A New Foundation for Student Success

Shaun Stiemsma (at right with arms crossed.
A freshman student learning community shares supper and conversation with three of its instructors: Matthias Vorwerk (not shown), Shaun Stiemsma (at right with arms crossed) and Bonnie Brunelle (not shown).

Students at The Catholic University of America have always received a strong liberal arts education that includes a grounding in philosophy, theology and writing. Now the university has launched a new First-Year Experience program that builds on this strength to enhance the education of freshmen.

In order to increase a sense of community among freshmen and integrate them fully into university life, they have been grouped into 18-student “learning communities.” Members of each learning community will stay together for four of their 2009–2010 courses: the philosophy course The Classical Mind and English course Rhetoric and Composition during the fall 2009 semester, and the philosophy course The Modern Mind and newly developed theology course Faith Seeking Understanding during the spring 2010 semester.

Just three weeks into their first semester, these learning community groups had already helped new students make friends, says Mary Reilly, a first-year student from Springfield, Pa. The arrangement had also helped freshmen feel at ease expressing themselves in classroom discussions.

“In order to understand Socrates in our philosophy course, we have to discuss his ideas, and that requires feeling comfortable enough with the people in our class to speak up,” says Reilly. “Because my learning community is only 18 people and I’ve gotten to know them by being with them in two classes, I feel comfortable speaking my mind and asking questions in class.”

To strengthen student-faculty relationships, the same instructor teaches the first- and second-semester philosophy courses for a given learning community — and that professor also acts as these 18 students’ first-year adviser. This arrangement provides a setting for freshmen to form a substantial connection with at least one faculty member.

The new learning communities have another benefit: They get professors working collaboratively to help students succeed academically. The philosophy, English and theology faculty who teach a particular freshman learning community read the texts that each other assigns and coordinate their assignments to build on each other’s courses.

The instructors’ collaboration also helps to integrate the Catholic intellectual tradition into the curriculum. Having English faculty collaborate with philosophy and theology faculty in teaching how to write or in addressing larger questions, such as what it means to be a “good person,” will allow the Catholic intellectual tradition to penetrate more fully into the overall academic experience, according to Todd Lidh, coordinator of the First-Year Experience program and clinical assistant professor of English.

During the first weeks of class, each trio of professors got together for a dinner discussion with the students of their respective learning community. Each of the courses taken within a learning community also includes a field trip to a different Washington, D.C., institution that ties that institution into coursework and exposes new students to the richness of the nation’s capital.

In addition, each freshman is being asked to participate in one of the community service projects offered by the university’s Office of Campus Ministry — e.g., volunteering with St. Ann’s Infant and Maternity Home, the organization So Others Might Eat, or the literacy tutoring program DC Reads. The student then writes about this experience in a way that ties it into what he or she is studying in class.

“The freshman year is a crucial one, with its transition from high school to college; it sets the foundation for students’ success throughout the college years,” says Provost James F. Brennan. “With this new First-Year Experience program, we’re taking the good things Catholic University has already been doing for freshmen and making them even better.” — R.W.

Stepping Down After 12 Years

Father O'Connell

Very Rev. David M. O’Connell, C.M., announced on Oct. 2 that he intends to step down as president of The Catholic University of America in August 2010. He is completing his 12th year of service and is CUA’s second-longest-serving president to date.

During his presidency, the university has witnessed record growth in enrollment, fund-raising and endowment; the construction of a university center and three new residence halls; the addition of a fitness center; major renovations in a score of campus buildings; and the introduction of multiple smart classrooms and wireless technology. Among Father O’Connell’s other signal achievements have been the reinvigoration of CUA’s Catholic identity, the strengthening of campus ministry and student life, and the vigorous recruitment of excellent faculty in all disciplines, especially encouraging their commitment to the university’s mission.

In his monthly newsletter to the university community issued on Oct. 2, Father O’Connell wrote, “As I reflect upon my tenure and service at the helm of the national university of the Catholic Church in our country, I feel a profound sense of gratitude for what we are and have become and what we do — thanks to the dedication, commitment and hard work of so many people here — and for the many lives we have touched in so many ways over the years.”

CUA’s Board of Trustees met in late September to discuss strategies for succession and the establishment of a search committee. Archbishop Allen Vigneron of Detroit, the chairman of CUA’s Board of Trustees, is chairing the search process. For information on the search, go to The board hopes to have a new president in place by Sept. 1, 2010.

Father O’Connell has indicated that he is considering several opportunities for the future but has made no specific commitments at this time. A fuller review of his presidency will be featured in a future issue of CUA Magazine.

CUA Expands Study Abroad Options

In September, Catholic University’s education-abroad unit, CUAbroad, offered students an expanded list of options that now includes 10 new overseas destinations. Beginning in spring 2010, Catholic University students will be able to study for a semester or year in Argentina, Chile, Beijing and Shanghai in China, Ecuador, India, Japan, Morocco, New Zealand or South Africa.

CUAbroad, under the auspices of the university’s Center for Global Education, now has multiple program options on five continents.

D.C.’s Largest Solar Energy System Coming to Campus

The presidents of Washington Gas Energy Services, CUA and Standard Solar stand behind a solar panel on the roof of Flather Hall.
The presidents of Washington Gas Energy Services, CUA and Standard Solar stand behind a solar panel on the roof of Flather Hall.

Catholic University announced on Oct. 21 that more than 1,000 solar panels would be installed on four campus buildings before the end of the year, creating the largest solar energy system, in terms of electricity produced, in the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area.

CUA partnered with Washington Gas Energy Services of Herndon, Va., and Standard Solar of Gaithersburg, Md., to have 30,233 square feet of solar panels installed on the roofs of the Raymond A. DuFour Center and Aquinas, Flather and Gibbons halls, and to buy the electricity generated by the panels at guaranteed prices.

Look for details about the solar energy system in the next edition of CUA Magazine.

Vitrification Lab Awarded $36 Million

Vitreous State Laboratory sign

Catholic University’s Vitreous State Laboratory (VSL) has been awarded the first of several contracts totaling up to $36 million. The lab’s assignment: to provide research and development to support the safe immobilization of nuclear wastes at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Savannah River Site in Aiken, S.C.

“This is one of the larger-dollar-figure research contracts that Catholic University has ever received, and once again shows that the university’s Vitreous State Laboratory is an invaluable resource for our nation,” says Father David O’Connell, president of the university.

For this new six-year contract, VSL — an international leader in the science of converting nuclear wastes into safe, stable glass through a process called vitrification — will be a subcontractor to its long-term industrial partner, EnergySolutions Inc.

The 310-square-mile Savannah River Site, the focus of the new contracts, is a major nuclear complex in the Department of Energy system. The nuclear materials for many of America’s atomic bombs were produced there from the early 1950s to 1991 — a process that also created 36 million gallons of high-level radioactive waste that is presently stored in 49 underground tanks. Today, the site’s primary mission is the cleanup of nuclear wastes left over from the Cold War.

To safely treat these wastes, a variety of facilities have been constructed at the site, including the Defense Waste Processing Facility, which uses a high-temperature furnace to convert the most radioactive nuclear wastes into stable glass.

In March, the Department of Energy awarded the $3.3 billion contract to operate this and other waste storage and treatment systems to the company Savannah River Remediation, LLC (SRR). The Vitreous State Lab’s experience and scientific expertise contributed to SRR’s winning proposal.

To help SRR fulfill its contract, VSL is teamed with EnergySolutions Inc. to provide R&D support that will improve the performance of the Defense Waste Processing Facility by increasing the processing rate and the “waste loading” — the amount of nuclear waste that can be packed into the glass. These improvements have the potential to reduce the cost of the cleanup mission by hundreds of millions of dollars and to reduce the mission’s duration by several years.

At both of the major sites where America manufactured the nuclear material for its atomic arsenal — the Savannah River Site and the Hanford Site in eastern Washington state — VSL is playing a leading R&D role in the cleanup of nuclear waste.

Atlanta to Host 2010 Cardinals Dinner

skyline of Atlanta

The 21st annual American Cardinals Dinner will be held Friday, April 23, 2010, at the downtown Hyatt Regency Atlanta. Most Rev. Wilton D. Gregory, archbishop of Atlanta, and Father David O’Connell, CUA president, will co-host the dinner. Since its inauguration in 1989, the black-tie event has raised more than $25 million to provide scholarship support for academically qualified CUA students. For more information on the Cardinals Dinner, visit

Crough Center Marks 20th Anniversary

Anniversary celebration in the Crough Center.

On Oct. 23, the university celebrated the 20th anniversary of its Edward M. Crough Center for Architectural Studies at a ceremony honoring the past, present and future of the building. Those who attended the event shared stories of the distinctive building with its barrel-vault ceiling.

Originally constructed as a gymnasium in 1919, the building is named in honor of the late Edward M. Crough, B.C.E. 1950, who donated money and the services of his construction company for the building’s renovation. Completed in 1989, that renovation transformed the building into the home of CUA’s School of Architecture and Planning. In the place where Franklin D. Roosevelt received an honorary LL.D. degree in 1933 and where Pope John Paul II spoke in 1979, students now work in studios with state-of-the-art technology as participants in the largest architectural program in the Washington, D.C.-Baltimore area.

At the ceremony, several architects were recognized for their contributions to the building, including CUA Professor John Yanik, who served as associate architect for design during the center’s renovation, and the late Vlastimil Koubek, for whom the center’s Koubek Auditorium is named.

In addition, Dean of Architecture and Planning Randall Ott awarded the 2009 Joseph Miller Alumni Medallion to C.R. George Dove, M.Arch. 1972, managing principal of WDG Architecture, for extra-ordinary service to the school, the profession and the community.

On the occasion, event organizers passed out copies of a commemorative book with historic photos and student proposals for future renovations to the Crough Center. Others who are interested in obtaining a copy of the book can contact the School of Architecture and Planning at 202-319-5188.

Lecture Series on Truth Honors Monsignor Sokolowski

Monsignor Robert Sokolowski and John McCarthy.
Monsignor Robert Sokolowski with his former student, John McCarthy — who is now associate dean and associate professor of philosophy — before the opening lecture of the series.

Many students had to sit on the floor as more than 130 people attended the first lecture in the School of Philosophy’s 42nd annual Fall Lecture Series on Sept. 4. This year’s series is dedicated to Monsignor Robert Sokolowski, CUA’s Elizabeth Breckenridge Caldwell Professor of Philosophy, who celebrated his 75th birthday in May. The weekly lectures, this year on the theme of “The Issue of Truth,” bring scholars from around the country to speak at CUA.

CUA’s is one of the longest continuously running philosophy lecture series in the country. This year it concludes on Dec. 4.

Life Cycle Institute Renamed

Professor Stephen Schneck at the name changing ceremony.

On Oct. 18, politics Professor Stephen Schneck (above) spoke at a ceremony announcing the changing of LCI’s name to the Institute for Policy Research & Catholic Studies. “Our new name crystallizes the institute’s long history and conveys our mission now and for the future,” said Schneck, who directs the institute.

NSF Grant Could Help Transform Computer Technology

Professor Philip and graduate student Jugdersuren Battogtokh.
Professor Philip (at right) and graduate student Jugdersuren Battogtokh use an ultra-high-vacuum chamber to create nanoscale devices such as microscopic transistors.

Assistant Professor of Physics John Philip is seeking to put a new “spin” on computer science. He has been awarded a $400,000 grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to study and seek to manipulate the spin-direction of the electrons that pass through microprocessors. His goal: to greatly improve the performance and speed of computers.

The Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) grant that he received is the NSF’s most prestigious award for professors who are in the early stages of their career. Philip, a nanotechnology researcher at the university’s Vitreous State Laboratory, is the fourth Catholic University faculty member to receive the award in the past two years.

His research aims to help transform the growing field of spin electronics or “spintronics,” which seeks to exploit the spin state of electrons as a means to carry, manipulate and store information. Conventional electronic circuits recognize and tally only the charge state of electrons, but electrons also have an upward or downward spin direction.

Laptops and cell phones already employ spintronics to store information in their hard drives, but using electron spin states to process information would tremendously increase the speed of computers and decrease the amount of energy needed to run them, according to Philip.

One From the Archives

Clyde Cowan (at right) and fellow professor Theodore Litovitz.

Clyde Cowan, at right, who taught physics at Catholic University from 1958 until his death in 1974, was co-discoverer, with Frederick Reines, of the elementary subatomic particle called the neutrino. For this discovery, first announced in 1956, Reines was awarded the Nobel Prize in physics in 1995. He received the prize in both his and Cowan’s names.

Neutrinos are particles lacking an electric charge that travel close to the speed of light. They whiz through ordinary matter almost undisturbed and are thus extremely difficult to detect. Billions of them — mostly emitted from atomic reactions within the sun — pass through each human being’s body each second.

In the photo, taken at CUA in the 1960s, Cowan and fellow professor Theodore Litovitz examine a model of a device similar to the one Cowan and Reines used at the Savannah River nuclear reactors in Aiken, S.C., to demonstrate the existence of neutrinos.

International Shaw Conference at CUA

The character Nell Gwynn in Shaw’s In Good King Charles’s Golden Day.
The character Nell Gwynn in Shaw’s In Good King Charles’s Golden Day.

Catholic University hosted the International George Bernard Shaw Conference on Oct. 15–18, attracting more registrants than the same academic conference has drawn when hosted at other locales.

Co-sponsored by the International Shaw Society and the Washington Stage Guild, the conference featured the presentation of scholarly papers and panels of experts on the great Irish dramatist who wrote the play Pygmalion, which in turn inspired the musical My Fair Lady.

The conference also featured a double bill of performances: CUA’s Department of Drama presented Shaw’s In Good King Charles’s Golden Day in the Hartke Theatre and the Washington Stage Guild performed two of the playwright’s one-act plays — Press Cuttings and Augustus Does His Bit — in CUA’s Callan Theatre. The Washington Stage Guild is a critically acclaimed D.C. theater company founded by a group that included a large number of CUA drama alumni.

The conference, which this year had the theme of “Shaw and Politics,” kicked off with a reception at the Irish Embassy on Oct. 15. The acclaimed CUA-trained Broadway actors Philip Bosco and Robert Milli performed dramatic readings from Shaw plays at the reception.

Having the conference at CUA was partly due to the efforts of CUA alumnus John MacDonald, M.F.A. 1976, one of the founders of the Washington Stage Guild, who passed away on July 6, 2008.

Anthony Hopkins Gives Acting Lesson to Music Students

Good, Hopkins and Christman in Italy.
Good, Hopkins and Christman in Italy.

Associate Professor of Music Sharon Christman and four Catholic University voice majors traveled to Italy for three weeks from July 19 to Aug. 7 to take part in two music festivals in the cities of Montepulciano and Perugia.

The students’ performances in Perugia took place in beautifully frescoed Renaissance meeting halls and churches, and the teachers who guided the students included leading opera singers, orchestral conductors and musicians. Christman, who has sung lead roles at New York City’s Metropolitan Opera, was one of the featured teachers for festival participants.

While this learning opportunity, in and of itself, was a rich experience for the students, a final unscheduled class was something none of them could have anticipated, Christman says.

One of the students, Danielle Good, recognized the actor Anthony Hopkins — best known for his Oscar-winning role as Hannibal Lecter in “The Silence of the Lambs” — passing through their Perugia hotel lobby. She and her CUA classmate, Crossley Hawn, waited in the lobby until they saw him again and then took the initiative to talk to him. After asking Hopkins for autographs and speaking to him about why they were visiting Perugia, they invited him to their next master class in singing.

When Hopkins arrived at the class, Christman asked if he’d be willing to teach an acting workshop for the group. The actor recited passages from King Lear and Hamlet for the class and gave advice to the students on how to “take the stage,” encouraging them not to expect perfection but to endeavor to make every performance a little better than the last.

“You will not be as great now as you will be in 20 years,” Hopkins told the group, noting that nothing can take the place of time and experience.

Christman paraphrases Hopkins’ advice as follows: “Maybe you won’t reach the goal you set for yourself, but no matter how small your role, when it is your turn to sing, everyone has been waiting for you.”

The CUA students who traveled to Italy included seniors Good from Gainesville, Fla., Hawn from Lovettsville, Va., and Ashley Alden from Stafford, Va.; and sophomore Margaret Boehm from Northbrook, Ill.

The 71-year-old actor was visiting Perugia to hear the performance of a musical work that he composed. Considered one of the world’s greatest actors, he has won two Emmys and been nominated for four Oscars.

Editor’s note: To see and hear the CUA students singing at the Perugia festival, go to and search under the name Ashley Alden, Crossley Hawn or Margaret Boehm.