The Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia (the “Nashville Dominicans”) celebrated the 50th anniversary of Aquinas College in Nashville, Tennessee, in 2011. Since then, the College has welcomed a new president, Sister Mary Sarah Galbraith, O.P., opened its first housing for resident students, and launched graduate programs in teacher education and nursing education.
Begun in 1928 as a teacher-training school for Dominican sisters, Aquinas became a junior college in 1961 and a four-year college in 1994. Its education program is the training ground for lay people as well as the Dominican sisters who teach in 41 Catholic schools in 16 states and 22 dioceses in the United States. And the Sisters belong to one of the few congregations of women religious in the United States that today enjoy significant growth—nearly 50 percent in the last 15 years.
The small College has an exciting future with the launch of a long-desired residential program for its 83-acre campus, just four miles from downtown Nashville. Limited housing became available in 2012 and is expanding to accommodate even more students. Aquinas' strategic planning initiatives are geared toward increasing residential capacity even further, expanding academic programs and increasing the percentage of full-time and Catholic students.
Aquinas has managed to remain a faithfully Catholic institution surrounded by a largely Protestant and Evangelical Christian population. Because the previously non-residential college has drawn from the local community, only about a third of the lay students are Catholic, but devotion to Christ and traditional morals nevertheless pervade the campus. The presence of the Dominican Sisters and a faithful faculty and staff ensure the strong Catholic identity of the College.
“What Aquinas is today is clearly a result of careful thought and prayer,” Sister Mary Sarah told Aquinas College
magazine, citing several examples of the Sisters’ foresight and Catholic inspiration. “They set in place a liberal arts core but attached professional programs to it. To address the battle of the mind, they founded the School of Education. To address the battle for human life and dignity, they founded the School of Nursing. To address the battle for humane growth in the marketplace, they instituted the School of Business.”
Unlike many Catholic colleges that are now legally independent of the religious congregations that founded them, the Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia have never ceded control of Aquinas. They are the sole owners of the College, with a mixed lay-religious board of trustees. Sister Mary Sarah entered the Congregation in 1988, has advanced degrees in education administration and history, and has worked as a teacher, professor, principal, and dean in various Catholic schools and colleges.
The undergraduate tuition remains far below the average private college tuition in the country.
Aquinas integrates the liberal arts and Catholic teaching into the undergraduate programs for each of its four schools: nursing, education, business, and arts and sciences. According to one administrator, the College strives to teach “what theology and philosophy have to say about other disciplines.”
Course requirements vary according to degree program. All students with majors in the School of Arts and Sciences—including theology, philosophy, history, English, and liberal arts—take three Catholic theology courses in fundamental theology, moral theology, and Scripture and three philosophy courses in logic, ethics, and philosophy of the human person. They also study English composition and speech, and choose among electives in history, literature, math, science, fine arts, and a foreign language. More than half the credits required for a bachelor’s degree come from the core and distribution requirements.
Nursing, education, and business students take fewer theology and philosophy courses, but still at least 40 percent of total credits come from the liberal arts.
The theology professors have all received the mandatum
from Nashville Bishop David Choby, who attended Aquinas in the 1960s before moving on to the seminary. He has taught moral theology at the College and is a strong supporter of the College and the Congregation.
Brother Ignatius Perkins, O.P., former dean and nursing professor at Spalding University, directs the Aquinas School of Nursing and has done much to raise its national profile. “We give students the tools to help their patients make the right moral decisions,” said one nursing professor.
Support for a free-market economy is complemented by a desire for “Christian moral constraints” in the business program. The College boasts, “The primary goal of the Bachelor of Business Administration (BBA) Program is training ethical, competent business leaders who are conscious of their broader responsibilities to society.”
Ten Dominican sisters teach at Aquinas, joined by more than 70 other full- and part-time professors. Most full-time, non-nursing faculty members hold doctorates or equivalent terminal degrees.
The College makes an effort to ease the challenge of the first year for students through its Aquinas College Cares about Every Student’s Success (ACCESS) program and a freshman formation retreat launched in the 2011-2012 academic year. ACCESS is a required program of mentoring, tutoring, and advising for first-year and other new students. The freshman retreat introduces students to classic Dominican spirituality and education.
Students also benefit from the College’s Write Reason Center, which aims to strengthen student writing across the curriculum and provides mentors to assist students. The unique program is rooted in the classical Trivium
, emphasizing habits of mind (logic) and habits of expression (grammar and rhetoric) so that students learn to write and think logically and with concern for objective truth.
The center of the campus’ spiritual life is St. Jude’s Chapel. Aquinas offers many spiritual programs including the Rosary, Eucharistic Processions, Stations of the Cross, Retreats, Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, and numerous opportunities for group prayer.
The campus ministry is heavily involved in pro-life activities. Students pray at abortion clinics and each January erect a “Cemetery of the Innocents” on the front lawn of campus next to busy Harding Pike to memorialize aborted children.
Campus ministry also sponsors Bible study groups, social activities, inquiry sessions for non-Catholics, and retreats for student leaders.
Perhaps the most exciting recent development at Aquinas has been the launch of its residential program, which is likely to transform the college as many more full-time students from around the country find it easier to come to Aquinas.
In 2012, Aquinas announced a partnership with St. Thomas Hospital West, which is adjacent to the campus, to house students in a portion of the hospital’s Seton Lodge. Students have access to the medical services, food court and health club at St. Thomas Hospital. The hotel-like residence, which is single-sex by floor, accommodated only a small number of students for the first year, but that number tripled for the 2013-2014 academic year and looks to double for the next academic year. Residents for the 2013-2014 year hailed from 18 states with most from Tennessee, Texas, and Mississippi.
The College expects the number of residential students to continue to increase in 2014-2015, even as it finalizes plans for new residence halls and a student center. The residences will all be single-sex with visitation restricted to common areas. While campus housing is under development, Aquinas will accommodate nearly 100 students for the next academic year.
"The Residential Life program at Aquinas College is in the midst of tremendous growth, development, and transition, and has become an integral part of the Distinctly Dominican experience," said Sr. Mary Cecilia, O.P., vice president for student life. "Over the past two years, the residential students have brought a new vivaciousness to the College, which is contagious to both the commuter students and faculty alike." Residents are active is Aquinas' "house system" with students, faculty and staff joining together voluntarily to support each other and organize joint activities. Four houses each for men and women are named for patron saints that represent the ideals and morals toward which the students strive.
Nashville is the capital city of Tennessee with a population of more than 630,000 people. In addition to famous and historical ties to the country music industry, Nashville has a vast health care sector and a growing automobile manufacturing industry.
Nashville is a transportation hub, which includes the Nashville International Airport, a hub for Southwest Airlines and host to other major carriers easily accessible from the College. Due to its central location and the numerous interstate highways converging in the city, Nashville is within a day’s drive of two-thirds of the nation’s population. Despite being located in such a busy urban area, the campus has a very low crime rate.
A Student Activities Board sponsors the annual Fall Festival, Spring Fling and other events. Student organizations include groups for student nurses and prospective teachers, a business fraternity, a drama group, a theology club, and a philosophy club. Campus Ministry holds weekly communal meals and sponsors a Sunday night "Open Gym." Through the voluntary house system, students can participate in weekly lunch meetings, monthly talks, special events, and House Games.
The student chapter of the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development provides professional development opportunities for teacher education students and allows them to attend the Association’s national conferences. Other honor and service organizations, such as Sigma Beta Delta (business honor society), Alpha Beta Nu (nursing honor society), and Delta Epsilon Sigma (academic honor society) are active at Aquinas College.
Known as the “Athens of the South,” Nashville offers many cultural, social, and entertainment opportunities. There is, of course, the venerable Grand Ole Opry with its internationally broadcast Saturday night performances, a growing Christian music community, and also National Football League (Tennessee Titans) and National Hockey League (Nashville Predators) teams to follow. Cultural attractions include the Frist Center for the Visual Arts, the Ryman Theater, the Bridgestone Arena and the Schermerhorn Symphony Center, which hosts the Nashville Symphony.
The Bottom Line
Aquinas College is a growing Catholic college that has carved out an important niche in the Bible Belt with its nursing, education, and business programs, as well as a strong emphasis on the liberal arts for all students. It is significantly expanding its campus and both its undergraduate and graduate programs.
This has long been an obvious choice for students in the Nashville region and those who are interested in nursing and education. But especially with the new residential options, affordability, solid liberal arts foundation, and careful attention and dynamic spirit that the Dominican Sisters and dedicated faculty and staff provide to faithful education, Aquinas will be increasingly attractive to Catholic families both regionally and nationally.