"At this age we are starting to evaluate where we are in life. We’ll be out of the safety of college and into the real world in one year," was Peter Fritz’s thought when he was a junior at St. Thomas.
This magazine has followed many members of the Class of 2000 since they were freshmen and has asked them practical as well as philosophical questions about their time here. In this last piece, seniors and faculty were asked to comment on what makes a good life and an ideal future in the new millennium.
Now Fritz is president of the Class of 2000 and the 1,000 seniors — who will graduate in May, July or December 2000 — are ready to leave.
Fritz describes his classmates as "enthusiastic. I have worked with a lot of them, and I can see that they have really enjoyed their time here while looking forward to graduation.
"Most of us feel we got a good education, the country is in good shape and the job market is healthy, so we are optimistic about the future," Fritz said.
"The job outlook is very good," said Diane Crist, acting director of Career Services, which offers free job preparation workshops, seminars on résumé writing and mock interviews to prepare juniors and seniors for careers. "We are seeing more companies coming on campus this year, and salaries are going up."
Within one year following graduation, 95 percent of St. Thomas graduates are employed. About 20 percent are enrolled in a graduate degree program.
Fritz’s real world will be a position as an analyst with Andersen Consulting in Minneapolis. "I used Career Services to job search and had on-campus interviews with Andersen before I was offered the job," said Fritz, an entrepreneurship major.
This spring, more than 600 seniors participated in on-campus interviews and job fairs, such as the Minnesota Private College Job Fair, Minnesota Education Job Fair, and Job Quest 2000. St. Thomas also offers a Career Quest day each spring. More than 100 alumni and faculty representatives from a variety of career fields come on campus to talk to students. In addition, almost every department offers seminars on "What can you do with a degree in English (or economics, or French, etc.)?"
The most popular majors at St. Thomas are business administration, journalism, sociology, psychology and biology, and "the greatest demand for employees is in computer science, accounting, finance, marketing and general business," Crist said.
"However, it’s also the best market for liberal arts majors that I have seen in 10 years. Good communication skills are in demand. Our students are ambitious, poised, well-rounded and hard working. Employers like St. Thomas graduates."
Internships are very valuable in finding careers, and hundreds of students have internships each year. Senior Anne Schmidt said that previous contact with Arthur Andersen helped her win an accounting job there. "I interviewed with them last spring, so I didn’t have to go through the whole process again," she said.
In the classroom, Schmidt, a graduate of Cretin-Derham High School in St. Paul, said she learned real-life skills "that will help prepare me." So has her leadership role as captain of the soccer team; her coach during freshman year said she "expected Schmidt to become the backbone of this program. She does the little things that enable her to be successful."
His classmates are "hard workers," said Fritz. During his college career, he worked 20 to 30 hours a week and, like almost 50 percent of full-time undergraduates, will complete his degree in four years.
Class of 2000 may mean December, not May, 2000 for some. When Tricia Swiderski of Chicago, Ill., graduates in December, she will have "definitely matured as a person while here," said the double major in English and theater. She was a little homesick when first away from her supportive family, but she came to the Twin Cities because the area is renowned for theater. She chose St. Thomas because she felt "I would have a better chance to be in shows and my professors would be more accessible. St. Thomas has done its job as far as I’m concerned," said Swiderski, who has performed in many plays, costumed and directed while attaining a 3.9 GPA.
One reason for not finishing in four years is changing majors, which about 44 percent of St. Thomas students do at some stage.
If this happens to upperclassmen, it can result in spending an extra semester or year at the university. In the case of senior Jake Kirchgessner, who started in biology and switched to business, it will put his graduation back until 2001.
"It doesn’t bother me to spend five years here," he said, "because I don’t want to hurry through school just to get in and get out. I want to do it right. I liked my management classes and I love my business law class, so I think I’m in the right field.
"However, almost all my friends are graduating this May, so I will miss them. And I think there is probably some stigma there, too, of not finishing in four years." Five years, however, will give him a chance to study abroad, perhaps in Japan in 2001.
St. Thomas does have an extra benefit, in Kirchgessner’s opinion. "It’s a good place for a brother and sister to go to college," said the senior. He and his sister, Katie, a freshman, also compete in one of the few college sports that allow a brother and sister to be on the same team — swimming. He competed in butterfly and freestyle, and Katie swims backstroke and sprint freestyle.
"It’s fun to be able to swim with Jake because he knows how to push me harder," Katie said. "He’s an awesome brother. I feel comfortable on campus because I know that if I need anything, he’s around."
"I’m willing to help Katie out with some advice if she asks — but I try not to interfere too much," Jake said. "I already have a bond with her. We are friends. I want to be sure she gets a good experience here, too, so one thing I can help with is explaining what profs to stick to or stay away from. It’s interesting on the intellectual level, too; when we talk it’s clear we have deepened our understanding of ideas."
Jon Iverson is another student who had graduation plans postponed, because of a car accident, back surgeries and finances. But he has found a creative home at St. Thomas. A music major, he worked on a choral composition, "On This Night," with Dr. William Banfield, who holds the Endowed Chair in Humanities and Fine Arts. Iverson also is writing a string quartet for the spring Student Composition Recital.
"Since the car accident, I have been thinking about the creative process and how it affects people. If this accident was meant to improve my musicianship, then in that sense I accept it. I have learned a lot about myself and the people around me," Iverson said. "The Music Department has a great faculty. In my quartet I want people to understand that music is the voice that tells humankind that she or he is greater than they’ll ever know."
Changing a career choice instead of a major happened late for Ben Senger, a business major and journalism minor from East Grand Forks. "It’s taken me to the end of my college career to realize that I want to find a job in journalism," Senger said, "so I am looking for an internship at a television station. The biggest change since high school for me is that I can look at things from a lot of different perspectives. I’m a little better at putting myself in other people’s shoes, and I think that’s important. I’m just a little better student of life than I was."
By the time they have been in college six years, about 66 percent of St. Thomas students will have finished their degrees, a percentage similar to other four-year Minnesota private colleges and universities. In the state university system, 15 percent graduate in four years and 23 percent in five years, said a recent Star-Tribune article, making the point that private colleges now advertise themselves as less expensive in the long run. The nationwide average for four-year graduation rates is 23 percent.
Expensive is not a misnomer for private schools. Many students come from middle-class families, and do not qualify for federal or state grants, which are based on need. The average debt for the 1997 graduating class of Minnesota four-year private colleges was $15,417. Government statistics for private four-year colleges in 1997 put debt for federal loans at $15,300, the same as national average tuition costs. In 1999, the average debt for all graduating students at St. Thomas who borrowed was $16,245, slightly less than a year’s tuition. About 81 percent of undergraduates — and 88 percent of freshmen — receive financial aid at St. Thomas. The average need-based financial award is $11,478. St. Thomas commits increasing resources to financial aid — $19 million in 1998-99.
"I anticipate being $12,000 to $15,000 in debt, which makes me a little nervous, but I know it was for a good school and a good education," said Craig Dodson of Mankato, who covered about 50 percent of his costs with grants, scholarships and work study. A criminal justice major with a 3.5 GPA, he has worked all kinds of summer construction and warehouse jobs and in the St. Thomas Odd Jobs program.
Has it been worth it? "When I came here, I didn’t make decisions in an informed way," said Dodson. "Now I put more thought into it and learn to plan more. I’ve gotten a well-rounded liberal arts education at St. Thomas, just as they advertise."
He hopes to get a job in criminal justice and try out for the U.S. national rowing team next year. "My best experience at St. Thomas was with crew and coming in sixth in the country at the Head of the Charles race in Boston. It was fantastic because we trained so long and hard for it."
"Consumerism has touched this generation," said Dr. Bernard Brady, theology. "The message is that ‘more things will make me happy!’ I was interested to see on the January trip to Cuba that the St. Thomas baseball team noticed what their new friends did not have. One mentioned that ‘they have so little and yet give so much.’ "
Like most graduates, the Class of 2000 has two basic, public goals. The first is fueled by the booming economy. "Students want good jobs, with good incomes, nice houses and all the comforts that we all wish for," Brady said, "and they expect that now. They also want good marriages, children they can raise in a loving atmosphere and a community to which they can contribute."
Tension between career and family
In a society where half of all marriages end in divorce, more than 60 percent of mothers work outside the home, and women still are paid 25 percent less than men for the same job, how possible is having it all?
"The tension, in my opinion, comes from the question of whether they can have both good career incomes and good marriages, given what this takes in terms of time, money and reality," Brady said. "They are well aware that relationships may not last. Everyone either has come from divorced parents or knows someone from a broken home and that is scarier now. The students’ underlying thinking seems to be, ‘I want to be stable before I have kids.’
"Most seniors are still not aware of how much our entertainment culture influences them," added Brady. "I teach classes in morality and the lessons students learn in the media — the narrative that constantly plays in the back of their minds — are sometimes in conflict with the Christian tradition. I wish they would be more critical. What’s popular doesn’t always equate with what’s good."
"One huge influence on us is, of course, the media, which shapes everything — good and bad," Fritz explained. "But we can’t simply blame the media as a bad influence. Many people are into watching sensationalist shows, amazing carnage, so responsibility comes from both sides of the screen."
"A recent Sloan Foundation study found that American youth today are more ambitious than were their counterparts in the previous two decades," said Dr. Meg Wilkes Karraker, sociology. "These higher ambitions are found among both females and males, in different racial and ethnic groups, and across social classes. By the late 1990s, over a quarter of Americans over age 25 have completed a bachelor’s degree or more.
"However, the same study finds that many of the same teens and young adults spend a great deal of time alone, have few deep primary relationships, and may be the most alienated generation to date.
"We need to appreciate that young adults, even college students, are not a homogenous group. I see commitments among students at UST to making the world a better place. I also take heart in research that indicates that, even today, adolescents report that the single greatest influence on adolescent values is their parents."
Erin Daly, a senior from Omaha, Neb., acknowledges this: "My parents gave me roots to grow and wings to fly," said the psychology major. "I know they would still like to have more influence over my decisions like they did when I was under their roof, but they are definitely making a point not to do this. They’ve learned how to let go. It’s almost like it’s harder for me to let go of their influence."
Brady is optimistic about the Class of 2000 and its future. "I sense they like the intellectual life and the St. Thomas community. They are strongly influenced by the good profs — the faculty who are on fire about teaching a course to 20-year-olds who may or may not all want to learn at the beginning of a semester.
"Also, in the past few years and across the country there has been quite a rise in students’ interest in religion. They are working on figuring things out: Who is God? What is God? How am I supposed to live my life? They may not be as well educated in religion when they come to St. Thomas as students used to be, but the good questions are there. On the whole, most try to make moral decisions based on their view of what a good person would do."
Both Katie and Jake Kirchgessner swim about 10 to 15 hours a week from October through February, as well as working about 20 hours a week, Jake in Public Safety on campus, Katie as a waitress off campus. "The biggest misconception about St. Thomas students is that we are stuck on ourselves because we have so much money," Jake laughed. "Our alumni may be affluent, but most students are working because they don’t have much money."
Over the past few years, about 13 percent of seniors work under 10 hours weekly, 30 percent work 11 to 20 hours, 28 percent work 21 to 30 hours, and 11 percent work 31 to 40 hours, as reported in the Senior Survey administered every graduation period. A few work more than 40 hours per week, and only 14 percent do not work or are employed only occcasionally.
St.Thomas women also are stereotyped by other collegians. Erin Daly, a senior from Omaha, Neb., plans to volunteer full-time after graduation either through the ACE program at Notre Dame University or the Jesuit Volunteer Corps. So she is annoyed at the misconceptions of the "typical" St. Thomas student, quoting sarcastically, "Daddy bought me an SUV and I could find my way out of Abercrombie & Fitch blindfolded."
Daly would like "people to take better care of each other in the next century. Our society values the work ethic to a fault. All life seems to be about is working hard and getting ahead. Just because one works harder, does that mean they deserve more? We are all human and have the same basic rights. What happened to living with forgiveness instead of blame?"
Last year, more than 700 upperclassmen studied abroad in more than 40 countries. Fritz said his best experience was the January Term class in London, studying theater. "It was my first time out of this country and it really expanded my horizons. I have been in the Twin Cities all my life," said the Mendota Heights native, "so being in London and traveling to Rome, Venice and Paris was great. It was less comfortable than being here and it opened my eyes. Some Europeans seem to live a little bit simpler than we do, but life is just as good."
"My dream job would be to live in a French-speaking country and work for an international corporation," said Laura Kocik, a double major in international business and French, who transferred from Marquette University. "When I was studying in France through the St. Thomas program, I had an internship in Paris, so working there could be a real possibility."
Fritz also was a volunteer for the St. Paul police storefront office on campus as part of his Business 200 course, which requires all business majors (usually about 40 percent of all students) to put in 40 hours of volunteer work in a semester.
"At first, many resent being forced to volunteer," said Dr. Barbara Gorski, who directs the Business 200 program in which about 720 juniors and seniors volunteer each year. "They have to keep a journal and they have to find their own projects, so as to learn negotiating skills. They experience hospitals, day cares, zoos, tutoring in grade and high schools, homeless shelters, children’s cancer floors, even tax preparation. The service has to be genuinely needed. You can’t just help coach a hockey team unless you also take that team to a homeless shelter. We try to get students outside their ‘safety zone.’ "
"I’m always surprised how much the Business 200 students end up liking the experience. They find it amazing," Gorski said, "and they think all St. Thomas students should be required to volunteer since this is part of what being a religious institution means."
About 25 to 30 percent of all students volunteer, estimates Mike Klein, coordinator of volunteer services. Volunteer opportunities are found in many classes (music students play at hospices, for example), clubs (the Women of Tomorrow group raises funds for oppressed women in Afghanistan) and through Campus Ministry, which sponsors national and international projects in sites as diverse as Selma, Ala., and Guatemala.
The Tutor-Mentor program annually brings St. Thomas students into 29 public schools, parochial schools, after-school programs and a homeless shelter. They provide one-to-one instruction and also become friends and role models to children who often are being raised in poverty.
Tutors learn leadership and diversity. Dr. Jay Erstling’s students in his Business Law course are, for example, teaching English to the growing number of Somali youth attending Roosevelt High.
Emilie Arel will not start her job as a business analyst at Target Corp. until January 2001 in order to do volunteer work this fall. A marketing major from Pine Island, Minn., with a 3.8 GPA, Arel said she "did not know how much I would grow to love St. Thomas and the students here." Arel also thinks the criticism that St. Thomas has no diversity is untrue.
"Diversity is hard to measure because it goes beyond skin color and gender, but all too often that is all we focus on," she said. "My classes have taught me how to think. I would go from heated debates in Christian Morality class and walk across the street to my accounting class, where there is always a right answer. You are taught the skills and techniques to find the right answer, and I can use these skills to find an answer when deciding on moral issues."
Being a little intimidated at the thought of applying to a private Catholic school was a concern for Dorie Skaalerud, 34, one of the 25 to 30 spring graduates from the St. Thomas School of Continuing Studies. "I thought I would be the only non-Catholic in my theology class," said the marketing major. Instead, she was pleased by the diversity she found in the student body and faculty. "I’ve had a Jewish professor and a professor who is a Muslim," she said. "There is a variety, even though St. Thomas is a Catholic university."
Completing her education through the weekend and evening undergraduate program for adult students has been the best decision she has ever made, said Skaalerud, who appreciates learning with other working adults. Skaalerud values "the overwhelming desire to have students learn" that characterizes the faculty.
What impressed Mary Thomes of Little Falls, Minn., most about St. Thomas was "the helpful faculty here who give individual attention. I already have recommended the university to others." Her best experience was being a starter on the women’s basketball team that came in third in the nation in the NCAA Division III tournament. Thomes, an education major, plans to teach and coach after graduation.
One faculty member who has gone to heroic measures to get to know students is Dr. Rick Kunkel who received the "Distinguished Educator Award" from students in 1997. Kunkel, business law, invites students out to lunch, usually at the Grill. By the end of spring semester he will have dined with almost 700 students during his 10 years at St. Thomas.
"Activities that increase student-faculty interaction are a crucial part of excellent teaching. Academic research has shown that next to peer group interaction, student-faculty interaction is the most influential factor in determining a student’s development in college," Kunkel said.
"We build rapport, get to know each other, talk about classes, career plans, life, whatever they want to discuss," said Kunkel, who gets students to come by the simple expedient of offering them a small reward of 3 to 7 extra credit points.
And seniors are an optimistic group. But many do not take advantage of special opportunities for volunteering, traveling, and plain old fun in college, Kunkel thinks. "Seniors often work too much. Some, of course, work out of need, but it seems that many are employed in relatively low-paying jobs to support a certain lifestyle. Our society has changed. Some of us never owned a car or a stereo until after we graduated from UST," recalled Kunkel.
Another teacher who sees a lot of seniors is Dr. Kris Bunton, journalism, who teaches Media Ethics, a senior seminar required of all journalism majors. Bunton sees a difference between her students and other seniors.
"Journalists develop critical skills in probing how our culture is shaped by the media that surrounds it," Bunton said. "Of course, all our seniors are certainly products of a media culture. It is hard for them to imagine life without 24-hour news or a Web-site for quick information, and students are not too critical. Part of the reason for that is that they are visual consumers. What drives me crazy," she admits, is that "they are not readers. They are viewers."
But they are brave, Bunton believes. "Even when students are not the brightest, they come here and rise to challenges. They open themselves up to new ways of thinking. They develop global awareness, they volunteer, they broaden their experiences. I often have taught freshmen and I see them grow each year, become more critical, thoughtful. The best of them are challenged in many different ways. Students like these are a great gift to teachers. We can help them in their development in ways I was never offered as an undergraduate at a large university.
"They are, in some ways, a strange mixture of naivete, cynicism about whether our world can ever be fixed, and a blind hopefulness that the world is a great place."
How to achieve balance in their lives is a major concern. "They probably have seen parents, especially their mothers, trying to cope with a family life and a career. Many are interested in quality-of-life issues and ask important questions when looking for jobs: Is this workplace a place where I can balance my personal and professional life? Will this company support me with parental leave and child care if I choose to be a parent?"
They are a high-achieving bunch. In May 2000, 230 students will graduate with Latin honors. At commencement exercises, 50 can boast summa cum laude (3.8 GPA out of a possible 4.0), 78 magna cum laude (3.6) and 102 cum laude (3.4).
Like many seniors, Peter Fritz names Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as one of the world figures he admires the most: "King was an amazing figure and a great speaker, which is the key to inspiring people." His other nominee is Pope John Paul II. Fritz, a Catholic, saw the pope in Rome and considered it "a truly awesome experience. He greeted the crowd in 12 different languages."
Fritz’ wish for the next millennium is progress. "It’s easy to say peace," he said thoughtfully. "I would like to see more civility among warring countries. The long-standing rivalries have to end. The age of imperialism and war really should be past.
"Our students are more aware of and active in social justice issues than they used to be," said Dr. Alan Sickbert, dean of student life. "St. Thomas does its job. Academically, students learn to think critically and write well. Developmentally, most seniors don’t see issues as black or white, as freshmen tend to do. They are more apt to discern nuances when they discuss problems.
"I’m very proud of what we do," Sickbert said. "We give students a solid sense of being prepared to find their places in a world where the human society has problems. I also believe that more students volunteer in impressive ways."
"One of the points of our culture is the emphasis on ‘me’ and ‘taking care of myself,’ " Brady said. "One of the elements of a St. Thomas education is to say, ‘It’s us — not just me.’"
John Hershey, Ginnie Lyons, Beth Kloyda, Arlene Leyden, Julie Lund and Liz Pojar contributed to this story.