Bishop David M. O’Connell, C.M., greets students after a Mass Jan. 31 at Georgian Court University, Lakewood. A faith community is one of the factors both high school students and college graduates say is important on a college campus. Georgian Court University photo/ Phyllis Schiavone

Bishop David M. O’Connell, C.M., greets students after a Mass Jan. 31 at Georgian Court University, Lakewood. A faith community is one of the factors both high school students and college graduates say is important on a college campus. Georgian Court University photo/ Phyllis Schiavone

Story by Rose O’Connor and Haley Cafarella | Correspondents

High school seniors around the Diocese of Trenton are in the final stretch of selecting the college of their choice, and for some, Catholic colleges and universities top the list for continuing their education.

At the same time, college seniors from the Diocese are preparing to graduate from Catholic institutions, reflecting on their college experience and where their futures may lead.

Though these two groups of students are on different tracks, a common trait they do share is a desire to have their Catholic faith play an integral role.

“[Faith] is something I really wanted to study in college,” said Veronica McCarthy, 21, a senior at The Catholic University of America, Washington, D.C., who attended Red Bank Catholic High School. “I enjoyed learning about my faith, and I wanted to bring that into my secondary education and further that in my college career.

“Only when I got to CUA did I really realize how important that aspect was,” said McCarthy of St. Thomas More Parish, Manalapan.

As a politics major with a double minor in Catholic theology and Islamic studies, McCarthy enjoys studying how religion and politics intersect, she said. She plans to pursue a master’s degree in global ethics so she can advocate for Christians and other minority groups in the Middle East after she graduates. She credits CUA with helping her find the direction she wants to pursue in her career through the school’s spiritual teachings.

McCarthy’s faith-based values were echoed across different age groups as those choosing colleges and those looking to leave higher education institutions discussed how Catholicism has influenced their school decisions.

A Sense of Community

For Emanuel Lazzaro, a senior in Christian Brothers Academy, Lincroft, selecting a Catholic institution of higher learning was a natural fit.

“I am considering a Catholic college because I want my university life to be a continuation of Christian Brothers Academy,” he said. “The sense of community that I have been exposed to in high school should be a crucial aspect of my life lived away from home. I have discovered that the Catholic universities that I am considering place that same emphasis on being connected with all people that I have already taken a liking to.”

Lazzaro, who was accepted to Notre Dame University, South Bend, Ind., and plans on studying biology, credits the sense of community he experienced in the Catholic schools he has so far visited as one reason he felt drawn to these schools. 

“When students are content, they have the ability to go out and change the world,” said Lazzaro, who has not yet made his final decision on which school to attend. “I will use my faith to facilitate the success of others throughout my life. Therefore, I want to attend a university that gives me the opportunity to benefit society for the common good.”

A student who understands the sense of Catholic campus community is senior Brooke Harvey, a 22-year-old nursing major in Neumann University, Aston, Pa. Harvey has attended Catholic schools her entire life, including Holy Cross Academy, Delran.

“A Catholic school is a magnet for kind people,” said Harvey of St. Joan of Arc Parish, Marlton, crediting the nurturing environment of Catholic schools, specifically the caring staff.

For example, as a member of the Neumann University women’s soccer team, she feels her coach, Lauren Sciocchetti, has helped her spiritually through her journey.

“She was always the first person I would go to, to help me out in a situation where I felt I couldn’t handle [stress] on my own,” Harvey said.

In addition, Harvey, who is part of the university’s Student Nurse Association, often receives emails from the university’s career development office about open nursing positions in the area.

“I have gotten them since about sophomore year, which is great, so it’s not just for graduating seniors; it’s even for students who are actively in school,” she said.

Helping Hands

It’s not just faculty and staff who are focused on giving back, it’s the students, too.

Fellow Neumann University senior Nick Panissidi, 21, plays third base for the school’s baseball team. Along with his teammates, he has performed community service projects during his time at the school such as helping clean Little League fields.

“We go out and have fun while helping others,” said Panissidi of St. Mary of the Lake Parish, Lakewood, who attended Monsignor Donovan High School, Toms River, now known as Donovan Catholic.

He is also grateful for the university’s academic resource center – which he said he’s found helpful since he has a learning disability – and the athletic facilities off the field. 

“Location and the size of the school were definitely two things I looked into,” he said, recalling his college search. “Also, if the school was growing itself, and Neumann is. They just added a few buildings on with the Mirenda Center [for Sport, Spirituality and Character Development], which are very nice facilities. As an athlete, you’re always looking for a place … so you can click better on the field.”

Faith Decisions

When it comes to selecting a school, Paula Pardo, a senior in Trenton Catholic Academy, Hamilton, said there are many factors that have to be considered in the decision-making process.

“It has to be right – the campus, the price and the programs that are offered have to be a good fit,” she said.

Pardo, who has applied to several public institutions in addition to being accepted at Cabrini University, Radnor, Pa., and CUA, has not made a final decision in the college selection process but admits she has been drawn to Catholic universities.

“I want to remain strong in my faith,” said Pardo, who hopes to study psychology. “I want to do some missionary work, and I know that Catholic schools will provide me the best opportunity and a better program to do that.”

Michelle Brencher, a senior in Holy Cross Academy, Delran, has made her final decision and will be attending CUA.

“I chose The Catholic University of America because my faith has always played an important role in my life. I grew up in a very strong faith-centered family, and my faith has always been there for me to rely on,” said Brencher, who plans to play lacrosse at CUA and study secondary education/ mathematics.

“I knew I wanted to play lacrosse in college because I love to play. When I discovered I could play for my faith, I knew it was the right choice for me,” she offered.

As an extraordinary minister of Holy Communion at Holy Cross, Brencher hopes to continue to be a part of the faith community and be involved in the school’s campus ministry.

Outside Opportunities

When surveyed regarding their higher education plans, seniors in Notre Dame High School, Lawrenceville, also cited faith and campus ministry opportunities, but other factors concerned them as well, such as scholarships offered, student life, the distance from home and school size as additional considerations when selecting a college or university.

The high-schoolers’ concerns are something college students can relate to. Small class size is one aspect that Grace Talian found beneficial during her time at Georgian Court University, Lakewood.

The 21-year-old GCU senior said she has had an opportunity for more one-on-one time with her teachers and counselors. For example, she is in the admissions office nearly 25 hours a week, on top of going to classes, to complete her bachelor’s in business administration with a concentration in marketing in only three years.

“I run the provost’s Twitter account for our school,” she said. “I don’t think there are many places that give you that opportunity your third year there.”

When it comes to opportunities, Talian also had many chances to be active in her faith growing up in St. Barnabas Parish, Bayville.

“Service was a big part of what I did,” she said. “There were a lot of food drives, toy drives, and really just reaching out to help those around us, so I was looking for somewhere where I could really continue that aspect. As far as faith, I feel like it kind of found me.”

She knew about Georgian Court’s Mercy core values, which include: justice, compassion, respect, integrity and service, she said. She applied to the school and received the full-tuition Presidential Leadership Scholarship.

“That wouldn’t have happened if I wasn’t a member of my parish,” said Talian, Delta Mu Delta president, Mercy Collegiate Society Leadership member and student ambassador.

As for school involvement, McCarthy, the CUA senior, said the Washington-area school has helped her access internships, which are very important as a politics major.

“I was really looking for a school that allowed me to get an amazing education, but at the same time go off campus and network and intern,” she said.

She interned for Congressman Chris Smith (R-Hamilton) last semester and traveled to London to intern with Parliament. One of her professors also set her up with an internship with In Defense of Christians, an organization that works to protect Christians in the Middle East.

On top of internships, receiving the Bishop David M. O’Connell Service Scholarship solidified her choice to go to CUA, she said. While apart of the school’s Catholic University Service Corp, she feeds the homeless every Sunday and goes to youth detention centers, as well as trains in every service site CUA offers, she said.

“The amount of service opportunities offered on campus and my ability to partake in them has changed me for the better,” she said.