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Montserrat encounters praise, criticism

Published: Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Updated: Sunday, January 9, 2011 14:01

In the fall of 2008, the College of the Holy Cross instituted Montserrat, a mandatory first year program which, according to its website, aimed to make students' "four years at Holy Cross even richer and more meaningful" by combining three distinct aspects of the college experience, "learning, living, and doing." Named after the mountain in Spain on which St. Ignatius of Loyola radically transformed his life from that of a soldier into one of a man deeply devoted to God and others, the Montserrat program hopes to provide students with the opportunity to "climb [their] own mountain in a journey of academic-exploration and self-discovery." In instituting this mandatory freshman program, the College administration hoped to capitalize on the success of Montserrat's predecessor, the optional First Year Program. According to the College's research, as reported by National Public Radio, "those students who chose [the First Year Program] had fewer disciplinary problems, including drinking. They were more likely to be campus leaders. They had higher grades. They went on to graduate programs and scholarships at a higher rate when compared with the rest of the class." Now in its second year, the Montserrat program has received national media attention and recognition as a model freshman program. In November 2008, the Boston Globe lauded the program by describing it as an "intensive, interdisciplinary class, taught by a full professor…akin to a senior symposium, a far cry from the typical freshman survey course." Similarly, NPR's Boston affiliate WBUR echoed the praise for the program by commending the ways in which Montserrat combined students' intellectual and personal lives while addressing fundamental questions of purpose and deeper meaning. While the media and College administration have expressed optimism and acclaim for Montserrat since its inception, many students who have taken part within the program have responded quite differently. Michael Sullivan, a freshman and Vice President of the Class of 2013, stated that he and his fellow members of the Class of 2013 Executive Board "receive several complaints each day about Montserrat." In response to the growing criticisms, Michael and the other class officers have been working for months to address ways to improve the program with their class dean, Professor Nancy Baldiga. According to Sullivan, most of the student complaints which he has received deal with the academic nature of the program. Montserrat requires that all freshmen enroll within a two-semester interdisciplinary seminar from one of five thematic "clusters": Self, Divine, Natural World, Global Society or Core Human Questions. While the program consists of a two-semester long course, students can only fulfill one common area requirement, adding difficulty in meeting the necessary course requirements for those pursuing rigorous academic programs or double majors. Other students have taken issue with the subject matter and seminar format of some of the courses. Freshman Matt Angiolillo stated that "seminar courses are designed for students with experience in that field of study, not first semester undergraduate students entirely unschooled in the subject. Having a discussion among individuals who do not know anything is counterproductive and a waste of time." Additionally, some have asserted that the program gives some students an unfair academic advantage over their peers. Because the subject matters covered within each individual course vary so greatly, each course requires a different degree of effort and difficulty in assignments, making some courses much more challenging than others. To alleviate some of the problems identified within the academic aspect of the program, some have suggested that students be permitted to rank their eight potential Montserrat courses during the selection process. Currently, students simply indicate eight potential courses in which they would like to enroll. Clearly, however, a student might have the same interest in all eight courses. By allowing students to express preference for their courses through rank, Sullivan says, students would be prevented from being placed within a yearlong set of courses in which they might not have a genuine interest. Sullivan stated that some students have taken issue with some of the social aspects of the program as well. As a way of fostering the program's mission of "learning, living, and doing," students from the same cluster are assigned to the same residence hall. While living in the same residence halls has permitted students to develop close friendships with the members of their cluster, many believe that it has also prevented them from meeting people from outside of their clusters or residence halls. In addition, the Montserrat program sponsors a variety of common social and academic activities to correspond with various issues explored in class. Unfortunately, however, some students have described these events as boring or even unrelated to their coursework. Despite the limitations students have identified within the Montserrat program, Sullivan said that he was confident they could be rectified. "We are working hard to improve the situation and all complaints are being dealt with accordingly," he stated. "We want to ensure that future students at Holy Cross can reap the full benefits of a program which obviously has very high expectations."

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