In 1964 at the request of the Bishop of Allentown, Pennsylvania, the Oblates of St. Francis de Sales founded Allentown College. The nation’s only Oblate college took on the name DeSales University in 2001 to more succinctly affirm its patron and its Catholic identity, as well as its expanding graduate programs.
Since then, DeSales has continued to strengthen its Catholic identity, looking to Ex corde Ecclesiae for its guiding principles. The University’s statement of philosophy says it plainly, “DeSales University is firmly and publicly committed to the principles of Roman Catholic doctrine and morality.”
That commitment is notable at a regional university like DeSales, which does not have the uniformly Catholic student body found at some smaller Catholic colleges. DeSales serves about 1,500 undergraduates and 1,000 graduate students, most of them from Pennsylvania, Delaware, and New Jersey. The University does not track the percentage of Catholic students, but only about a third attended Catholic high schools, while 60 percent attended public schools.
The sprawling campus is located on 480 acres near the city of Allentown, Pennsylvania’s fastest-growing city and its third-largest after Philadelphia and Pittsburgh.
DeSales offers a wide variety of 36 majors, ranging from the traditional liberal arts to forensics, pharmaceutical marketing, and physician assistant programs. The most popular majors are nursing, medical studies, and theatre.
Undergraduates choose up to 16 courses in the general education program, which includes courses in communications, Western civilization, theology, and other liberal arts subjects.
The Oblate religious have a strong presence at DeSales in leadership and faculty positions. The Salesian Center for Faith and Culture promotes the congregation’s spirituality through research, dialogue, and community partnerships that involve both faculty and students. Student opportunities include an honors program, leadership training, writing awards, and participation in Center lectures and events.
The 34 members of the board of trustees include Father Bernard O’Connor, O.S.F.S., president since 1999, and 11 other Oblate priests. In Father O’Connor’s 35 years at DeSales, he has served as chairman of the theology and philosophy departments, academic dean, and vice president for academic affairs. He still teaches at least one philosophy course every year, saying he wants to “have his finger on the pulse” of what students are thinking.
DeSales’ tuition, room and board, and student fees totaled $39,920 in 2011-12, well below the state average for private colleges. About 90 percent of the students receive financial aid, including scholarships and federal aid.
The undergraduate programs at DeSales combine a liberal arts program with career-focused specialization. The University is large enough to support more than 30 different majors, honors programs, study abroad opportunities, professional internships, and advanced study programs.
The required 16 courses that satisfy the University’s general education requirements span the usual liberal arts disciplines, allowing students discretion in choosing among a range of options. But the program aims for much more than a random buffet of subject matter. Some of the courses are interdisciplinary, and all follow a sequence designed to help students develop intellectually with an understanding of the relationship among knowledge, culture, and theology.
Other courses include two that develop written and oral communications skills, and three courses or activities in physical health—both uncommon requirements that reflect the Oblates’ interest in graduating students who are prepared for careers and for life outside the classroom.
The “cultural literacy” sequence of six courses, taught by either history or political science professors, teaches students about human culture with an emphasis on Western civilization. The unique “modes of thinking” courses help students understand the similarities and differences of learning in literature, mathematics, natural science, philosophy, and social science.
All students are required to take the introductory Catholic theology course, one intermediate theology course, and a Values Seminar. The seminar applies theology and ethics to the student’s chosen major field of study. Although philosophy and theology are combined in a single department, the theology courses are identifiable and faithfully Catholic, and theology professors must have the mandatum to teach. The department offers a unique interdisciplinary major in marriage and family studies, which draws from the works of Blessed Pope John Paul II.
Many DeSales students choose “marketable majors,” and these include a highly regarded undergraduate degree in medicine and a five year master of science in physician assistant studies. Graduates of the physician assistant program have achieved a near-perfect passing rate on the National Certifying Examination—10 percent higher than the national average—and the 200-plus graduates have been employed in this growing field.
Another niche program is an interdisciplinary pharmaceutical marketing degree available through the business department. Students take courses ranging from microbiology to marketing research as part of the 16-course major requirement.
DeSales has one of the most extensive drama and performing arts programs at any Catholic college. More than 20 percent of undergraduates major in theatre, film, or dance.
The sports management major in the business department prepares students to hold positions in schools and nonprofits. This is one of only 20 such undergraduate programs endorsed by the Sport Management Program Review Council.
The University recently signed exchange agreements with schools in Ireland, Spain, and Greece, and students regularly study in Rome. DeSales is one of only two schools in the world that offers internships at the Pontifical Council for Peace and Justice and the Pontifical Council for Social Communication.
In an effort to integrate Catholic teaching with all areas of life, the University seeks ways to link academic efforts with student affairs programs. DeSales freshmen participate in Character U, which orients them to several of the “golden counsels” of St. Francis de Sales. Completion is noted on the student’s transcript, and some prizes are awarded. An important part of the program is peer mentoring.
Also, each year up to 15 high achieving first-year students are invited to join the Faith and Reason Honors Program that is administered by the Salesian Center. The four-year program includes seminars, cultural events, and a senior thesis. Select students can study executive leadership in the context of Salesian spirituality in the Center’s Leadership Institute. The Center also invites students to participate in regular group discussions and lectures, as well as several activities tied to the University’s theatre and arts programs, including an acting troupe that focuses on the works of Blessed Pope John Paul II.
Campus ministry at DeSales is solidly Catholic, led by a lay minister but supported by about 10 Oblates and a deacon from the Allentown Diocese. They staff campus liturgies as well as student retreats and counseling. The campus ministry sponsors several student groups including a pro-life club, Knights of Columbus, and men’s and women’s groups for faith development.
One unique initiative is a pen-pal program through which students exchange faith-sharing letters with peers at other colleges, modeling St. Francis de Sales who was famous for his written correspondence with many individuals.
Numerous social service projects are co-sponsored by campus ministry and the Center for Service and Social Justice. Alternative spring break trips are among the outreach activities.
Students will find an active Catholic community, albeit a minority of the student body. Father O’Connor says that both Sunday masses on campus are “just packed with students,” but daily Masses attract a few dozen participants.
There are eight Masses per week at the Connelly Chapel and the Oblates’ Wills Hall Chapel: a daily Mass, plus a primarily faculty and staff Mass on Wednesdays, and morning and evening Masses on Sunday.
Confessions are scheduled once a week and by appointment. There are also Eucharistic Adoration on Friday afternoons, scheduled Rosary times, and some retreats.
Seventy percent of undergraduates live on campus, and they are housed in eight residence halls and a townhouse complex. Two of these are female only, one is reserved for men, and the others are co-ed. Aviat Hall has a chapel.
Co-ed residence halls are segregated by gender in separate wings. Guests of the opposite sex are permitted to visit on-campus residences, including the townhouse complex, only during certain daytime hours.
Students of legal age may have alcohol, but in moderation and under campus guidelines. Specialized “substance-free” housing is offered for students who prefer to live with others who forego all alcohol and tobacco use. Smoking is prohibited in all University buildings including residences.
The Lehigh Valley is a vibrant metropolitan area. Nearby Bethlehem has a quaint downtown area that includes art shops, bookshops, and numerous restaurants. With a population of about 106,000, the neighboring city of Allentown offers a number of economic, shopping, and cultural opportunities. Among these are the Allentown Art Museum, which contains the works of a number of masters, and the internationally known Bach Choir of Bethlehem.
With a strong industrial heritage associated with Mack Trucks and Bethlehem Steel, the area now has a more diversified economy and a more diverse population, straying far from its one-time Pennsylvania German influence. Crime is at or above the national average in various categories, with a notable problem with drugs and gangs, but the DeSales campus is located in a quiet suburban area and is relatively safe. The University has a student escort program, and campus crime violations seem to be for non-violent offenses.
DeSales is located about one hour north of Philadelphia and 90 minutes from New York. The Lehigh Valley International Airport has eight regional commuter carriers, and major airports are located at Philadelphia and Newark.
DeSales has 36 approved clubs and societies, ranging from the C. S. Lewis book club and The Minstrel campus newspaper to athletic and cultural clubs.
The Pro-Life Club has about 50 members, and many of them travel by bus to the March for Life in Washington, D.C., every year.
There are many clubs and opportunities for volunteer efforts, including the two-day Urban Plunge to serve homeless people in Washington, D.C., Habitat for Humanity, Best Buddies, and tutoring. The Office of Social Outreach encourages volunteer work in the Lehigh Valley. The University also has sponsored a Catholic Volunteer Service Fair for students interested in post-graduate community service.
Among other extracurricular opportunities are intramural and club teams in a variety of sports. For the more competitive athletes, the DeSales Bulldogs compete in eight women’s and eight men’s sports at the NCAA Division III (non-scholarship) level. These include basketball, baseball, cross country, field hockey, golf, lacrosse, soccer, softball, track and field, and volleyball.
To encourage and to acknowledge student involvement in extracurricular activity, the University issues a co-curricular transcript that identifies involvement in several areas, including campus ministry.
The Bottom Line
Sometimes a name change is just clever marketing, but not so for DeSales University. Since 2001, Salesian spirituality has admirably been at the heart of DeSales University—in its campus ministry, its curriculum, its campus life, even its leadership programs.
DeSales does not serve only faithful Catholics, and its regional reputation and wide variety of majors attracts students for secular reasons. But the University’s leadership has ensured a clear Catholic identity that determines its policies and curriculum.
The solid general education program and authentic theology, combined with specialized programs that may not be available at other Catholic liberal arts colleges, will be attractive to many Catholic families seeking a faithful Catholic education.