FRIDAY, 14 JULY 2023 04:09 BY HOLLY J. WAGNER SUN CORRESPONDENT
High school students nearing graduation have a lot of big decisions to make, the most obvious being: What comes next? Often the range of choices is get a job, go to college or join the military, or some combination of those.
Understandably, many people opt for vocational programs that will get them into good paying jobs as soon as possible. But that forces them to choose from what are treated in the educational world as separate tracks: go to a college or university for a (expensive) traditional education, or to a trade school that will teach them to weld or wire a building or be a professional baker. The two seldom meet.
Helen and John Freeh believe that’s a false dichotomy that, in the long run, isn’t good for society. The longtime educators have a vision that they believe is divinely inspired to offer a college education that pairs training for a trade with a liberal arts program. To do that, they are working to launch Kateri College of the Liberal and Practical Arts, which they hope will be able to offer classes starting in 2025.
“First and foremost, we really believe that God has asked us to do this, and to do it for everyone in the region,” Helen said.
So far, they’ve started a nonprofit to raise money and accept donations. While the budget is still low, they have received a donation of a construction and carpentry workshop where they can start offering classes in building trades.
Programs at the new college, which they plan to open in Gallup, would split the 120 credits required for a traditional bachelor’s degree into two tracks: 60 credits of vocational education starting with building trades, and 60 credits in Liberal Arts disciplines like literature, history, philosophy and theology.
“If you can offer a bachelor’s degree in which someone would have the best of the liberal arts, what the liberal arts do is allow the person who has been well trained in those disciplines to think critically and analyze the narratives that are thrown at us constantly in life,” Helen said.
The college would also reflect their Catholic faith: prayer and attendance at religious services will be encouraged, but not required. Non-Catholic students will be welcome, although Helen admits the program is more likely to appeal to students with a Christian background and possibly K-12 home-schooled students, who she said tend to be “more adventurous.”
Getting it off the ground won’t be easy. Colleges have to offer classes for a couple of years before they can seek accreditation, so initially that may limit enrollment because it limits availability of some financial aid and of students to take credits with them if they want to transfer to other schools before graduation.
The cost of college is a big issue for the Freehs. They are painfully aware that one reason liberal arts programs are fading is that career opportunities for history or philosophy majors are few, while their education is often expensive.
“It’s kind of immoral to let a student be in debt $600,000 when they graduate,” Helen said. “We will keep the cost as low as possible. We’re not going to have a dining hall with 20 different restaurants. We don’t want the tuition to go over $8,000 to $10,000 a year.”
That’s one of the reasons the Freehs chose Gallup. They moved here from Lincoln, Neb., two years ago. Having lived in several states and helped find schools in other places, they were attracted to a low-wealth community where they feel like they can make the greatest difference.
“Gallup is so unpretentious,” Helen said. “One thing that attracted us is the poverty. Christ himself favored the lowly. We thought in Gallup it would really serve the needs of the community.”
They hope to be able to offer free housing for a small faculty to entice them to teach here for a year at a time. They are negotiating with McKinley County for a building they hope will serve either as administrative offices or as faculty or student housing.
Once they open the construction shop they hope to arrange paid internships in the community for its students. They’re particularly interested in partnering with housing charities or agencies that help low-income families get into home ownership.
Once the building trades program gets a foothold they hope to expand, including an automotive program to maintain internal combustion engine vehicles. The thought there is that electric vehicles are slow to catch on in the U.S., so people will need to have their gas-powered cars maintained during the transition.
The Freehs hope the prospect of broader horizons will bring more people back to college, attracting people, especially young men, who have seen traditional trade schools as their only viable option.
Helen noted that in the coming years the U.S. is expected to lose eight million tradesmen because of an emphasis on corporate-style jobs. The goal of Kateri College is to fill that need, while also providing something extra.
“We need to create a hybrid education for right now, but also the future, that takes in the best of the liberal arts,” Helen said.
By Holly J. Wagner