St. Mary’s University has almost doubled in size over the past four years and is looking to double again in the next few years. Photo courtesy of St. Mary’s University

Calgary’s St. Mary’s riding a student boom

By 
  • October 22, 2016

An increasing number of Calgarians are signing up for a Catholic post-secondary education.

At St. Mary’s University, an independent Catholic institution in the city known for stampedes, enrolment has nearly doubled since 2010 with a 40-per-cent increase over the past four years.

“It is a really boom place right now,” said Gerry Turcotte, St. Mary’s president and vice-chancellor, pointing out that enrolment is up eight per cent this year. “We are experiencing phenomenal interest from students. At the moment we are one of the fastest growing post-secondaries in Alberta.”

According to the school’s website, (stmu.ca) there are 875 registered students studying in either a full-time or part-time capacity, the vast majority from the Calgary area.

“We’re what I would call a boutique university,” said Turcotte, adding that despite the enrolment boom St. Mary’s remains one of the smaller players on Calgary’s post-secondary scene, where the University of Calgary boasts 30,000 students.

But being small has its advantages, especially in the classroom, and Turcotte points with great pride to the school’s average class size of 25. The school, founded in 1986, offers four three-year Bachelor of Arts programs and five in the four-year program. There’s also the popular two-year Bachelor of Education (Elementary) program, a partnership with the Calgary Catholic School District that generates an 80-per-cent employment rate upon graduation.

“Our focus is certainly on small class sizes,” he said. “We have no super lecture halls by design. We never want to be tempted to have massive 300 or more student lectures.”

Although the school’s modest size has kept it from doing large marketing campaigns, Turcotte said “word is getting out more and more.”

“We are very proud of the fact that our statistics show that 40 per cent of students come to St. Mary’s by way of word of mouth,” he said.

Hearing her own mother praise the school’s programs and professors is what attracted Kara Shawn, who’s on track to graduate after next semester with a B.A. in Liberal Studies.

“What has kept me here … is the relationships I have built with my profs and the one-on-one help I am able to receive,” said the 23-year-old Métis woman. “The professors here truly care about and want you to succeed. They really take into consideration the needs of the student.”

That’s the point of keeping classes intimate.

“The idea is that you have much more personal attention from the professors,” said Turcotte. “There is a much bigger focus on the student when they are here all the way through from enrolment until graduation. You aren’t just a number.”

Along with helping their students in the classroom, St. Mary’s is heavily invested in bringing the brightest minds to campus.

“Our philosophy is access to education is a right, not a privilege,” said Turcotte.

Each year the school invests about $180,000 into a program helping economically disadvantaged students cover costs such as tuition and transportation.

“It’s a phenomenal program in terms of the impact it’s had in the community,” he said. “A few years back we had two of our students who lived in homeless shelters who traveled up for class. We’ve had recovering addicts. Single mothers restart their lives through this program.”

Turcotte said the goal is to see the student population double again.

“Our hope is to grow to about 2,000 students which is a really good, sustainable, small university number,” he said, adding that the school is to invest $40 million to reach that goal. “We have a plan for a new teaching structure, a new residence and a new gym that would all be connected. The goal going forward to 2020 would be to reach that number of students and to have these new buildings.”

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