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Fr. Steve Katsouros, SJ, a Jesuit of the USA East Province, penned the article below while serving as dean and executive director at Arrupe College of Loyola University Chicago, a two-year program for students who want to go to college but aren’t sure how to pay for it. It’s a great first step for them to earn an associate’s degree with little to no debt before transferring to a four-year college to earn a bachelor’s degree. Fr. Katsouros is now president of the Come to Believe Foundation where he will look to replicate the Arrupe College model at other campuses.

Students’ hopes feed those who accompany them as well

By Steve Katsouros, SJ

“I’d rather be called ‘poor.’”

That was the reaction of Louisa, a student at Arrupe College of Loyola University Chicago and a member of the first cohort of students who enrolled at Arrupe in 2015.

In the summer of 2017, Louisa defied the statistics. Nationally, urban junior colleges report a two-year graduation rate of 7%. Louisa and her classmates were completing their associate’s degrees at nine times higher than the national average; 89% of the graduates enrolled in four-year institutions, and 75% of the graduates completed their bachelor’s in five years or less, compared to the national average of two-year institutions at 14% of bachelor’s attainment in six years.

“Yes, Father K, I’d rather be called ‘poor,’” Louisa repeated. She was reacting to the title of an article about Arrupe’s first graduation in Chicago’s newspaper of record, The Tribune. The title of the article: “Loyola program opens door for vulnerable students.”

“I’m not vulnerable,” said Yessica, Louisa’s classmate, who was transferring to University of Wisconsin, Madison, after graduating from Arrupe.

“Bad choice of words,” said Khalid, who was continuing at Georgetown.

“Agreed,” said Dante, who planned to leverage his Arrupe associate’s degree in the workforce by enrolling in Year Up, a job training program, after our graduation.

Photo by Lukas Keapproth, Loyola University Chicago.

When I arrived at Arrupe College to launch this new academic unit at Loyola University Chicago in the fall of 2014, my responsibilities included designing an interview protocol for students wanting to join the program. The protocol would be an important part of our first class. Influenced by the work of psychologist Angela Duckworth, I wanted to assess grit and persistence. Consequently, prospective students were asked, “Describe an obstacle you have faced. What did you do about it? Did anyone help you? What have you learned because of the obstacle? What would you do differently?” Overall, the interviews worked, and we enrolled 159 students in our first cohort, including Louisa and Yessica, Khalid and Dante.

Yet in retrospect, the interview protocol presumed that, of course, First-Generation students who are either Pell eligible or undocumented must have faced obstacles. This was similar to lumping our students into the general category of “vulnerable.”

Education scholar Jackie Gerstein terms this the “deficit narrative” — viewing another through the lens of what is needed, of being vulnerable, of experiencing obstacles. Gerstein encourages us to consider the “asset narrative” — what are the talents, the gifts, the experiences our students bring to Arrupe and to Jesuit higher education?

So we changed the interview protocol. We dropped the question about obstacles. Interviewers now say to prospective students: “Arrupe has a wonderful, supportive community. From reading your application essay, and from what your high school counselor tells us and your recommendations indicate, we believe you can contribute to our community, our community will be better because of you. Can you talk about a talent or strength you think you have?”

My colleagues and I consider our students to be fellow pioneers in creating and establishing Arrupe. Professors and staff ask students, “What are your interests? What are your goals with this degree? What are you curious about?” Their responses have shaped our curriculum decisions and informed how we deliver courses and support services. I attribute much of the success we have seen at Arrupe to our students and graduates, their influence and feedback.

As I reflect on the third of the Universal Apostolic Preferences — Accompanying the Young in Hope — I think of how students and faculty, administrators and alumni, board members and the larger Loyola Chicago community accompany each other. Of course, we attract students who benefit from Arrupe’s affordability. As one student said, “I came to Arrupe for the affordability, but I stay at Arrupe for the community and the opportunity.” The opportunity has been a two-way street, as my colleagues, I and Loyola University have all learned from Arrupe students how to offer a high-quality liberal arts program with many support services at a lower cost to students who are too often underrepresented on our campuses. We accompany each other, and I am more hopeful for higher education because of Arrupe students.

I have introduced Fr. Arrupe to new students through the “Nothing is more practical” reflection generally attributed to him:

Nothing is more practical than finding God,
than falling in love in a quite absolute, final way
What you are in love with,
What seizes your imagination, will affect everything.
It will decide what will get you out of bed in the morning,
What you do with your evenings,
How you spend your weekends,
What you read, whom you know,
What breaks your heart, and what amazes you with joy and gratitude.
Fall in Love, stay in Love,
And it will decide everything. 

Two years later, at commencement, I remind our new graduates of Fr. Arrupe’s words, turning his message on them. “You have seized our imaginations,” I tell them. “You have affected everything…you amaze us with joy and gratitude.” When I look at our graduates — or imagine looking at them this year, as I deliver my remarks via Zoom — I don’t see vulnerable people burdened with obstacles. Rather, I think how much I have learned by accompanying them during their first postsecondary educational experience, and how much Jesuit higher education has to learn from their assets and their achievements.