The value of a St. Mary's education

June 06, 2013

This letter is in response to Anne Neal's recent commentary, "Cautionary campus tale," (May 30). As a 2008 St. Mary's alumna, I, like many of my fellow alumni, took great umbrage to the broad strokes Ms. Neal attempts to use in painting our alma mater as a poster child of that "bloated wastrel" which according to her is higher education. Like many of today's social and political commentators, Ms. Neal takes two facts — St. Mary's lower than anticipated incoming freshman class and the college's comparatively high in-state tuition — to draw her dubious, agenda-ridden conclusions.

She claims that "students can graduate without exposure to literature, American history or government, foreign language, or composition." Perhaps Ms. Neal needs a refresher in her informational literacy, a skill St. Mary's Core Curriculum strives to foster in its students. A simple search for the Core Curriculum on the college's website reveals that in addition to the major's requirements, a student must take eight courses in the arts and sciences in order to graduate. One of these is the First Year Seminar which Ms. Neal seems to delight in maligning in her article. A student must also take one course in each of the six areas of the liberal arts and sciences — the arts, cultural perspectives, humanistic foundations (for example, history, philosophy and religion), mathematics, natural sciences with a lab, and social sciences. In addition, a student must take at least one foreign language course; yet an additional semester of that language may be used to satisfy the cultural perspectives requirement.

Ms. Neal directs her most virulent criticism at the "over-specialized niche courses" exemplified in her eyes with the First Year Seminar topics. While I graduated prior to the switch from the General Education Program to the Core Curriculum, one of my favorite courses at St. Mary's was one of those so-called "niche" classes, "Monsters and Monstrosity," in which we examined the appearances of monsters in French literature and how their resurgence often corresponded with an upheaval in society.

Finally, Ms. Neal bemoans the fact that St. Mary's does not "participate in the Voluntary System of Accountability so we have no objective measure of how effectively (or not) students learn." While no one will accuse me of being objective in this letter, permit me if you will this subjective anecdote providing a partial clue to this mystery. I graduated St. Mary's as a French and German double major and history minor with a 3.98 GPA. When I arrived at St. Mary's, I had six years of French study under my belt, but I had never taken a single German class. My high school did not offer German. All I knew was "guten tag," "danke," and a certain cuss word not fit for print. At the end of my four years, through the kind encouragement and help of German professors Anne Leblans and Arndt Niebisch, I mastered German to an advanced level so much so that I won a Fulbright Scholarship to teach English at a junior/senior high school in Germany for the 2008-2009 school year.

There are many factors a student must weigh before choosing which college to attend. While the technical cost of St. Mary's may be higher than a University of Maryland, the experience I had and the community I took part in cannot be beat. Instead of sitting in introductory classes in a huge lecture hall with 100-to-200 of my closest friends, the largest class I had outside of my majors had 35 students. The classes in my majors averaged 10 students. I never had to read a professor's book for any class. I received the attention and help I needed directly from my professors, not from a teaching assistant. I still use my old history notes from "Legacy of the Modern World" (western civilization for non-St. Mary's alumni) and from my French Revolution course when I tutor. In my junior year, after my mom died of cancer, one of my French professors made a donation to the American Cancer Society in her name.

St. Mary's helped me grow into the adult I am today. It has served as a strong foundation for my graduate studies and my professional life as a translation project manager in which I daily draw on my critical thinking, written expression, oral expression, and information literacy skills which St. Mary's nurtured. St. Mary's was truly worth every penny I paid. Is it perfect? No, but then what college is? Cautionary campus tale? I think not.

Jennifer Schaumburg, Wayne, Pa.

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