Pacem in Terris

At La Roche, an idealistic program to reach students from countries in conflict was too ambitious to sustain, and yet it transformed the institution.
June 8, 2009

This May, the final four students who benefited from La Roche College’s Pacem in Terris program graduated. Luis Alberto Galvis Mujica was among them.

Mujica, now a permanent resident in Canada, lost his mother, sister and cousin to a bombing in his home country of Colombia in 1998; he credits La Roche with offering him safe harbor, and a college education, after he gave testimony as a witness. “That program made it possible for me to get my education and also to save my life, get out of my country, be safe for a while in the United States, and come here” – to Montreal, where he’s also been able to bring his surviving family.

The Pacem in Terris program, named after Pope John XXIII's 1963 encyclical on "peace on earth," brought 451 students from developing nations and countries in or post-conflict to La Roche. It is now officially on hiatus. In short, the program, which started in 1993, proved financially unsustainable in its former form; the tuition-driven college, which has a modest endowment of just $3.5 million, invested about twice that, or $7 million, to support full tuition scholarships, and room and board, for the Pacem students. La Roche did seek and receive some external funding, including about $4 million in U.S. Agency for International Development grants, but not enough.

“Monsignor Kerr’s compassion outstripped our resources,” Ken Service, vice president for institutional relations and director of the program, said in reference to the former president whose vision this was. Monsignor William A. Kerr died May 13, only strengthening resolve to reactivate the program, albeit on a more modest basis. “Our trustees have been very clear that they are supportive of the program but they have made it a requirement that, before we bring additional students in under this program, the funding has to be in place first,” Service said.

In the meantime, La Roche, a small Catholic college in suburban Pittsburgh, is a changed place and, by all accounts, an international one.

“I think the Pacem in Terris program kind of put the college on the world map,” said Natasha Garrett, director of international student services at La Roche and herself a Pacem alumna. Originally from Macedonia, she arrived with the first class of students in 1993 when it seemed she said, like “we were the only foreign people in the North Hills of Pittsburgh." No longer: The college’s international enrollment is 145, making up about 10 percent of total enrollment, which hovers around 1,500.

“There was a decision made that although we couldn’t sustain the Pacem program, we did want to sustain the international dimension it brought to us,” said Paul Le Blanc, dean of the School of Arts and Sciences and a professor of history.

When Le Blanc interviewed at La Roche in 2000, the Pacem program was at full swing. When he designed a class on multicultural history of the United States, he taught two sections of Rwandans, with some U.S. students thrown in. “It was an amazing experience for me and it was an amazing experience for other faculty as well” – and a different one from what he remembered having when he worked as an adjunct at La Roche, "a pleasant little place but kind of a sleepy little place," years before.

La Roche just didn't stand out then, he recalled. "Pittsburgh is a major educational center. There’s University of Pittsburgh of course and Carnegie Mellon, Duquesne University and Point Park and Robert Morris and so on. Why would a person come to La Roche? ... There was a question of whether the college had a future and this was mapping out a certain kind of future that would make us quite distinctive. And it was assumed that the money would come,” Le Blanc said. (The funding strategy for Pacem, Le Blanc said, was "sort of like Field of Dreams. If you build it they will come. Also if you build it they will fund it. There was an anticipation there would be USAID money, monies from other governments, foundation money and so forth....")

Funding aside, there were other challenges too. “This internationalization, this vibrant, amazing, hands-on internationalization of our college was not integrated adequately with other aspects of our college, so that the traditional U.S. students, and largely suburban, Catholic and white, U.S. students, were not integrated into this. It has always seemed that having such a large number of international students opens up wonderful opportunities for the traditional U.S. student, but that has to be planned for and that has to be done in a certain way and that was not done adequately,” Le Blanc said, adding that bringing large groups of students from one country tends to mean those students stick together. Also, particularly after September 11, there was tension in the surrounding community, as many of the Pacem students were Muslims from the Middle East. (They came from 21 different countries, mostly in Africa, Eastern Europe, and the Middle East. The largest single group came from Rwanda, after the genocide.)

“On the other hand, there were many in the surrounding community who were inspired by the vision, as most of us here were, inspired by the vision and believed very much in this,” said Le Blanc. “Our plan is to resume the Pacem program but within a much more manageable scale. At the same time, however, we did several additional things as we were starting to scale back the Pacem program in order to retain the international dimension, the international focus that it had brought to our campus" -- and to better integrate it. The college hosts an annual Global Problems, Global Solutions Conference, has been building up its study abroad programs, and has a host of student groups -- including Mosaic, Globe, and the Human Rights Club -- focused on these subjects. “It’s one of the qualities of the institution at this point," Le Blanc said.

La Roche recruits abroad for paying international students (although some partial scholarships are available), and, according to Garrett, of the international student services office, “We have a lot of applicants that have heard about the college through our Pacem in Terris alumni."

Added Garrett, “La Roche has established itself as a school that has an international population, so I have a feeling that a lot of the students choose it because of that. They expect and they’re prepared to interact with all kinds of people.”

Yohani Kayinamura, a Pacem alumnus from Rwanda who graduated from La Roche in 2004, remembers the school as a profoundly international place. With so many countries represented on campus, “You can imagine there was always something to celebrate,” he said.

“It may take another shape or something but the program cannot die, because we’re here, we’re the program,” said Kayinamura, now a Ph.D. student in chemistry at Georgetown University. “The success of the program is still expanding. It’s still becoming clearer and clearer from day to day.”

“Of course we’d love to see it more vibrant as it was when we were in school. But I think it will be reactivated again.”


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