There are about 220 Catholic colleges and universities in the United States, a number that has diminished over the past decade with several closings each year.  The most famous schools are those known for their sports teams, like football powerhouse Notre Dame, or Villanova and San Francisco that have won multiple national basketball championships, as well as Marquette, Creighton, and Gonzaga that are among the top ten programs today.  Of course, there are many, like Boston College and Georgetown, that are known for their rich history and strong academics, and still others like San Diego University that are prized for their stunningly beautiful campuses.  In our area of western Missouri and eastern Kansas are Saint Mary’s in Leavenworth, Benedictine in Atchison, Conception Seminary College, Donnelly, Rockhurst, and Avila.

I have been blessed to be on the Avila campus this semester and am learning much about what an amazing school it is, as well as getting to know some wonderful students, staff, and faculty.  Though it has been around for over 100 years and is at its third campus, Avila is not well known—not even by Catholics in KC.  Dr. Jim Burkee has been president for less than two years and brings a contagious energy and enthusiasm to the community.  The current freshman class is the largest in history and enrollment is expected to grow more next year.  He and staffers are determined to emphasize the principles of Catholicism as well as the core values of The Sisters of Saint Joseph, who founded it and who have been so prevalent in the history of education in Kansas City.

Avila students come from twenty-six countries, yet there is specific outreach to local first-generation college students.  Over half of their undergraduates are student-athletes.  Development of the whole person is stressed; in addition to academic and athletic progress, the school has programs that focus attention on spiritual growth through appreciation of, and outreach to, all cultures, religions, and people.  Unlike at many large universities, Avila faculty know their students and will personally work with them to assure success.  Students are prepared not just for a job but a vocation, to grasp the sense of responding to a call; in this, they are moved toward self-transformation as a springboard to transforming their surroundings in years ahead.  Co-eds at Avila realize that they have a moral obligation to develop right relationships through critical thinking, conflict resolution, problem-solving, and restorative encounters.  And they are encouraged to become ambassadors of peace who are sensitive to, and advocate for, the marginalized, outcast, and discarded members of society.

For numerous reasons, the number of small colleges and religious universities will continue to decline in our country in the decade ahead.  I hope that we can all contribute to the success of these schools so that they remain strong and thrive as places of formation that pass along our faith to the next generation of leaders.