When one thinks of a traditional Catholic college, it’s not likely situated in office buildings in a thriving business community in downtown Escondido, California. But no other Catholic college is quite like John Paul the Great Catholic University, and the setting is rather appropriate for this 21st century addition to Catholic higher education.
Students enjoy the mild weather and charm of this San Diego suburb. But look behind the doors, and you will find state-of-the-art technology and software to prepare students for futures in business, filmmaking, and other “new media,” with a firm grounding in the liberal arts and faithful Catholic theology. It’s a smart combination for the Church in today’s culture.
The University has just purchased and moved to its new cluster of academic and administrative buildings in Escondido, more than tripling its former leased space in quiet north San Diego. The campus still features a post-production studio, equipped with software and technology used in Hollywood filmmaking. A sound stage, complete with camera equipment, lighting, and audio equipment allows students to shoot their productions. But also included are a virtual reality lab, acting studio, animation lab and the new “Do. School,” which provides basic office infrastructure for student-led startup companies.
And the new campus is strategically located next to the California Performing Arts Center, which provides critical infrastructure for future conferences as well as the University’s acting program.
Although it is situated in southern California, the small, specialized University traces its heritage to Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio. While visiting there in 2000 with his daughter, President Derry Connolly had the inspiration to develop a college in his hometown.
“While at Franciscan, I saw students incredibly on fire for their faith. That wasn’t something I had experienced before,” said Connolly, who has worked as a professor and administrator at the University of California-San Diego for more than a decade. “The idea for John Paul the Great came to me while in front of the Blessed Sacrament. I wanted to try to connect the idea of students on fire for their faith with what I did day-to-day, teaching entrepreneurship to students at one of the top 20 schools in the U.S.”
The University offers undergraduate degrees in communications media and business, as well as an M.A. in biblical theology and an M.B.A. in film producing. Undergraduates can specialize in film (screenwriting, producing, and production/directing), acting, animation and gaming, entrepreneurship, leadership and management, sales and marketing, pre-theology, and New Evangelization—the latter being something of a combination of new media, business, and theology.
But undergraduates also take one course every quarter on some aspect of Catholic philosophy, theology, history, ethics, or culture. And unlike most colleges and universities, John Paul the Great’s academic calendar is year-round based on quarters, not semesters.
With 175 undergraduate students, almost all of them Catholic, the University has long-range plans for a traditional campus with up to 1,200 students.
The University is governed by an 11-member board of trustees, chaired by a banker. The others include a priest and several area business leaders. Dr. Connolly, a native of Ireland, has a Ph.D. in applied mechanics from Cal-Tech, 15 years of employment with IBM and Kodak, and eight patents to his name.
JP Catholic is approved to operate by the state of California and is nearing the end of the lengthy eight-year process of seeking accreditation through the Western Association of Schools and Colleges.
A college education in upscale San Diego should be expensive, but JP Catholic is priced far below the average California college. Tuition and room fees for the 2014-15 academic year are $30,300. Financial aid includes merit scholarships, work-study options, and federal grants and loans.
Although JP Catholic is not a liberal arts institution per se, it requires a 90-credit core curriculum. This includes 24 credits in theology and Scripture, 12 credits in philosophy, 36 in the humanities and science or math, and 18 credits in business.
In many ways, the University combines the best of a college with the hands-on skill learning of a technical school. From their first days in class, many students are able to use cameras and professional post-production software.
The University assumes that most students will be called to work in business, entertainment, and digital media. In their senior year, entrepreneurship students and some others participate in the newly revamped Do. School, which teaches them to create a blueprint for a company and launch it using University facilities. Many students have used these plans to continue their own businesses after graduation.
Not only has JP Catholic established a niche, but the University already has a respectable track record of success with graduates in media, technology, and filmmaking. Students and faculty created a feature film called Red Line and an online television series that attracted more than 125,000 site visitors and a great deal of press coverage. Graduates and employees launched Yellow Line Studios, which is involved in several film projects. The New Evangelization students produced a 13-episode series on the Catechism called “Pillars of Catholicism.”
JP Catholic is emphatic in ensuring fidelity to the Magisterium:
"All teaching faculty will commit to harmony with Catholic Church teachings (the pope and bishops) in speech and action. Faculty, staff, students or volunteers who knowingly in public speech or actions take positions against the Catholic Church compromise their relationship with JP Catholic. JP Catholic expects all trustees, faculty and staff to celebrate the positive spiritual and entrepreneurial components of its mission and eschew cutting down what the institution is striving to build."
Overall, there are 24 faculty members and two visiting faculty. The mandatum
is required for all professors of theology. To help keep the University’s budget small while also maintaining a practical emphasis, professors must be employed in part-time work in their field.
JP Catholic offers a brief study abroad program. Over a span of 19 days, students study in Ireland, France, and Italy.
The University has transformed a large classroom into a reverent chapel, outfitting it with icons, an altar, and a crucifix. Mass is offered each weekday on campus, including a Chaldean Rite (Iraqi Catholic) Mass on Fridays.
The campus chaplain is appointed by the San Diego bishop. He and other priests hear confessions four times per week and by appointment. Eucharistic Adoration takes place nearly every afternoon on campus, and students lead evening Rosary and the Chaplet of Divine Mercy at their residence apartments.
The local St. Mary’s Catholic Parish has 24-hour Eucharistic Adoration and Latin Mass on Sundays. The pastor, Fr. Rich Perozich, spends well over an hour each day hearing confessions.
Students have become involved in teaching CCD classes, doing pro-life work, helping with homeless people, and attending prayer and Sunday worship services.
About one-third of JP Catholic’s students commute from home, and the remainder live in two-bedroom townhomes and apartments leased by the University at the Latitude 33 complex, less than a half-mile from campus. Men and women residing in townhomes live on opposite sides of the street and those in apartments are separated by floor, but some apartments may be adjacent to or across from non-student residences. Students are not permitted to visit residences of the opposite sex.
The townhomes and apartments are located next to a shopping center with a movie theater and grocery store. There are part-time job opportunities in the shopping center and on historic Grand Avenue, which is home to bistros, bakeries, and gelato and coffee shops. Across the street from the residences is Grape Day Park, with space for sports and short film production.
The University does not offer a meal plan, so students are responsible for their own meals. Students walk or ride bicycles to class.
Households—voluntary groups of students who support each other spiritually and socially, according to the Franciscan University of Steubenville model—are highly encouraged.
Alcohol is not permitted on campus or in apartments, and the University encourages chastity. Student dress can vary with some wearing t-shirts, sandals, and flip-flops, but in theology classes men are expected to wear collared shirts.
With a population of about 1.3 million, nearby San Diego presents a broad array of economic, social, and cultural opportunities. The diversified economy includes military and port facilities, tourism, biotechnology, marine science, and many start-up businesses, particularly in technology. Cultural offerings include the San Diego Museum of Art, the San Diego Zoo, and a wide range of professional sports teams.
San Diego is one of the safest large cities in the nation, but students need to avoid crossing the nearby Mexican border. In addition to the San Diego International Airport, Amtrak and other rail and public bus systems are available.
Students can take the Sprinter train, with a station just two blocks away, to Hollywood for networking events and internships. For $2, students can take the train to the beach.
JP Catholic continues to develop student organizations, with clubs dedicated to anime illustration, animation, pro-life activities, business, and classic movies. There is a writing group and a student choir, and a ballroom dance club and acting club alternate on Friday evenings.
The University has established some sports clubs, such as hiking, climbing, and soccer.
In addition to the local parish-centered activities, there are informal events such as a monthly “open mic” or variety program. Student government sponsors two or three events each quarter, such as dances, movies, and excursions to the Pacific beaches about 20 miles away.
Students also venture into San Diego for the many social, cultural, film festival, and athletic opportunities available there.
The Bottom Line
John Paul the Great Catholic University is part of the new breed of small Catholic institutions that have responded to the crisis in Catholic higher education with a renewed commitment to faithful theology and philosophy.
But JP Catholic is also uniquely modern, preparing students for 21st-century careers in business and media technology while retaining a traditional liberal arts core. The University has found a special niche among Catholic colleges, one that will appeal to a particular student with a love for entrepreneurship, digital media, and evangelization.
The University offers Catholic families three very attractive components: a strong Catholic identity, a complete yet specialized curriculum, and a location in one of the most livable and appealing areas in the country.