Program Hopes to Support Black Students on Catholic Campus

The National Catholic Register shined a spotlight on a new program aimed at giving the campus of Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas, a racial diversity that is more like the Catholic Church’s.

The paper reported about the new program under the headline: “Benedictine College ‘Freedom Fellows’ Combine Martin Luther King Jr.’s Vision With Catholic Education.”

The college will choose six first-generation college students each year who will enter the program, which provides them with full-tuition scholarships through four years of studies at Benedictine College, the paper reported.

Tyler Shephard, pictured above at the college-sponsored Martin Luther King Jr. Day march in Atchison, is Benedictine College’s director of student support and engagement, described the program.

“We’re taking a deep dive into the philosophy of King and his theology as a basis of understanding really how to reach across lines of society and engage people in meaningful conversations and interactions,” he told the paper. “We’re looking at this as a way to spread [Benedictine College’s] vision and values we have on campus to the world.”

The college developed its approach in association with Rev. Eugene Rivers III. And Harvard’s Dr. Jacquelyn Rivers. Rev. Rivers spoke recently with Princeton’s Robbie George about American ideals. Dr. Rivers was a keynote speaker at Notre Dame’s fall Ethics and Culture conference in 2021. Together, the couple direct the Seymour Institute for Black Church and Policy Studies which has hosted King program Benedictine College students have participated in for years.

The paper noted that the Freedom Fellows program is targeted to help students of color. Tyler Shephard meets with Freedom Fellows once a week to discuss King’s theological works and work on rhetorical skills, focusing on “communion, conversation, commitment, care for God’s creation, and courage.”

Shephard “pushes you to grow in areas you never thought you would,” said Benedictine College student Payton Neal, an African American woman who works with the program.

Neal, a junior studying psychology at Benedictine, is helping implement the program and said she is looking forward to launching the program’s internships.

Obediah Lewis, a 19-year-old sophomore and business manager, told the Register that the Freedom Fellows recently hosted high-school students from Newark, New Jersey. “We really had an opportunity to dive in, be there for the kids, and be a mentor to them for that time,” he is quoted saying.

Junior management major Soloman Wallace said King’s teachings on “agape love” were important to the program. For King that meant “the love of God operating in the human heart,” and demanded nonviolence for social justice. “Implementing all those values has allowed me to grow as a person,” he said

Joseph Wurtz, Benedictine’s dean of students, told the Register that the Transforming Culture in America. The plan is “Benedictine College’s vision for achieving generational change through its students and alumni, making an impact all over the United States,” said the paper.

Benedictine College President Stephen Minnis told the Register that the “Transforming Culture in America” vision was developed in two years of meetings with Benedictine’s board of directors, faculty and national leaders.

“Our first priority says, ‘The global Catholic Church which embraces the world’s races and cultures is our model for diversity,’” said Minnis. “The Freedom Fellows is a great way for us to make our college look more like the global Catholic Church, two-thirds of whose members are people of color. We are really excited about the caliber of first-generation college students we are meeting through this program.”

Wurtz said the results of the program are already impressive. “It is evident in every one of these students who are first generation — some of whom have parents that moved to the U.S. just a few years ago — that there is a strong faith, a strong familial connection, and a strong desire to give back,” he said. “It’s a beautiful thing to witness. They have all these strong qualities, and we just hope to take them to the next level.”

Read more about Freedom Fellows at Benedictine College’s website.

Read more about the program at the Register.