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St. Mary's College of California–Solid Liberal Arts in the San Francisco Bay Area

Yesterday I was glad to be able to visit St. Mary’s College in the Bay Area of Northern California.  As regular readers know, I spend a lot of time visiting colleges, and every time I think I’ve seen it all, I’m reminded of the huge variety of colleges in this country.  St. Mary’s has several aspects to it that help it to stand out.smc-1

St. Mary’s is a LaSallian Catholic college set on a beautiful campus with whitewashed, Mission style architecture and beautiful grounds.  In addition to a pleasant campus tour with a bright and enthusiastic young woman (“I just love St. Mary’s…I just can’t stop talking about it…”), my colleagues and I were able to hear from Michael Beseda, the Vice President for College Communication and Vice Provost for Enrollment.

As a good communicator, Mr. Beseda hit upon three key points that distinguish St. Mary’s College.

The first is the Collegiate Seminar program, which is a core curriculum based on the Great Books.  This is a four course, four-semester sequence required of all students.  Students get a solid introduction to the classics of Western Civilization.  The four courses are (1), Greek Thought, (2) Romans, Christian and Medieval Literature, (3), the Renaissance, and (4) thinkers of the 19th and 20th century thought. This Collegiate Seminar is a hallmark of a SMC education, and it not only does it solidly ground students in the classics, but the small classes and common curriculum give students academic confidence.  The Collegiate Seminar is an inquiry course in which professors and students explore human questions together.  Faculty do not provide answers to the tough questions of humanity—which are addressed by the Great Books—and trains students to be the sort of people who are comfortable asking questions and challenging ideas

In addition to this Collegiate Seminar, students are required to take a course on the Bible as literature, as well as one other religion course (which could be Catholicism, but could also be Hinduism or Islam).  So students get a sold background in the classical liberal arts tradition, as well as a view of the importance of religion in society (it’s important to say that only slightly over half of the students at St. Mary’s College are Catholic).

smc-2Second, St. Mary’s College offers a January Term, in which students pursue one of 120 different interdisciplinary courses that may include travel or internships. While the two primary semester are dedicated to a very traditional education, the January Term is much more experimental and experiential. Thus St. Mary’s College balances the Great Books with a non-traditional, month-long exploration of real-world problems.

Third, St. Mary’s was founded by the LaSallian Christian brothers, who have a commitment—first and foremost—to teaching.  In addition, the Christian Brothers have infused the campus with a LaSallian commitment to diversity, social justice, and service to the community.  A significant number of students spend hours and hours engaged in the local and global community.

Beyond these three primary points, I picked up a few other interesting tidbits about St. Mary’s College.

  1. St. Mary’s is basketball powerhouse, and offers several other NCAA Division I sports.  With a small student body of 2500 undergraduates, this is one of the smaller D1 colleges.
  2. St. Mary’s has an well-developed music program, and bills itself as having a “conservatory quality” music program within the liberal arts tradition.  There are several performing arts scholarships (music, dance, theatre) worth up to $12k annually.  These renewable scholarships are based on an audition.
  3. The college offers generous scholarships upon admission.  These scholarships are based on clear and transparent criteria.  Students with a GPA of 3.7 and a combined SAT score (math + critical reading) of at least 1200 and/or a ACT composite score of 27 receive an automatic scholarship of $12,000.
  4. In addition, the College offers competitive Presidential Scholars Scholarships of $10,000 more.  These scholarships are awarded on the basis of an on campus interview, and the minimum requirements of a 3.8 GPA, and an SAT score of 1350 and/or an ACT composite of 31.  These are competitive, need a GPA of 3.8 with 1350 or 31 ACT composite.  All winners of this scholarship pile an additional $10k piled on top of the $12k from the “upon admission” scholarships described above.  So winners of the Presidential Scholarships receive a $22k annual, renewable scholarship.

All in all, I enjoyed my visit to St. Mary’s College.


Mark Montgomery
College Counselor



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