Move-in day for college freshmen, even the most adventurous of the lot, can be a stressful experience. Besides meeting roommates for the first time, getting a lay of the land and discovering the specialties of the dining hall, there is the emotional toll of saying goodbye to parents and siblings, when students are suddenly hit with the realization that they’re about to embark on a new journey without their closest confidantes.
Yet at St. Thomas Aquinas College (STAC), a liberal arts private institution in Sparkill, New York, no student ever has to walk that path alone, a fact that becomes clear right from the get-go. Unlike other schools, where a one-day orientation is common and usually limited to speaking with an adviser and registering for courses, STAC has developed a five-day orientation called The Spartan Journey. It not only includes important procedural steps but also is heavy on socialization, special events and getting to know faculty members before classes even start.
“It’s all about making this place feel like home for the students and letting them know they’re part of the fabric of this close-knit community,” says Michael DiBartolomeo, vice president of enrollment management. “It’s also about ensuring that they feel ready. They know where their classes are, they have their books, they know what their schedule is and they have a plan. I’ve heard many parents say this is the best orientation they’ve ever been to, so that is very exciting for us.”
While The Spartan Journey sets the tone early, students can expect the same commitment and collaboration from the entire STAC community throughout their time on campus. The faculty is known to spend time with students outside of class, and everyone from the administration to staff members in various offices are driven to provide top-notch “customer service.”
“We really want our students to know that we’re not just here to educate them but to be partners with them on this entire four-year journey that they’re on, and if they decide to stay for graduate school as well,” DiBartolomeo says. “A lot of institutions talk like that, but few can really execute it well. Every student matters to us, and we want students who have a great experience here to leave on time and talk about that experience to other people. That’s how we encourage more students to come here.”
That formula has worked for STAC, which has experienced double-digit growth in its freshman class the past two years. This semester, the school welcomed its largest group of first-year-students since 2013, who hail from nearly 20 states and 15 countries.
“Our students come from very diverse backgrounds, whether that’s different ethnic backgrounds, economic backgrounds or academic backgrounds,” DiBartolomeo says. “And yet they all arrive here with the goal to better themselves academically, socially and spiritually and to really help not only themselves but also their families.”
During a time when the escalating price of higher education is a hot-button issue, STAC has remained an affordable option and accessible to first-generation college students as well as people of color, with 90% of all students receiving some form of financial aid. The college comprises the School of Arts and Social Sciences, the School of Business, the School of Education and the School of STEM, and offers over 100 majors, which include popular options like biology and criminal justice.
The student body of approximately 2,000 students gets the best of both worlds, with a sprawling, 72-acre suburban campus that is just a short drive from New York City. That allows for opportunities to not only explore New York but also pursue valuable internships and co-op positions, backed by STAC’s strong emphasis on experiential learning.
STAC has 22 Division II athletic programs, including the newly added men’s and women’s volleyball teams, and a wide range of clubs suited to many interests. If students aren’t drawn to a particular club, they are supported in starting one.
“There’s something for everybody here, and if there’s not, there’s ample opportunity to create something on your own, and many of our students have done that,” DiBartolomeo says.
With the holistic education that students receive at STAC, it’s no surprise that most go on to highly successful and influential careers, working for Fortune 500 companies, well-regarded health care providers, renowned schools and even professional sports organizations. It may be a small college, but there is no denying its reach.
“We are a small school, and a lot of times people think that means there’s not a lot to do or there’s few people to do it with, and that couldn’t be further from the truth,” DiBartolomeo says. “What a small school can offer, and specifically St. Thomas Aquinas College, is an enormous opportunity. Those offerings are really boundless and just dependent on what the students’ interests are. That’s how we feel the college flourishes, because of the students.
“Our students make a difference on campus and they take everything that they’ve learned, and when they launch their careers or the next phase of their lives, they’re well prepared.”
Published (and copyrighted) in Suburban Family Magazine, Volume 13, Issue 4.
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