Equipped to Lead and Succeed

St. Ignatius Institute Doubles Size

by Edward Carpenter

In an age when the day’s political debates are dissected via Facebook posts and poetry is tweeted across cyberspace in 140 characters or less, it’s refreshing to know that interest in the Great Books is thriving at the University of San Francisco.

Touted as an honors program with no entrance requirements, USF’s St. Ignatius Institute (SII) is enjoying the highest enrollment it has seen in more than a decade. The institute’s curriculum primarily adheres to an historical reading of classical literature, history, philosophy, and theology from ancient Greece to today.

From Petrarch and Machiavelli to de Tocqueville and Ralph Ellison, students still, and perhaps more than ever, want to read texts that help them ask questions and move them on to the next phase of their life, said Sean Michaelson, S.J., who took over as SII director in 2008.

Recently, changes to the curriculum have expanded the program’s appeal, particularly to students outside the humanities and those interested in double majoring. Introduced a year ago, two-unit seminar courses (as compared to the three- or four-unit survey courses SII generally offers) have proved popular. Not only they easier to balance in a heavy course load, they are offered in a less formal setting and tend to focus on one writer or thinker, Jeffrey Paris, for example, or a chosen topic such as Monsters, Ink, in which students compare and contrast the themes of Frankenstein, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Dracula, and more.

“The two-credit seminars have been very well received, drawing students to SII from majors who otherwise wouldn’t be able to manage the many classes they’re enrolled in,” Fr. Michaelson said.

SII today boasts 150 students, double its size from just two years ago. They come from every ethnic and religious background and widely disparate academic interests, including nursing, ROTC, and English, with 80 percent graduating in four years – an enviable rate.

In May, the institute celebrated SII student Jake Levernier winning the Dean’s Medal for Excellence in the Arts and being named the valedictorian for the College of Arts and Sciences 2010.

“SII has allowed me to explore some of the books and thinkers that I always thought were most interesting, the ones I associate with a liberal arts education,” said Guy Ras, a junior politics major. “What I didn’t expected was how strong the fellowship among SII students would be, from taking part in community service projects, to cheering on the San Francisco Giants, and attending Mass together.”

In fact, an integral part of SII is the living-learning community it provides with nearly all freshmen and many sophomores living together on the same dorm floor. Students study and attend Mass together, hold murder-mystery game nights, and compete as a team in intramurals.

Faith retreats, community service work, and study abroad opportunities for upperclassmen are also part of the SII program.

“The friends I’ve made at the institute are lifelong friends, that’s how close we are,” Ras said.

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