A student strides away in 2017 after a class in Shiley Hall, home to the engineering and business departments at the University of Portland. Even students in those disciplines study humanities and theology via U.P.’s core curriculum. (Ed Langlois/Catholic Sentinel)
A student strides away in 2017 after a class in Shiley Hall, home to the engineering and business departments at the University of Portland. Even students in those disciplines study humanities and theology via U.P.’s core curriculum. (Ed Langlois/Catholic Sentinel)
As students and families wrap up one academic year, they may be thinking toward the future, whether that includes starting at a new grade level or even at a new school. We talked with students and educators across the archdiocese and beyond, who offered their own advice on how to find success in the upcoming year.



A family affair

When children succeed in elementary school — that is, thrive academically, socially and spiritually — it’s a communal effort that includes skilled educators and engaged parents.

“One of the beautiful things about Catholic education is that we believe parents are the primary educators of their child and we are excited to partner with them,” said Tammy Conway, principal of O’Hara School in Eugene. Conway encourages parents to embrace that sense of partnership. She also suggests families find meaningful ways to get involved in the school community and share their talents and strengths.

“The more the family embraces the mission of the school, the better their experience will be,” she said.

Each year throughout western Oregon there are a number of public school transfer students at Catholic elementary schools, and educators look for ways to help these newcomers succeed, said Colleen Kotrba, principal of St. Ann School in Grants Pass. She’s observed public school transfer students often need support around self-confidence.

“Sometimes students in public school are in crowded classrooms and can go unnoticed and without needing to take risks,” said Kotrba.

St. Ann teachers “encourage kids to ask questions, make mistakes and take risks, so that helps foster a strong sense of self-confidence and self-awareness,” she said.

Among the most effective ways to help kids gain confidence is to nurture their relationships with peers, added Kotrba. She said teachers provide ample small group time “to build camaraderie and collaboration.”

Deirdre McPheeters, principal of Holy Redeemer School in North Portland, notes that this fall, students will enter classrooms after a tumultuous year. And they likely will face some continued uncertainties. Forethought and abundant flexibility will be integral to both younger and older students’ success, said McPheeters.

“Most little people have not been around anyone beyond their family during the pandemic,” she said. So separation anxiety will be stronger than normal for preschoolers and kindergartens, whose pre-pandemic memories are limited.

McPheeters encourages families to have several get-togethers with individuals outside the family to prepare children for the transition. She also suggests parents talk to their young ones about their fears and share how exciting it will be to meet new people.

For older students, success in school will mean “being open to flexibility,” said McPheeters. Though everyone hopes for a smoother school year ahead, “flexibility and adaptability will help navigate whatever comes,” she said.



Focus, God and getting involved

Time management, goal setting, persistence, motivation — sure. All those practices and more are necessary for success in a Catholic high school.

But according to two successful seniors, jumping into the high school experience is also key.

“Definitely get involved,” said Lauren Kennedy, a senior at Blanchet High School in Salem.

Zoe Nguyen, a senior at St. Mary’s Academy in Portland, agrees. “Get involved in activities and try new things,” she said. “Don’t just focus on the future.”

Nguyen said a high point of her high school years was running for associate student body president. “If I hadn’t, I wouldn’t have gotten that taste of leadership.”

Nguyen joined the ministry leadership team when she was a sophomore. “I got more comfortable with exploring my faith, learning about it, speaking about it and sharing it with other members of the student body,” she said.

Faith was central to Kennedy. “Classes are important but what’s more important is having a faith-centered education,” she said. “Study hard and then pray to God. Say, ‘I’ll leave it in your hands.’”

Kennedy urges high school students to find a community at school, “the people who are going to make the experience more enjoyable, the ones you’ll want to hang out with when you go to sporting events.”

The way to find those friends, said Kennedy, is to get involved in activities.

Nguyen offers a qualification to that advice. “Don’t limit yourself to one group,” she recommended.

Both young women agreed that parents’ roles are important for high school students. “My parents did a good job,” said Nguyen. “Have encouragement for your child — to go for that leadership role or a place on the team — and support them.”

Kennedy believes parents should have peace of mind about their student’s faith at a Catholic school. “High school students do begin to question,” she said. “When they’re at a school like Blanchet they’ll be in a community that supports them.”

That said, the traditional advice on how to succeed is important. “Stay determined and stay focused,” said Kennedy, who is headed to Texas A&M this autumn. She plans to major in engineering.

Nguyen will study journalism and business at the University of Oklahoma in Norman.



Open to a broad education

Educators at Catholic colleges say their institutions work best for students open to forming both mind and spirit in a communal atmosphere.

“Catholic higher education is all about the whole person and making sure the spiritual life is not neglected,” said Holy Cross Father Mark Poorman, president of the University of Portland.

Students can thrive at Catholic colleges, Father Poorman said, if they are open to the humanities, sciences and theology — not just a narrow curriculum. He explained that the broad core curriculum at Catholic colleges deeply enhances a degree, whether it’s nursing, accounting or physics.

“Catholic colleges offer potential for transformation and education of the soul,” said Michelle Wheatley, vice president of mission integration at Jesuit-founded Gonzaga University in Spokane. “Students are invited to think about how they can use their gifts for the common good.”

Catholic colleges work well for students who want to enter into the church’s intellectual tradition and explore, said Wheatley. They’ll find a hopeful view of reality and mission. “God dwells in the world and empowers us to help make the world worthy of God’s creation,” she said, explaining the vision.

The rich Catholic moral tradition is alive at Catholic colleges. Father Poorman, himself a noted moral theologian, said that Scripture, church tradition, other disciplines and the experience of the believer combine to offer a comprehensive approach to the moral life, helping students grapple well with quandaries.

“The hope would be that someone leaving a Catholic college would be exposed to the Catholic view of morals and ethics particularly as they are set out in Catholic social teaching,” said Tammy Liddell, director of campus ministry at Jesuit-founded Seattle University. “The church has a way of looking at the world, of looking at the common good. There is a lens we can look through to view the world’s problems.”

A broad education may challenge a young person’s beliefs. But honestly confronting obstacles helps faith mature and forms leaders for the church, Liddell said. “Young people going through formation should bring their intellect to bear on their faith,” she explained. The result often will be an authentic comfort with being a believer.

Father Poorman said Catholic colleges value science but know it has its own way of thinking and cannot answer all questions.

“We have always said reason and faith can be the best partners you can have to get to the truth,” he said, offering U.P.’s nursing schools as an example. Student nurses get rigorous science along with a faith-fueled dedication to compassion.

“Faith and reason are mutually illuminating,” Wheatley said. “A Catholic college will have students in every discipline asking questions about ultimate meaning.”