By Marty Denzer
Catholic Key Reporter
KANSAS CITY — Avila University was founded by the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet as the two-year College of St. Teresa in 1916, on the campus of St. Teresa’s Academy. Margaret O’Reilly became its first graduate in 1918. The decision was made in late 1939 to make the college a four-year institution. The name was changed to Avila College, after the birthplace of St. Teresa of Avila, the college’s patroness, in 1962, and the campus moved to its present location at 119th and Wornall Road in 1963. Avila was chartered as a university in 2001. Now, as it approaches its centennial anniversary, the university is in the midst of updating and upgrading its library and science center.
On March 31, Avila University officials, faculty, staff and students gathered in the Hooley-Bundschu Library to celebrate a breakthrough. Sporting hardhats and protective glasses and wielding purple and gold decorated hammers, men and women knocked holes in a library wall to symbolize the going out of the old and the coming in of new technology and layouts designed to further the university’s push into the 21st century.
The $43.3 million Centennial Campaign began in 2011. The campaign is comprised of six initiatives that are intended “to inspire students to transform the world.”
Avila president Dr. Ron Slepitza told The Catholic Key, “We’ve had our highest enrollments in each of the last four semesters, and a boost in retention. We brought on many new programs in the past 5 years, including the Avila Advantage, and we’ve had more new construction and renovation in those years than we had in the previous 50 years. And we’ll be doing more work this summer, $7 million worth.”
The south Kansas City campus has seen an astonishing amount of building — a new gymnasium, two new residence halls, a new chapel and an entrance plaza — as well as renovating several of its 1960’s era academic buildings in the last 5 years. But the new facilities under construction will be icing on the cake.
Dr. Slepitza said he feels a sense of energy and excitement around campus. Many things are moving forward, typified by the library and Science Center renovations and upgrades.
A year ago, the J.E. and L.E. Mabee Foundation of Tulsa, Okla., a longtime supporter of Avila, issued a $1 million challenge grant, with the stipulation that the university raise $9.4 million within one year. On Breakthrough Day, March 31, Dr. Ron Slepitza, Avila University President, announced that the university had successfully raised the required monies and the library and science center initiatives were fully funded.
As a key component of the Transformational Learning Environment Initiative, more than 17,750 square feet of the library will be renovated into a Learning Commons.
The $3 million renovation will introduce new technology, a new environment and support, through which the Learning Commons will enable 21st century students to not only succeed, but excel now and in the future. When completed, the Learning Commons, on the second floor of Whitfield Center, will include computer pods, reading and study areas. The Innovative Learning Center will contain classrooms with televisions and writeable walls so instructors and students can interact, collaborate and plan projects. There will be spaces designed to encourage small group study as well as quiet independent study.
“More and more,” Dr. Slepitza said, “on university campuses around the country, students are engaged in interaction with technology.”
Talia Gonzales, 20, wielded a hammer at the Breakthrough ceremony. The Joliet, Ill., native is a second year student majoring in Business Marketing with a minor in advertising and public relations.
Digitizing the Learning Commons doesn’t faze Talia one bit. “Our instructors encourage us to use our resources to obtain information. I take my laptop to class every day to help me take notes. I know it’s my responsibility to pay attention and follow along with my instructor. I personally feel that I can type way faster than I can write so putting pencil to paper will not help me retain the information properly. Because I am too busy trying to remember what the instructor said previously and is saying at the time I am writing, I find it difficult to take proper notes.
“I believe the new digital learning system will be very beneficial, especially since students are now taking all of their resources for assignments from online databases.” She added that books and online resources have the same amount of impact. “We are not losing but instead gaining information. Especially since a majority of our society is becoming accustomed to modern day technology.”
The Ruth Wilcox Writing and Tutoring Center will provide quiet spaces for students who might need a bit of extra help from peer or faculty tutors. The Eschbacher Room and Laura Sloan, Ph.D. Children’s Collection will offer education majors pathways to informative and interesting ways to educate and delight children.
There will also be a circulation and information center for students wishing to order a book from the closed stacks. A refreshment area will provide beverages and snacks to fend off hunger pangs that could interrupt a productive study session.
One area of the Learning Commons will be given over to the Martha Smith, C.S.J., 1949, Archives and Research Center, and its adjoining Anne Smith Fritzlen, 1953, Reading Room. Fitted with a living history wall telling the story of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet and of Avila University, the Archives will house the largest archival store of the U.S. Federation of the Sisters of St. Joseph. Smaller stores of archived documents from other religious orders will also be housed in the Avila Women’s Religious Collections. The Center will also hold the official Avila University archives.
The second initiative, Future Healthcare Leaders, will establish the Marie Joan Harris C.S.J., Ph.D. Science and Health Complex in O’Reilly Hall. Named for the first graduate of St. Teresa’s College, O’Reilly is home to the departments of Science and Health. One of the original buildings on the south Kansas City campus, it was built in 1963. The new science and health complex will be named in honor of Avila provost and vice president for academic affairs, Sister Marie Joan Harris. She began her career at Avila as a chemistry professor in 1971.
O’Reilly Hall was still new then, but “it’s time to see about getting our facilities to a modern look and adapt our teaching to current science education,” Sister Marie Joan said. Several years ago, the anatomy lab was renovated and upgraded. Now “we will renovate two more labs and create a third lab. The microbiology and chemistry labs will be renovated, and a general science lab created.”
The instrument room will be moved to the lab floor, giving students and faculty easy access to the anatomy, organic chemistry, chemistry, physics, biology and general science labs and the instrument room.
She is excited about the Marie Joan Harris C.S.J., Ph.D. Science and Health Complex and looks forward to its completion, but “It’s not about me. It’s all part of the wonderful energy and planning” of Avila’s leaders and board members, she said. “And it’s time. About 46 percent of our students today are majoring in science or pre-health fields.”
There will also be a 130-space parking lot built, with easy access to both Wornall Road and to the university campus.
What is under consideration for future upgrades and the advancement of Avila’s mission to not only educate but to serve the dear neighbor without distinction as a Sister of St. Joseph of Carondelet-sponsored institution?
Dr. Slepitza shared some of his dreams for the university. “We plan to enhance the Performing Arts Center. We hope to boost endowments to support scholarships to provide more students opportunities for life changing breakthroughs. Almost half of our students would not be able to attend Avila without financial assistance.” He enumerated the figures: 46 percent of Avila students are Pell Grant eligible; 23.3 percent come from families living at or below the poverty line; another 23.7 percent live at no more than twice the poverty level. “We might also build another residence hall. Many students, 40 percent overall, live on campus. If enrollment continues to increase, it would be needed.”
Construction has already begun in the library. Completion of the Learning Commons and the Marie Joan Harris C.S.J., Ph.D. Science and Health Complex is expected to be in early August.