Mercyhurst University (visited 3/18/19)
Sometimes visiting a college without knowing much about it first is the best way to approach this. This is definitely the case here. I loved driving onto campus under the metal arch and up the drive leading to the stunning main, original building. This has the feel of a strong faith-based community – there’s no question that this is a religious institution with the statues and the chapel – but I never got the heavy-handed feeling that some other religious institutions have. It just had a sense of calm and purpose permeating much of what goes on.
The Sisters of Mercy (the first non-cloistered order) started Mercyhurst with 23 female students in 1926 (they went coed in 1969 with the addition of a men’s crew team). Their 2 major tenets include health care and education. If people needed help, they got it. They took care of soldiers on both sides of the Civil War, for example. Someone described them as being on the liberal edge of Catholicism, telling me that it was the Campus Ministry that started the LGBTQ group years ago. “They see the problem, not the details of who the person is. They want people to feel welcome and at home. If you want to be here, they want you to be here. Students seem respectful of people’s opinions and people can say what they feel.” The tour guide agreed: “It’s a supportive environment where you can be yourself.”
This is still something of a regional school with many students coming from a two-hour radius. Much of this is program driven: the academics have strong reputations, and the university has specialized majors such as Interior Architecture and Design, archaeology/anthropology (including concentrations in Bioanthropology and Bioarchaeology), and Applied Forensic Sciences (with concentrations in Criminalistics/Forensic Bio, Forensic Anthropology, and Forensic Chemistry). They’ve developed majors that enable students to train for jobs that industries need, and have done a great job of being future-focused by creating programs in data science, cybersecurity, and Business and Competitive Intelligence.
They have created specialized institutes as well, including one for Ethics and Society and one for Applied Politics (Students can work here to conduct public opinion polls on a variety of things, including politics and environmental issues).
Mercyhurst offers a strong Learning Support program as well as Institute for high-functioning students on the spectrum. I met with representatives from both programs and ate lunch with 3 of them. They’re wonderful and clearly love what they do!
LDP (Learning Difference Program) offers two levels of academic support.
- Students with a current documented disability will be able to get accommodations such as extended time for testing, Assistive technology, etc. For extended time, students get a form that indicates which accommodation they’ve been approved for; they have that signed by the professor and comes back to the office for scheduling at least 5 days before the test date.
- The Academic Advantage Program is a fee-based program with about 10 openings for the coming year. “Sometimes it’s hard for kids coming from a high school with a real reach-around program. This service focuses much more on organization and executive functioning to make sure they’re getting things done on time and then making sure that they seek out the content help somewhere else. They need to be advocating for themselves.” Students get weekly check-ins with academic counselors who will help create a document to track what they have due, create a weekly time management calendar, and other things to help students stay on track. They’ll also track grades through an early alert programs. Counselors can help students get tutoring.
- Freshmen also have the option to participate in the PASS summer program; 12-15 students each summer move in at the end of July and take a 3-week, 3-credit class. It counts for the REACH (see below), and it alleviates the fall course load. They can move into their dorm room to get settled early. They also have workshops so they know what the accommodations look like.
- The Autism Institute at Mercyhurst (AIM) provides support for students on the Spectrum; they support the students’ adjustment to college and provide social and other support to make sure they’re successful. There is specialized housing available, but this is optional. Students can choose to live there or in other available dorms.
The Core Curriculum is called REACH in which they take 10 classes in 10 disciplines, 2 in each of the following areas: Reason & Faith, Expression and Creativity, Analytical Thought, Contexts & Systems, and Humans in Connection. Freshman also take two semesters of Intro to Mercyhurst classes which purposefully mixes students of different majors and different geographic areas so they interact with people they might not have. These classes help to ensure that students know where resources are on campus.
The university has recently revamped their academic calendar to incorporate “mini-terms” into their semesters. This effectively splits the semester into 2 8-week sections, and students can go on “mini-semester travel.” They also have a campus in Dungarvan, Ireland “that’s really an extension of our campus.” Freshmen can go if they’re in the honors program (but this option is not always available every year). Depending on the major, they might be able to take some of the requirements for the major. About 25% of students will study abroad.
They do have a 4-year residency requirement. “People aren’t leaving en masse on the weekends. They’re here and doing things.” Freshmen are not allowed to have cars on campus, but all students get passes for public transportation. There’s a lot to do in Erie including an indoor water park, mini-golf, theaters, Target, etc. “There’s cool local music downtown,” said the tour guide. Presque Isle (about a 15 minute drive; the bus line also goes there) is a popular spot with walking trails and beaches; sometimes the college hosts events there. “Erie is like Buffalo, Cleveland, and Pittsburgh,” said the admission rep. “We’re trying to come back from being primarily an industrial city so things are getting revitalized.” Gannon University is also in Erie, so a lot of places cater to college students.
A couple fun campus traditions mentioned by several people are:
- The Sister Damien Spirit Bell is a fixture at hockey games. The tour guide told me that she was such a supporter of the Mercyhurst teams (and about 30% of students are athletes) that “she would tell the opposing team that they’d go to hell if they beat her boys.” The bell is still rung at athletic (“and personal”) victories. They have 3 DI sports (men’s and women’s ice hockey and men’s crew). All other sports are DII.
- The new President (well, sort of new – he’s in his 4th year) established Hurst Day. On a random fall day, he cancels classes with a big scavenger hunt (based on the history of campus, etc), games, activities, competitions, and a big dinner.
Improvements are student-focused (such as the new sophomore res hall being built). “Things aren’t done blindly on campus; it’s done on purpose.” They just opened a bar on campus in Mid-March. It’s run by the cafeteria so food can be bought with their card; they need cash for alcohol which is served with a 2 drink limit “for student safety,” said the rep. The tour guide said, “It’s great. It’s been open 3 days and I’ve been there twice.”
Admissions is fully test optional; those who don’t send scores are still eligible for Honors Programs, scholarships, and any major. They’ll superscore both the SAT and ACT if sent, and admissions will counsel students if they aren’t sure if they should send in scores. “We’re not super selective. We work well with students who aren’t your traditional A student or who needs more hands-on.” They have a 15-to-finish initiative: they work with students to take at least that many credits per semester so they’re on track to graduate. “But it’s not just random credits. We have advisors who make sure they are taking the RIGHT 15 credits.”