Founded on Social Justice, DePaul Serves as a Haven for Students of All Backgrounds and Faiths

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DePaul University in Chicago, Ill., has long been an institution representative of diversity and inclusion. The school was founded in 1898 by the Congregation of the Mission, a group of Vincentian priests, as a way to provide access to higher education for those who were denied entrance to other schools.

[Above: 2014 graduates of DePaul University and their family members participate in communion during the university’s Baccalaureate Mass, part of the 116th commencement ceremonies, inside St. Vincent de Paul Parish in Chicago, Ill.]

“We were a school founded on diversity,” says Elizabeth Ortiz, vice president of institutional diversity and equity at the university. “When other schools would accept only a handful of Catholics and Jews, DePaul began a university that would not exclude students based on religion. It was the first university to admit women for business and law degrees in Chicago, and our early students reflected Chicago’s immigrant community.”

More than a century later, acceptance of people from all backgrounds and faiths remains a tenet of the university, which aims to provide a place where students, no matter their faith or background, can worship and feel comfortable.

“Being a Catholic school is really an advantage,” says Lawrence Hamer, associate provost for academic and faculty affairs at DePaul. “It allows us to talk about spirituality in all its various forms.”

Hamer explains that while the school was founded by a Catholic order and operates under Catholic values, the university’s intention is not to alienate people of other faiths or belief systems, but to bring them together.

“We’re accepting of spirituality in a way that many other universities are not,” he says.

DePaul caters to the array of faiths of its campus community through its Office of Religious Diversity, which offers programs and services that provide spiritual guidance, support, and advocacy. Students and faculty have the opportunity to attend traditional Catholic masses, pray in one of the school’s Muslim prayer rooms, participate in the Jewish High Holiday services, or experience an interfaith celebration where they can learn about, as well as gain respect for and acceptance of, all religions.

DePaul students gather at McKinley Park in Chicago in May 2015 for the university’s 17th annual Vincentian Service Day.
DePaul students gather at McKinley Park in Chicago in May 2015 for the university’s 17th annual Vincentian Service Day.

Additionally, as part of its core curriculum, DePaul requires all first-year students to take a course on Vincentian history and values to build an understanding of the school’s focus on social justice. After their first year, students may choose from a list of courses related to multiculturalism in America that cover everything from religion to gender and race. They are also encouraged to take courses on various religious dimensions, which focus on the practices, narratives, and perspectives of a diverse range of faiths.

According to Ortiz, DePaul’s mission isn’t centered as much on instilling religious beliefs in students as it is on the social justice values of its Vincentian founders.

“The Catholic social justice mission compels us to figure out how to solve societal ills, and providing education is one of those ways,” she says. “What began as a religious imperative for social justice has developed into a broader, more expansive view of our mission and commitment to diversity.”

Acceptance of All Abilities and Incomes
Today, the university continues to concentrate on opportunities for all — an effort that begins before students even set foot on campus.

DePaul is a test-optional institution, meaning that, to be admitted, students don’t have to submit SAT or ACT scores.

“This is our acknowledgment that standardized tests may not be the best predictor of performance for some students,” says Hamer. “What you need to do well in school is to be smart and persistent; you also need to have good habits. Many of these things are not measured by standardized tests.”

According to the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, SAT and ACT scores are often an inaccurate and biased way to gauge a person’s ability to succeed in higher education. Instead of being a reflection of ability and understanding, the tests have been found to be directly related to income, leading some higher education institutions, like DePaul, to consider alternate methods for admitting students.

“We know that students who come from higher socioeconomic backgrounds have more resources and attend better schools,” Ortiz says. “These students have an advantage. Test-optional admissions allows DePaul the opportunity to [level] the playing field and admit students based on their desire and ability to succeed — not their family income. Going test-optional is in line with DePaul’s mission and values to be a diverse institution.”

The university also lives up to its values and diversity tradition by welcoming today’s immigrant student populations. DePaul is a DREAM-friendly university — meaning it accepts students under the Illinois DREAM Act, legislation aimed at helping undocumented immigrant youth attend college through scholarships — and has developed a DREAM Guide to assist undocumented students who seek to attend the university.

According to the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, the state was the first in the nation to adopt a private scholarship fund for undocumented youth, whose families often struggle to cover the costs of their college education.

“We look to serve the students right in front of us without worrying about where they were before they came to us,” Hamer says. “They’re here within our walls now, so we’re doing our best to educate them and improve their quality of life.”

Ortiz says that with illegal immigration being a current issue, DePaul has made serious efforts — by redesigning many of its policies and systems — to include undocumented students by offering them a resource guide to help them navigate the university and by providing additional financial assistance.

DePaul’s financial aid team developed a process for undocumented students to help determine their need and recommend scholarships — DePaul’s internal version of the FAFSA.

“We created an alternate financial aid form to determine students’ financial need so we can assist them in exploring scholarships and external and internal aid,” says Ortiz. “Our Office of Financial Aid is able to derive an institutional expected family contribution and uses that information to counsel students and provide assistance as available.”

The administration’s thoughtful approach to including and assisting these, and all diverse, students is another example of DePaul’s Vincentian mission put into action. Ortiz says she believes that by continuing to emphasize the human component of social justice, the university will only improve.

“We’re trying to create an environment of learning and cultural competencies where people can go out and understand and leverage diversity,” she says. “The bottom line is it’s just the right thing to do. We respect the human dignity of each individual, and if we can see the humanity in one another, we’ll continue to be a better institution. We have much more work to do, but we are confident that we will get there.”●

Madeline Szrom is a contributing writer for INSIGHT Into Diversity.