to thrive.”

To help students thrive and overcome any barriers in their way, PeJay Lucky, assistant dean for student success, created a “first-year experience” course. This required course helps Bellarmine students transition to college life. “We’re talking about mental health. We’re talking about academic advising. We’re talking through social identities and socialization. And we talk about financial literacy, among other things,” explained Lucky. In addition, Lucky partners with Campus Ministry to provide spiritual care for the students.

When it comes to the future of Bellarmine, the hope is to expand the campus by renovating more buildings. The administration also plans to expand the current class size, but there are limitations. While the campus does have room for more students, Bellarmine does not plan to exceed 100 students per year. This is to ensure that faculty and staff are able to provide cura personalis, or care for each student in their uniqueness in mind, body, and spirit. Class sizes will not exceed 20 students. “We believe that 200 is as far as we will go, to ensure that we are able to provide that close one-on-one care for students,” said Letang.

Making sure that students know that they are cared about is one of the most important things Bellarmine is doing. “Using a Jesuit term—radical hospitality— we’ve been able to create a place where students feel welcome and have a sense of belonging,” said Lucky. “It’s a place where students want to be.”

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