Four dinners and seven months ago, 26 sophomores agreed to take a three-year-long journey with 12 professors. They knew that they would be discussing faith and learning more about their religion and each other. However, they did not know much about the details of the program.

They did not know that they would attend dinners that imitated Augustinian dinner dialogues nor how this program would profoundly affect them. It would provide a space to both reinforce and challenge their pre-existing beliefs. They did not know that they would anxiously wait for the next dinner, nor that by the last dinner, they would earnestly request the founder for one more.These sophomores said “yes” to the Faith and Learning program about which they did not know much, a program that was only in its second year of life.

The students who participate in the Faith and Learning program are assigned a mentor and attend dinners twice a semester to talk about an assigned reading that both integrates and challenges faith and learning. For example, one reading this year that was discussed by the group was  “Life of the Beloved: Spiritual living in a secular world” by Henri J.M. Nouwen, a reading that applied directly to the lives of each student and mentor.

The program was started by Sister Beth Hassel, PBVM, DMin, in fall 2011. It was created for rising sophomores and professors who yearned for time and space to discuss and apply their faith in the life of academia.

In fall 2009, Rev. Peter Donahue, O.S.A. approached Hassel and asked her to start the Center for Faith and Learning.

The creation of the center was a response to Part IV of the University Strategic Plan that called for “new campus resources” that would communicate our “Catholic and Augustinian identity.”

In her 30th year of serving the University, Hassel recognized a need in the Villanova community to integrate faith and reason. “I wanted to make a program that would be rich, important and special,” Hassel says.

“I also wanted to make it manageable so that all participants could continue to go out from the dinner dialogues and be present to the rest of the community from the experience of being nourished by faith and reason discussion.”

The inaugural group of Faith and Learning Scholars, named the St. Augustine Group, is composed of 20 scholars and seven mentors. The second group is composed of 26 sophomores and 12 mentors and is called the St. Monica Group.

“The program is great,” sophomore Mark Mullany says. “It’s an opportunity for students and professors from different walks of life to bond over their fundamental belief that a religious life and a worldly life can coexist.”

The scholars and mentors have lively conversations that can lead anywhere from the personal to the academic to the decadence of the chocolate dessert.

“Not only are you having fantastic conversations about faith and life with your peers, you also get the chance to have those same conversations with faculty members, many of whom you may never have had the chance to meet otherwise,” says sophomore Anna Bauer.

Each scholar is assigned a mentor who is a professor at the University in order to foster friendship and encourage deeper discussion.  “Without a doubt, the mentor/scholar bond serves as a very special and fulfilling one in my life,” professor Jennifer Kissko says.

The topics that are explored during these dinners might become personal but students are encouraged to offer their perspective.

“The conversations are serious, but  things aren’t pressured like they might be in class and they aren’t rushed like they often are if a conversation gets started while moving about on campus,” professor and mentor Jonathan P.  Yates says.

A third group of Faith and Learning Scholars will be created for fall 2014. As of now, 18 members of the faculty from all of the colleges have committed to being mentors.  Scholar applications for rising sophomores are due on March 20 at noon.

To all the rising sophomores who are thinking of joining the Faith and Learning program— if you want to discuss your faith more deeply with your peers, if you want to interact with professors outside of the class setting or if you just want to be able to tell your friends you’ve been to the Dundale mansion, then this program has been designed for you.

The Center for Faith and Learning encourages all rising sophomores who are interested in this program to apply and to spread the word.

Being a part of the Faith and Learning program will include good food, good company and great conversations—what more could you ask for?



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