In its 50th year, La Roche reaching around the globe
By Dona Dreeland
Published: Wednesday, Jan. 2, 2013, 8:58 p.m.
When Sister Candace Introcaso came to La Roche College as president in 2004, her inspiration was found in a word: “dedication.”
The term not only fit the fervor of the Congregation of Sisters of Divine Providence who had founded the school to teach religious women, but it also was evident in the students who crossed neighborhoods and oceans to earn degrees on the McCandless campus.
This school year, La Roche students and graduates, faculty, staff and friends, are recognizing the now coed college's 50th anniversary.
“Bold determination led us to be respected for our Catholic heritage and global vision to educate students to be the best for the world,” said Sister Candace, emphasizing the word “for.”
“Students are taught what they need to get a job and prepare for a life of leadership, service and citizenship.”
Sister Annunciata Sohl, who directed the early years from 1963 to 1968, had set the tone. Five other presidents caught her vision and upheld the mission.
Sister Candace, La Roche's seventh president, now is responsible for 1,465 students, 23 percent from other countries.
International students attend La Roche through the Pacem in Terris program, founded in 1993 by Monsignor William Kerr, Sister Candace's predecessor.
The program provides financial aid to students from conflict, post-conflict and developing nations.
Sister Candace, 58, finds the college “vibrant and exciting” because of the student mix.
“My vision is to give the students a quality, transformative, academic experience,” she said.
FINDING HER HOME
Joelle Sakr, 25, originally from Lebanon in the Middle East, liked the campus so much she stayed. But it was easy, because her family now lives in Cranberry Township.
Having earned her bachelor's degree in international business trade and commerce from La Roche, she graduated with a master's degree in human resources on Dec. 14.
Her sister, with a major in biology and psychology, and brother, with a major in industrial engineering and computer science, also attended the college.
As Catholics, her parents wanted to send Sakr to a Christian school. Geneva College, their first choice, was a lengthy commute, but it was there she perfected her English. Speaking French, she explained, helped the English come more quickly because of the languages shared Latin base.
“To speak English and understand it for the first months was really hard,” Sakr said.
“I thought they would laugh at me not to speak it right.”
When she arrived in the country at age 16, she thought the landscape near Pittsburgh International Airport looked a bit strange. There were trees but no tall buildings.
“Dad, are you sure we're in America?” she asked as the plane touched down.
All the American movies she had seen had created false expectations. The scenes, having been filmed in Los Angeles or New York, were studded with skyscrapers. It wasn't until she visited downtown Pittsburgh that the skyline matched the movies.
Sakr hopes to work in the human resources field, but she has her eye on a doctorate at Robert Morris University in the leadership and management program. One day, she wants to own her own consulting firm.
COMING TO AMERICA
For Benita Izere, 21, of Rwanda, and Lynka Ineza, 22, of Burundi, the campus ushered in warm feelings to replace the homesickness they first felt.
“It is more like a family at La Roche,” Ineza said.
“The professors know me and my strengths and weaknesses. They have time for each student.”
“Back home, (teachers) are feared. Here, they want to help you,” Izere said.
“They give us the knowledge, and we give back. It feels good.”
Both young women are senior biology majors. Izere hopes to become a doctor, like her parents, while Ineza seeks a career in global public health.
Izere and Ineza learned about the college when La Roche graduates returned home to Africa.
After their freshman year, the young women moved from culture shock to comfort and a shared apartment in McCandless. Today, Ineza is on the tennis team and involved in tutoring. Izere also tutors.
Volunteer activities are part of their schedules. One winter, Ineza joined Operation Save a Life and distributed socks and sweaters to the homeless in Pittsburgh.
“It was extremely cold,” Ineza said, as one who prefers to watch snow fall from the indoors rather than be in it.
“But it was a good experience. It's not about yourself, but about others.”
CLOSE TO HOME
Once, Kurt Hoover of Ross Township was like many local residents who drove past the campus and hardly gave it much thought.
That changed when he was planning his future after graduating from North Hills Senior High School.
“It was close to home and gave me a chance to be with family and hold a job,” he said.“Commuting saves money, too.”
After learning his options, La Roche was his college, and finance, his major.
Hoover, a 20-year-old junior, keeps up with his studies and distinguishes himself on the soccer field.
His team was the first La Roche men's team to win seven conference soccer games and be invited to the Eastern College Athletic Conference tournament.
He credits professors for making students stay up to date with the news and involved with real-world projects.
“Professors and advisers point you in the right direction,” Hoover said. “The size of La Roche allows them to get involved in your life. They get to know you and see you do well.”
In 25 years, Lynn Archer, of Franklin Park, has instructed thousands of students in her information-systems and technology classes.
In 1988, her subject was pretty new. With a bachelor's degree in business administration and a graduate degree in information science, she came to La Roche after spending time in a corporate setting. Today, she is professor and chairwoman of the information-systems and technology department.
In the beginning, there were no computers in the offices, no personal computers for students or interactive boards and no hands-on training for students.
“We evolved from a nonuse to a wireless campus,” she said.
Improvements in technology aside, the personal exchanges keep Archer inspired. She rediscovered that as a visitor to Rwanda with the first class of Pacem in Terris scholars. A group had traveled to Africa to hold a graduation ceremony in the students' home country.
On a trip through the marketplace, a man approached the Americans.
“‘Are you the people who are educating our children?'”
When they nodded, he continued: “‘You're helping our country. Education will move our country forward. There is hope with education.'”
There wasn't much bustle on the college campus when Sister Maura Dunn of McCandless, the oldest living graduate at 83, enrolled in 1967.
With three years of education from the University of Pittsburgh and years of employment with the Judge Advocate General's office in the Pentagon, Sister Maura, almost 40, came to La Roche to pursue a religious vocation.
“I had wanted a husband, six kids, a big house full of Early American furniture and a big dog,” she said, but was overwhelmed by a religious calling.
What she got instead was a college with only two classrooms and a laboratory in the library's basement and later, after taking her vows, life with eight other sisters in Kearns Hall.
She remembered when a single person was an entire department, and sisters put their earnings back into the college.
“We were struggling for a college we loved,” Sister Maura said.
After a full career as a medical social worker, she served in the college's information office.
“I used to say, ‘The world came through that lobby.'”
Now, on Mondays and Fridays, she fills in at the admissions building, doing whatever is needed. She's surrounded by youth and feels energized.
“(Here) everybody knows your name, like ‘Cheers',” Sister Maura said.
Members of the Shields family of Shaler Township have more in common than their surname.
Bill and Carol, and their daughters, Carolyn, Christina, Victoria and Elizabeth, all have spent time in La Roche College classrooms. Carol, Carolyn and Christina are graduates. Victoria is a junior; Elizabeth, a freshman; and Bill took evening business classes, while working full time.
They make up one of La Roche's legacy families.
“My mom always had great things to say about it,” said Carolyn, 24, who majored in marketing and business management with a focus on human resources.
“I wanted to be like her.”
With the 15-minute commute, professors she later found to be “fantastic” and her parents' blessing, Carolyn was the first Shields sibling to set foot on campus.
“I never felt pressure to attend,” said Christina, 22, who was next in line.
“Carolyn and I are close in general, and we always had mutual friends. I was comfortable with the college even (while) in high school.”
Business classes seem to have interested them all — except Christina. In her sophomore year, she took photography, which led to a college internship and freelance work. After graduation, she opened her own studio.
Elizabeth, 18, commutes to college but plans to follow in her sisters' footsteps and be a resident assistant on campus next year.
Victoria, 20, is a junior marketing major.
“Everything was there that I needed,” their mother said about her experience at La Roche.
“They trained us to work in the real world, gave us the ability to have jobs, balance work and home, and be independent.”
When life took some unexpected turns, Kathryn Jolley, now a principal at DRS Architects in Pittsburgh, designed her own path.
At 27, she was divorced with two children, new to Pittsburgh and a nontraditional student. Soon, she recognized that La Roche was “not only the only place, but the right place.”
Jolley wanted a four-year degree, a well-rounded college experience and a career when she got out of school. Her major was interior design.
“I was nervous and lacked self-confidence,” she said.
She sat in classes with teenagers who knew more on the subject than she did and was instructed by teachers younger than she, but she carried on.
“There was a spiritual connectedness about the place,” Jolley said, “and a caring about the individual, the college, the community and our shared experience.”
After graduation in 1981, she earned her master's degree in business administration at Waynesburg University and taught for seven years in La Roche's interior design department.
“It's scary. That shy young woman is now vice chair of the college's board of trustees,” she said about her transformation.
Jolley, now of Washington, Pa., offers internships at her firm to La Roche students. In addition, she and her husband have established a scholarship.
“It's coming full circle to me,” Jolley, 63, said. “When I came here, I needed so much. Now, I can give back. I wouldn't be who I am if not for La Roche.”
'LIVES ITS MISSION'
Howard Ishiyama, La Roche's vice president for academic affairs and academic dean, has been with the college since 1995, when he was an adjunct professor.
“We're a place that lives its mission,” he said
Any La Roche employee could tell about pieces of the mission, Ishiyama, 50, of Bellevue, explained, “not just recite it, but talk about the values imbedded in it.”
La Roche focuses on creating a sense that “no matter where you come from, people are welcomed here,” he said.
He illustrated the point with a story from a student from a Balkan-conflict country.
“‘This was home for me,' the student said. ‘I didn't know it was a Catholic school. It didn't matter to them that I was Muslim.'”
The mix of cultures and domestic students could give students an extra boost in the hiring process. From surveys, Ishiyama learned employers seek graduates who have the ability to work in diverse and cross-cultural teams.
La Roche now offers juniors the opportunity to travel with faculty and focus on something they are studying.
Travel gives students “a heightened sense of commitment to their own education,” Ishiyama said.
“They don't take what we have in America for granted and are more committed to causes other than themselves.”
One of Ishiyama's biggest challenges is to get the college noticed in wider circles. He is pleased The Princeton Review has named La Roche one of the best colleges in the Northeast for the last four years.
“The fundamental challenge for small, liberal arts schools is to plant a flag in the ground and tell who we are,” he said.
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