Feature Story

Creating educational experiences that truly prepare students for the future

By Mount Mary University

Posted on April 19, 2023

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When Kristen Carioti, Ph.D., started teaching personal finance two years ago, she recognized a disconnect between the academic resources available and the reality of her students’ lives.

“The books out there didn’t speak to my students; they lacked inclusivity and behavioral finance material,” she said, which were necessary in order to examine how they approach financial issues.

That year, she didn’t use a textbook. The next year, she wrote a textbook of her own.

“Conventional personal finance literature focuses on building wealth, which is of course very important,” she said. “But our students approach the topic through the lens of financial freedom – moving
to a safer neighborhood, starting their own business or buying health insurance for children.

“When you have financial freedom, you get to make decisions about your finances, versus your finances making decisions for you. You have done things in the right order.”

Our students are defining that freedom for themselves, and our faculty is empowering them to do so. This is but a single example of the active process happening all over campus, as this community shapes tomorrow’s game-changers, one lesson at a time.

Addressing universal questions

An education that transforms lives and ultimately the world has been the vision for Mount Mary since the beginning, shaped by the mission of the School Sisters of Notre Dame – and this ideal stretches even further back into history.

“The challenges we face are global, the game we are supposed to be changing is global.”

Julie Tatlock, Ph.D., associate professor of history

The SSND order is modeled after St. Augustine, a fourth-century saint whose writings on the pursuit of knowledge and community were centered on the oneness of God, said theology professor Donald Rappé.

“In theology and philosophy, we search for the big questions of meaning; this search for meaning is predicated on the idea of the one-ness of truth, and the big questions we live with,” he said. “The avenues of truth lead to God.”

In 1972, Ellen Lorenz, SSND, developed the current core curriculum with its foundational course, “Search for Meaning.” It has been the basis of the university’s core curriculum for nearly five decades.

Lorenz saw how every discipline contributes to that search from its own perspective, said Joan Penzenstadler, SSND, a longtime friend, colleague and former vice president for mission and identity.

“Sister Ellen was thoroughly committed to the Catholic intellectual tradition which sees the relatedness of all the avenues that lead us to truth,” Penzenstadler said. “She saw education as a cohesive whole.”

Diverse material reflects diverse student population

With an eye toward inclusivity, the faculty has made “deliberate choices” to adjust the curriculum to make it meaningful for all, Rappé said.

“The demography around the table is so different then it was in previous decades,” Rappé said.

For example, the injustice of the Holocaust is now studied within a greater context of oppression through books such as “Plantations and Death Camps: Religion, Ideology and Human Dignity,” by Beverly Eileen Mitchell, who draws parallels between the indignities inflicted upon those victimized during the slave era and the Nazi era.

“Everything is changing,” Rappé said, as faculty build meaningful educational experiences. Students study decolonized readings of the Bible, meaning, they approach Scripture from a non-Western perspective.

“The challenges we face are global, the game we are supposed to be changing is global,” said associate professor of history Julie Tatlock, Ph.D. “By listening to unrepresented voices, we empower them to be part of solutions.”

Rewriting the status quo

Tatlock recently served as a lead author for a history textbook, “World Civilization,” a free, cloud-based book published by Rice University and funded through the Gates Foundation. The purpose, Tatlock said, is to “highlight particular parts of world history that have not always been mainstream.”

Tatlock wrote the first section of the series on the ancient world. Instead of focusing primarily on Greece and Rome, it also covers Chinese, African, Indian and South American history. It is, she said, “more representative of a variety of peoples who contributed great things to humanity.”

Including voices in history is one way of moving representation forward; changing systems is another route to reshape community. Kristin Whyte, an associate professor of education, is engaged in multiple research projects around early childhood education and advocacy, to ensure that children of color and teachers of color have the same access to opportunities.

In one project, she compared two districts’ interpretation of the concept of readiness. “What does it mean to have children ready for school versus having a school that is ready for all children?

“I’m curious, what does that mean for teachers, administrators in a district and ultimately student experiences?”

When faculty bring new answers – and new questions – into the classroom, they form the world view of their students.

“I directly bring to my students the things that I’m seeing out in the field,” Whyte said.

“Our community really cares that we were doing this … these experiences knit our community together.”

Theresa Utschig, campus ministry director, on the spring break trip to the Mexican border to learn about immigration issues.

As an academic, President Isabelle Cherney, Ph.D., has researched and published extensively on the topic of how gender affects career pathways. Her most recent piece of research, titled, “The STEM Paradox: Factors Affecting Diversity in STEM Fields,” was published earlier this year.

“If women do not develop spatial reasoning or are not exposed to math and geometry, women can be at a disadvantage – entrance tests for medical and dental fields, for example – and they may be dissuaded from entering fields such as computer science, physics or engineering.”

As president of an all-women’s institution, she is in a place where her knowledge can be applied in ways that are truly transformational. She foresees growing implementation of STREAM (science, technology, reflection, engineering, arts and math) practices in every corner of campus.

“Here, we have the ability to digitally expose students to what we know really works,” she said.

Building experiences outside the classroom

An education is more than academics. Extracurricular experiences shape the world view of students as individuals and enrich the community as a whole.

During spring break in March, five students and two staff members took an immigration service learning trip sponsored by Mount Mary’s campus ministry to San Antonio, Tex., to learn about the problems faced by people who have immigrated to the United States.

“We went to be there in holy witness,” said director Theresa Utschig. Through this firsthand experience, they learned about some of the reasons for migration, the journeys immigrants make, and the resources that are available to immigrants once they reach the United States. They toured the Mexican-American border in McAllen, Texas in order to get an idea of what people
encounter when they arrive at the border.

Throughout their work, they focused on serving with compassion and treating those they encountered with dignity.

“We hoped to in some way alleviate the emotional and mental stress and anxiety of those whom we meet by offering love, hope and encouragement,” Utschig said. Along the way they stayed with some of the School Sisters of Notre Dame and learned about their own international experience, some of it at the border.

All winter, the students engaged in extensive fundraising prior to the trip and the Mount Mary community responded generously. They were twice blessed – once as part of an all-campus Mass and again at 6:30 a.m. on the morning of their departure, by the SSNDs at Trinity Woods, just before they pulled out of the parking lot.

“Our community really cares that we were doing this,” Utschig said. “These experiences knit our community together.”

The Mount Mary spirit continues to imbue communal experiences, even when they take place away from campus, said Rappé, who co-led his 11th study abroad trip to Rome with Mount Mary students studying theology and philosophy.

In January, this feeling was especially apparent among Catholics and non Catholics alike after the group had a papal visit with Pope Francis.

“He represented the values that we try to represent here – peace, reconciliation and the reminder of our imperative to act justly,” Rappé said. “They all seemed to pick up on the spiritual reasons that we would include a papal audience in their Rome experience.”

Shaping the values that carry students forward

In examining the president’s theme, “One community shaping tomorrow’s game-changers,” the act of shaping is the action verb that turns ideas into reality. This is the nexus, where the ideal and the practical come together
to take form.

The faculty and entire support community in every corner of the institution serve this purpose by continually fine-tuning their approach to creating meaningful and relevant student experiences.

For Carioti, this translates into moving students into a position of financial freedom.

“Our mission is to educate women to transform the world, but it’s really hard to do that when students are living paycheck to paycheck,” said Carioti. “Every paycheck should make you less dependent on your next one – and we need to teach that mindset to students.”

This is a community united in purpose: To examine, question, create and improve. Propelled by the spirit of St. Augustine, united in vision with the SSNDs – this community shapes game-changers to transform the world.