Core Strength

Students learn how to use a liberal arts foundation to make St. Kate's mission their own.

Creating a common first-year experience is a practice among many institutions of higher learning. But St. Kate's uses a very distinct, mission-driven approach that bookends each student's undergraduate career — one that cultivates leadership in its students and instills advocacy and social responsibility. 

"Many people view college education as mainly a way to get a job. But it's so much more than that," says Martha Phillips, PhD, biology professor and core curriculum director. "It's about education for your life. The goal of the liberal arts core requirements is to prepare each person to be a global citizen. At St. Kate's, we educate our students to lead and influence, not only to get a job and do it well." 

Nancy Heitzeg, PhD, professor of sociology and former co-director of the Core Curriculum, believes it's a powerful approach. “I think it's pretty unique – the ways in which we have connected The Reflective Woman and Global Search for Justice and carried that connection through the core liberal arts and the student and alumni experiences." 

Since the fall semester of 1995, The Reflective Woman (TRW) and Global Search for Justice (GSJ) are the only two specific courses required of every undergraduate student. They were introduced to the University at a time when the number of transfer students coming to St. Kate's was growing at a rapid rate.

This enrollment shift presented a challenge: how to ensure every student understands the St. Kate's mission and what it means to be a Katie, no matter when in their educational journey they join our community. The solution was the bookends of these courses: if every student took them — even if they didn't begin their post secondary education here — they would still understand and connect with the most important elements of a St. Kate's education. 

Tarshia Stanley

Tarshia Stanley, PhD. Dean of the School of Humanities, Arts, and Sciences.

Connecting Communities, Grounded in the Liberal Arts

The Reflective Woman and Global Search for Justice represent the best of the liberal arts in action — content connection, personal reflection, and community building around a shared experience," says Tarshia Stanley, PhD, dean of the School of Humanities, Arts, and Sciences.

The liberal arts grounding of a St. Kate's education is embraced across all the schools and colleges in the University. Critical to the St. Kate's mission, a liberal arts education offers students a depth and breadth of knowledge through a manner of learning that fuels curiosity, expands open-mindedness, and unlocks the tools to drive systemic change. The lessons learned in TRW can be applied to any major program, a benefit sometimes lost in the noise of other degree requirements. 

"An institution has an obligation to educate in a holistic manner, which includes the mind, body, and spirit," says Laura Fero, PhD, MSN, RN, who joined St. Kate's as the dean of nursing in June 2019. “I believe it is only through this approach that we can shape the characteristics of leaders that advocate for social responsibility and opportunity. Critical thinkers are built through providing co-curricular opportunities in both the discipline-specific and liberal arts courses, something St. Kate's is known for. This process facilitates emotional intelligence leading to reflective practices and lifelong learning." 

Beginning with Reflection

TRW is a discussion-based course intended to develop knowledge, values, and skills in critical and creative inquiry, effective communication, and an understanding of diversity. Faculty teaching TRW use a variety of approaches uniquely responsive to the learning styles of women. The course explores identity development within social contexts, different approaches to truth and evidence, and ways to work toward community and justice. 

"Students have the space to think about who they are, how they fit into St. Kate's, and where they're going with their journey along the way," explains Heitzeg. 

This space includes students eligible for Learning Enrichment and Advising Program (LEAP) support. Patricia Young, assistant director of the writing program at the O'Neill Center, will begin her fourth year teaching a TRW class this year — one of the four LEAP sections open to students. Young was previously a full-time faculty member teaching writing courses at a different college before joining St. Kate's in 2015. She appreciates how the TRW experience helps students develop familiarity and comfort with the resources available to them throughout their time at St. Kate's. 

"I can see the connections and overlaps between these courses and services offered at the O'Neill Center," says Young. "They both provide support to students and encourage them to feel comfortable seeking out that support, as well as provide the space for them to forge relationships with those peers who will be there every step of their journeys." 

According to the most recent O'Neill Center annual report, the writing center receives a lot of visits from first-year students and almost one third of writing center visits last year were from TRW students. "For many students, this is their first time writing college level work, so it makes sense," explains Young. 

Cultivating a Global Outlook

In a student's final years, GSJ prepares them to bring what they've learned at St. Kate's out into the world and use their knowledge and skills to make it a more just place. This coursework includes an in-depth examination of the conditions of injustice experienced by a people or peoples outside of European/North American-majority culture. Several versions of GSJ are offered each term, each focusing on a different aspect of justice. 

"Sometimes, students come into the core with a dismissive 'have to take approach. But by the time they're finishing their program and recognizing the connections between TRW and GSJ, they realize the true value of what they learned," says Heitzeg. "They see how it helped them navigate the place, think about the mission, and then leave with a sense of how it can translate to their careers and their lives." 

That is what makes TRW and GSJ so essential: without distracting from their majors, the courses and conversations elevate students' views of their own educational paths and connect to their lives beyond their degrees. They are better prepared for their work in their chosen disciplines. 

Catherine Core Reader

One book follows students through their St. Kate's education. The Catherine Core Reader combines the readings for two core courses, The Reflective Woman 
And Global Search for Justice, into one essential volume. 

Core Teachings, By the Book

One significant change to these courses, according to Heitzeg, was when texts for both TRW and GSJ were merged into a single book: The Catherine Core Reader. "The idea is that students get this book in their first year, keep it with them during their time here and continue to think about how the education they are claiming is connected to everything on these pages. Then, the simple act of bringing that same book to their GSJ class and finishing it, connects the beginning and end of their learning journey here." 

Over time, The Catherine Core Reader has also evolved both in content and format. “We've got a lot of pieces that are written by our own faculty, so it's also a good way to introduce students to a range of not only departments and disciplines, but also faculty at St. Kate's," says Heitzeg. 

"Sometimes, students come into the core with a dismissive 'have to take' approach. But by the time they're finishing their program and recognizing the connections between TRW and GSJ, they realize the true value of what they learned," says Heitzeg. "They see how it helped them navigate the place, think about the mission, and then leave with a sense of how it can translate to their careers and their lives." 

That is what makes TRW and GSJ so essential: without distracting from their majors, the courses and conversations elevate students' views of their own educational paths and connect to their lives beyond their degrees. They are better prepared for their work in their chosen disciplines.

Katie to the Core

The TRW and GSJ courses were created with the intention of establishing two foundations. The first: to provide students the skills and tools they would need for a successful academic career at St. Kate's. The second: to translate those skills and tools to use in their professional and life journeys. The universal nature of these courses helps unify students in a way that transcends the communities built within degree programs. 

The intent, when TRW and GSJ were approved as part of the core curriculum, was to provide a more equitable learning experience for all undergraduate students attending St. Kate's. Each student would be grounded in the "why" of liberal arts, develop life skills, and question the issues faced outside of campus life that test individual measures of justice and ethics. 

The strength, literally, is in the core. The teaching methods may change to fit the students' needs, but the lessons they deliver will be constant: discovering, acquiring, and applying knowledge in the classroom and in life.


by Sarah Voigt, from St. Catherine University Magazine Fall 2019 issue