OAKLAND — Holy Names University, a small, sun-filled campus near the tall trees of Redwood Regional Park in the Oakland hills, has been changing lives for 140 years.
It began when six sisters from the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary convent in Montreal, Quebec, Canada, set out on a journey by rail and boat to Oakland in 1868, to open a school for women that focused on education. Their mission was to provide education for the underserved and to instill a spirit of service in the community.
Their calling lives on in many of the school's graduates, who share a commitment to serving others, an attention to ethics, and a belief they can make the world a better place.
The university is celebrating its 140th anniversary this year. It serves about 1,100 students and offers bachelor's and master's degrees. But many around Oakland may not be aware of the campus.
"Building a capacity for hope, informed by the fullness of truth — to me, that is the stone on which Holy Names wa s built," said Sister Rosemarie Nassif, who has been president of the university for nine years.
Miguel Bustos, class of 1993, serves as director of intergovernmental affairs for Mayor Ron Dellums, and has advocated for lesbian, gay and transgender youths for more than a decade, from San Francisco to the White House. Joe O'Neill, class of 2007, started the campus chapter of Habitat for Humanity and School of the Americas Watch. Anthony Russell, who graduated from the school in 2005, performed with the Oakland Opera Theatre in "X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X."
Justice Carol Corrigan, class of 1970, went on to become a judge on the California Supreme Court and chairwoman of the board of directors for St. Vincent's Day Home, an learning and living center in Oakland that provides services to children and their parents.
Corrigan's parents, a journalist and a librarian, expected her to attain the minimum education required to get a job, she said. But the personal attention she received from professors at Holy Names, which boasts a student to faculty ratio of 12-to-1, and their emphasis on instilling critical thinking, gave her the confidence and ability to see beyond the prescribed path.
"At that time, in the mid '60s, the professional options for women were narrow," Corrigan said. "Women became teachers, nurses or social workers, which are all wonderful professions. But the faculty were very good at exposing us to other possibilities. You could pursue things you were interested in, unlimited by the bounds of the era."
The school and its sisters continue the tradition of expanding the educational opportunities for the students that need it the most. More than half of the school's students are the first in their family to attend college in the U.S., and 40 percent qualify for Pell grants, which means they would not be able to afford education without significant financial aid.
Despite its small size, Holy Names attracts a broad array of international students, and was recently ranked by U.S. News and World Report as the most ethnically diverse university in the West.
Bustos was the first in his family to go to college. He grew up in San Francisco's Mission district.
"Being the first in the family is always hard, because you don't know about the process," Bustos said. "You're making a leap, going against the grain, when you might have pressure not to do that, and to go to work."
The school administration helped him realize it was possible to go to college, Bustos said, and that he belonged. That feeling of support lasted when he learned he was dyslexic, and the president of the college at the time loaned him her car three times a week to get the additional training he needed.
The school is rooted in the Catholic tradition, although diversity of religion, philosophy and thought are encouraged.
"We value and respect each individual," Nassif said. "It's part of our fiber."
At a recent nursing class, Iftekhar Hai taught students about Islam, so that if they were taking care of a Muslim patient, they would have a better understanding of how to help the patient feel at peace.
At the undergraduate level, students are required to take a course in comparative religion. The school also offers a master's degree in spirituality, a program that celebrates a broad spectrum of spiritual traditions.
Keeping in step with Oakland's goal of improving science education, the school recently completed a $5.36 million renovation of its science labs. Students who complete the first two years of their nursing program have automatic placement at Samuel Merritt College of Nursing in Oakland, a major benefit, since spots in nursing programs are scarce.
It is the only school in the Bay Area that offers a dual master's of business administration and master's in nursing degree, and also provides the option of a master's degree in Clinical Teaching for nurses who want to become educators.
Another effort the school made to help address the nursing shortage was to set up a video conference system, with help from the California Endowment, to transmit their nursing program classes to 14 hospitals in California.
The school blends its service tradition with trips inside and outside the United States. Each year, a group of students travels to Tutwiler, Miss., to build homes with Habitat for Humanity.
On campus, the westward view from outside the chapel looks over the Port of Oakland, Alameda and downtown San Francisco, from Mount Tamalpais in the north to the Dumbarton Bridge in the south.
"It really lives on in the hearts and the stories of its people," Corrigan said about the school. "It's not just some place with ivory-covered walls, where the emphasis is on how many Nobel Prize winners we have, or how much our endowment is. The whole focus is really on the development of the human intellect and the human spirit, and that sometimes gets lost in a bigger place."