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Pontifical Catholic University promotes education and values


April 14, 2005
Copyright © 2005 CARIBBEAN BUSINESS. All Rights Reserved.

In today’s competitive job market, having the right education is everything. However, not only are companies looking for those with the right knowledge and experience, they are also looking for candidates with high ethical and moral standards.

Since 1948, Pontifical Catholic University of Puerto Rico has been offering programs designed to help students become well-rounded individuals by combining mainstream academic courses with teachings in theology, philosophy, ethics, and Christian life. "What makes us [at Pontifical Catholic University] different is we emphasize both academic development and moral values," said Marcelina Vélez de Santiago, university president. "Nothing is more satisfying to us than to see our students attain their [career] goals through academic and spiritual excellence."

Staying in step with the times

While initially offering programs in arts and sciences to prepare teachers for local schools, the university has expanded its offerings through the years to accommodate those looking to branch out into other professions. It integrated business administration and secretarial sciences programs during the 1950s and a complete nursing program in 1956. In the 1960s, it introduced a medical technology program and founded its Schools of Education and Law in 1961.

In 1966, Catholic University divided its School of Arts & Sciences into three separate entities: School of Arts & Humanities, School of Science, and School of Business Administration. Its School of Law was accredited by the American Bar Association in 1972.

By 1977, Catholic University had established its School of Medicine. Two years later, it reorganized the school as a foundation, renaming it the Ponce School of Medicine. "Over the years, besides expanding our academic programs, we have also added more programs at the graduate and postgraduate levels," Vélez de Santiago noted. The university has included graduate programs in education, business administration, nursing, Hispanic studies, and chemistry, with doctoral programs in education, psychology, and business administration.

"Today, everywhere you go, both in Puerto Rico and the U.S. [mainland], you’ll find professionals who have graduated from [Catholic University]," she stated.

Family values remain a priority

Through the years, this university president has seen a number of changes in the attitudes and lifestyles of the university’s student body and the way the university has adapted. Vélez de Santiago recalled that things have changed in a number of ways since her days as a student and afterward as a professor. "In the past, the norm was to dedicate four or more full-time years to obtaining a degree," she said, adding, "The biggest difference today is that our students aren’t students 100% of the time. With jobs, family responsibilities, and social obligations, most [students] just want to take a few courses, then go on [with their lives]."

"Today, many of our students are single parents, and they need things we could have lived without before." She also pointed out that a majority of students at the university are from low-income families, with close to 92% receiving some kind of federal aid. "Given their lifestyles and responsibilities, we are continually assessing their needs and adapting our programs and services accordingly," she explained. This includes adjusting class times and offering a wider variety of student activities. The university has also made the administrative and registration processes more flexible by providing online resources that allow students to register for classes, receive academic counseling, make payments, manage individual curriculums, and view grades from a remote computer.

Catholic University also offers the convenience of branch campuses and satellite facilities in Arecibo, Guayama, Mayagüez, and Coamo. It is also developing a Distance Education program that will offer students the convenience of studying from their homes. Even though most students commute to and from their homes to the university, campus housing is also available.

"The biggest challenge we have [at Catholic University] is doing the best we can with less [funding]," said Vélez de Santiago, adding, "While we don’t have all the financial resources state universities do, we still have an outstanding place."

Having reared five children of her own while carrying out her various duties at the university, Vélez de Santiago has firsthand knowledge of how difficult it can be to balance a family and career. The first woman to preside over the Pontifical Catholic University of Puerto Rico, in fact the only woman in the world who is president of a pontifical university, Vélez de Santiago has been part of its academic and administrative environment for the past 40 years. She started as a chemistry professor in the 1960s, later became director of the Chemistry Department, and was eventually promoted to associate vice president, then vice president of Academic Affairs. In 2002, Vélez de Santiago was appointed interim president and took over the full position the following year.

Her four daughters and son are proof she was able to be a doting mother while successfully meeting the challenges of her job. Her daughters are Maruja Santiago, a radiologist; Vanessa, an accountant living in Miami; Waleska, a pediatrician; and Karina, a certified public accountant. Her son, Pedro Santiago Jr., is a lawyer. Vélez de Santiago often views the university’s students as an extension of her own family. "When I think of my own children and how they have grown, I want these kids to have the same opportunities," she said.

To raise funds for Catholic University, Vélez de Santiago revived the institution’s alumni program, involving former students and graduates in supporting various programs. "Many of our former students and graduates, who have reached their goals, are now looking to give something back to the local community," she said. "As a result of the well-rounded education they received here, they want to help today’s generation improve their quality of life."

The university was founded in 1948 by the Bishops of Puerto Rico–the Most Reverend James E. McManus, bishop of the Ponce Diocese, and the Most Reverend James P. Davis, bishop of San Juan, who that spring announced the establishment of the university as an affiliate of the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. It was incorporated by the Board of Regents of the University of the State of New York and granted an absolute charter as an institution of higher learning with programs leading to academic and professional degrees. The institution, originally called Santa María, started out with 193 students, who attended classes at Ponce’s San Conrado School in rooms loaned by the Capuchin priests and the Sisters of St. Joseph.

In 1949, the university inaugurated its official campus in Ponce on nearly 120 acres acquired from local government and the Ferré family. Toward the end of that same year, the university was accredited by the Council of Higher Education of Puerto Rico; and in 1953, it was accredited by the Middle States Association of Colleges & Secondary Schools. (The latter accreditation was renewed in 1963, 1973, 1983, and 1993.)

On Aug. 15, 1972, Catholic University was canonically established by the Holy See, an ecclesiastical acknowledgement implying adoption of the norms of canon law and of the decrees of the Sacred Congregation for Catholic Education. During 1991, the same congregation conferred the university the title of "pontifical," which officially ratified the institution as an authentic institution of the Catholic Church.

Type of business: Private university

Headquarters: Ponce

President: Marcelina Vélez de Santiago

Employees: 958

Year founded: 1948

2004 Revenue: $49.58 million

Rank on Top 400 List: 129

This Caribbean Business article appears courtesy of Casiano Communications.
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