By Deanna Howes Spiro, Vice President of Communications, AJCU

By day, they are Jesuit college and university professors…by night, they are award-winning novelists, poets and playwrights! Meet the faculty who are helping to train the next generation of writers and creative thinkers on our campuses.

The idea for this issue of Connections came during one of my last trips before the pandemic curtailed travel for the rest of 2020. While on a trip to see my best friend in Denver last February, I visited Regis University and took a tour of the campus on a beautiful snowy day. If you haven’t had the chance to visit Regis, it’s a must-see for the next time you’re out West!

One thing that caught my eye on campus was a slim statue of James Joyce, the celebrated (and Jesuit-educated) Irish novelist, surrounded by several lines of his famous text in a ring. I found this statue so striking, and wondered which other Jesuit campuses are homes to notable writers, either in the form of sculpture, or (more likely) in the flesh?

Plenty, as it turns out, including many who serve as faculty in their schools’ MFA programs. So in this issue of Connections, you’ll learn about MFA programs at Regis and Fairfield University, and meet several creative faculty at Le Moyne College, Loyola University Chicago and the University of Detroit Mercy. And you will also learn about an upcoming virtual conference dedicated to one of the great Jesuit poets, Gerard Manley Hopkins. It will be held next June, and conference organizers are currently accepting submissions for papers.

At the end of a challenging year, I hope that this issue is a bit of a reprieve from today’s less uplifting headlines. I’ve taken great comfort in the way that books, both fiction and non-fiction, have managed to transport me to different worlds this year, at a few hundred pages at a time (happy to provide recommendations, if interested!). On behalf of my colleagues at AJCU, I wish you and yours a very happy, healthy and safe holiday season, including a peaceful and joyful new year.

Contributed by Susan Cipollaro, Associate Director for Media Relations and Content Marketing, Fairfield University

Zadie Smith (photo courtesy of Fairfield University)
Zadie Smith (photo courtesy of Fairfield University)

Fairfield University’s low-residency Master of Fine Arts (MFA) in Creative Writing Program will be hosting its annual winter residency virtually this year, with a weeklong series of workshops and lectures that will feature an impressive list of high-profile visiting writers who have made a significant impact in the world of writing.

Acclaimed British novelist Zadie Smith (White Teeth, On Beauty), Academy Award-nominated filmmaker Mira Nair (Queen of Katwe, Salaam Bombay!) and former U.S. Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey (Monument, Native Guard) will headline the graduate program’s Winter 2020-21 residency. From December 27 through January 4, they will impart their advice and professional expertise to aspiring writers enrolled in the program.

“Given the year’s challenges, it’s especially crucial to nurture the work of our student writers with distinguished visitors like these wonderful women,” said Carol Ann Davis, MFA program director and professor of English. “We welcome them to discuss their accomplished works and writing processes with our students and to share their distinct and particular experience of the artistic life.”

British novelist Zadie Smith’s acclaimed first novel, White Teeth (2000) was voted one of the “125 most important books of the last 125 years” by the New York Public Library and earned numerous prizes, including the Guardian First Book Award, the Whitbread First Novel Award, and the Commonwealth Writers Prize. Named one of 20 “Best Young British Novelists” by Granta magazine, her book, On Beauty, won the 2006 Orange Prize for Fiction, and her novel, NW, was named one of the New York Times‘ “10 Best Books of 2012.” Her latest book, Intimations (2020), is a collection of six essays.

Mira Nair (Photo courtesy of Fairfield University)
Mira Nair (Photo courtesy of Fairfield University)

Indian-American filmmaker Mira Nair’s narrative feature debut, Salaam Bombay! (1988), won the Caméra d’Or and was nominated for an Academy Award for “Best Foreign Language Film.” A resourceful and determined independent filmmaker who casts unknowns alongside Hollywood stars, Nair went on to direct Mississippi Masala (1991), The Perez Family (1995), Kama Sutra: A Tale of Love (1996), Hysterical Blindness (2002), Vanity Fair (2004), The Namesake (2006), Amelia (2009) and The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2012). Her most recent film, Queen of Katwe (2016), starring Lupita Nyong’o and David Oyelowo, is based on the true story of the Ugandan chess prodigy, Phiona Mutesi.

Natasha Trethewey served two terms as the 19th Poet Laureate of the United States (2012-2014). She is the author of five collections of poetry, including Monument (2018), which was long-listed for the 2018 National Book Award and Native Guard (2006), for which she was awarded the Pulitzer Prize. She is the recipient of fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Guggenheim Foundation and the Rockefeller Foundation, among others, and was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2013.

MFA director Davis said, “Visiting writers illustrate the role that a deep devotion to craft can play in the span of a writer’s life. By their examples, they inspire, and by their generosity to students’ questions, they continue the work of educating the next generation of writers.”

Natasha Trethewey (photo courtesy of Fairfield University)
Natasha Trethewey (photo courtesy of Fairfield University)

Fairfield University’s low-residency MFA in Creative Writing program is a full-time, two-year program that helps aspiring writers develop their literary voice, hone their craft, and make important connections that lead to publication. Students receive one-on-one mentorship from an award-winning faculty of published authors, and typically gather for nine-day residencies on Enders Island, a peaceful retreat off the coast of Connecticut. During each residency, students take part in a series of workshops, seminars and lectures that provide a rigorous theoretical basis for writing, as well as practical, hands-on experience.

This article is re-published here with permission from Fairfield University (click here to view the original version online). For more information, or to apply to the program, visit

By Molly McCarthy, Office of Communications, Le Moyne College

Matthew Fledderjohann (photo courtesy of Le Moyne College)

Matthew Fledderjohann (photo courtesy of Le Moyne College)

Matthew Fledderjohann has been spending a great deal of time in the mind of Charon. According to Greek mythology, this ferryman of Hades carried the souls of the departed across the River Styx and Acheron. Fledderjohann wonders: What can we learn from his story? What does it tell us about the human condition? And, perhaps most probing, what would that job be like today? Those questions lie at the heart of Boatman, a 300-page novel that Fledderjohann has been working on for several years and which he is carefully editing, that is, when he’s not busy working with students and designing curriculum in his role as the director of Le Moyne College’s Writing Center.

Fledderjohann is among many of Le Moyne’s faculty who spend their days teaching, mentoring and guiding students, and their free time exploring the subjects closest to their hearts, or simply the things that are most interesting to them, as authors. They write in coffee shops, at kitchen tables or beneath trees in their backyards; in complete silence or with music; on brand new MacBooks or longhand on bright yellow legal pads. No matter how they practice their craft, they do so because they love the written word.

But as educators, they do so because they understand that writing, thinking and learning are inextricably linked to one another. “Humans have been writing for thousands of years,” Fledderjohann said. “It is part of who we are.”

Each of these authors comes at this work a little bit differently. For English Professor David Lloyd, the process of writing begins by assessing what is immediately around him, such as the current global environmental crisis that has inspired so much of his recent poetry. For his departmental colleague, Linda Pennisi, the process is often launched by what she calls “something outside myself – a chair sitting in the middle of a field or an elderly man dancing down the sidewalk as I pull up to a stop sign.” And for Dan Roche, a Professor of Communication and Film Studies, it starts with the material itself, exploring topics that spark his curiosity. (Roche also keeps works by a few of his favorite writers, from Joan Didion to E.B. White, close at hand, so that he can “dip in and hear their voices and be energized by what they’re doing well.”)

Le Moyne’s Writer-in-Residence, Patrick Lawler, has experimented with an array of genres over the course of his life as a writer. Poems have become stories, stories have become scripts, and scripts have become poems. “My writing process is like entering a room, and then discovering all its intricate and intimate furnishings—the chairs, some pictures, a rug,” he explained. “And finally, I find a box and, upon opening it, I discover another room inside it. This is when I begin to write.”

For Elisabeth McCaffery, director of Le Moyne’s Welcome Back Center, writing is the opportunity to address everything from the Black Lives Matter movement, to the loss of her beloved grandmother, to her passion for running. She publishes a regular e-newsletter, ThirtyShield, in which she has addressed these topics, and many others. For McCaffery, the newsletter is not only a creative outlet, but a way to encapsulate what she is thinking about and what is important to her at this time in her life – as a professional, a wife, a mother and a friend.

All of Le Moyne’s authors have found that their writing – and writing process – has evolved over the years. Pennisi, who is currently working on a series of poems she initially called self-portraits, usually writes on a laptop in a quiet room, but now finds herself needing some background noise and wondering: “Has too much quiet become terrifying these days?” Where she “used to rely on the adrenaline of deadlines” to move her writing forward, she now takes regular breaks when she is drafting something. In addition, she is “more a fan of revision now than ever.”

In addition to self-expression, there is something else that keeps these faculty members writing. It connects them to their students, as they go through the stops and starts of this process. Roche acknowledged that there are times when he believes that what he is trying to write is “bound to fail.” But he never lets that discourage him. He talks it out. He gives it time. If the project has potential, Roche will eventually see new possibilities in it. A few years ago, for example, he finished and published an essay he’d initially drafted 20 years earlier.

“It’s gotten sharper, I hope,” Roche said of his writing. “I’ve gotten better at avoiding sentimentality (a danger for a personal essayist or memoirist). I’ve become better at putting hard truths on the page.”

Le Moyne College at dusk (photo courtesy of Le Moyne College)

Le Moyne College at dusk (photo courtesy of Le Moyne College)

By Adam Doster, Staff Writer, Loyola University Chicago

Amanda Marbais (photo courtesy of Loyola University Chicago)

Amanda Marbais (photo courtesy of Loyola University Chicago)

Amanda Marbais didn’t shed any tears when Michael Czyzniejewski, an editor at Moon City Press, called her with the news that she’d won the 2018 Moon City Short Fiction Award, which came with a $1,000 cash prize and the publication of her first collection of short stories. “But everyone cries when they get their first book contract,” Czyzniejewski claimed.

Not Marbais. A contributor to a number of prestigious journals, she’d been a finalist for literary awards eleven times prior. So close, over and over again. When Moon City finally offered her a deal, she was too shocked to react with the requisite level of joy.

Then, later that night, Marbais was at home bathing her young son, kid’s music droning in the background. “That’s when I broke down,” she says. “Ashamedly!”

Claiming a Body: Stories was published last April. There are eleven in the volume, mostly situated in what Marbais, a senior lecturer in Loyola University Chicago’s School of Continuing and Professional Studies (SCPS), calls the “decaying landscape” of the Midwest.

Marbais’ work is blunt and textural, often centering on empathetic female protagonists who make imperfect choices in an effort to reinvent themselves. A woman and her boyfriend go camping with the woman’s young son, who stumbles across a body in the woods. Another tends to her horrible boss while thinking about adoption. Two friends embark on a cross-country road trip after one experiences a busted marriage.

Cover image of Claiming a Body: Stories (photo courtesy of Loyola University Chicago)

Cover image of Claiming a Body: Stories (photo courtesy of Loyola University Chicago)

Novelist Denis Johnson was a major influence on Marbais; his portraits of people living on the fringe are, she explains, “stripped down and bare-bones, but still very precise and emotionally evocative.”

Readers can pull from Marbais’ work a greater understanding of how people communicate and develop relationships with those around them, especially in times of distress. As a New York Times Book Review put it, Marbais creates characters whose “friendships [are] laboratories in which to experiment with appetite and numbness.”

“[Marbais] has this ability to see the pure absurdity in any situation,” says Czyzniejewski of Moon City, “which makes me think she understands the world as well as anyone, truly and extensively.”

Though she wrote for herself as a teenager, it took a while before Marbais developed her authorial voice. In college, she studied psychology with ambitions of becoming a therapist. She graduated during the booming 1990s though, and detoured into finance instead, working for an insurance company and obtaining her Series 7 license. It wasn’t until Marbais married her first husband—an English professor—that she thought more intentionally about literature, and what she could express through it.

She dropped the broker job and enrolled, at age 30, in a Master of Fine Arts program at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Her instructors there gave Marbais enough latitude to experiment without being prescriptive. “I was a late bloomer,” she says. “But as an art form, writing is very forgiving about this. You need something to write about before you can write.”

Many of Marbais’ students in SCPS, where she’s taught since 2008, are also coming to creative writing later in life. SCPS is a home to adult learners and working professionals, a place where they too can explore a new passion later in life or finally work toward earning the degree they’ve long sought. They might be looking to advance their current careers or, like Marbais, to change course.

In her classes, Marbais builds diverse and provocative reading lists, and is constantly impressed with the “creative approaches” her students take toward intellectual work. They, like her, have plenty of lived experiences to excavate.

So what comes next for Marbais? She’s working on a novel that’s “too nascent to discuss,” along with a set of linked short stories. (Both will include “some emotional components related to our current political and social state.”) She’ll continue pounding away at her keyboard in the mornings, sometimes as early as 4:30 AM, before her toddler wakes up.

Staring at a blank screen, at that hour or any other, can feel paralyzing. But you endure it, Marbais says, “because writing is the thing you do. And if you don’t do it, it’s more painful.”

By McKenna Solomon, Marketing Writer, Regis University

Suzi Q. Smith (photo courtesy of Regis University)

Suzi Q. Smith (photo courtesy of Regis University)

Words matter.

To Suzi Q. Smith, that is a fundamental truth. She’s built a career, and a national reputation, on her words and on using them to deliver sometimes uncomfortable truths.

In the course of that career, Smith has compiled an impressive resume: published poet, activist, community organizer, lecturer, artist. She was the founding “slammaster” of Slam Nuba, Denver’s now-famous poetry slam, and spent twelve years as a competing poet and coach. It’s no wonder that Smith, a creator by trade, jokes that her last name could not be more appropriate.

Smith recently added a new accomplishment to that list: Mentor and instructor in Regis University’s Mile-High MFA program.

Smith is the latest addition to the long list of distinguished, and notable, faculty members and mentors in the Regis program. Smith’s colleagues include Kristen Iversen, a two-time winner of the Colorado Book Award; R. Alan Brooks, a one-time rapper whose graphic novels explore race and identity; journalist and award-winning author Helen Thorpe; and Khadijah Queen, whose poetry addresses difficult issues of race and femininity.

R. Alan Brooks (photo courtesy of Regis University)

R. Alan Brooks (photo courtesy of Regis University)

Regis may boast a marquee lineup of writers, but the Mile-High MFA program is more than a showcase for their talent. It’s a space where successful creators work closely with students to help them discover and cultivate their own distinct voice, and to deploy that creativity in service of others.

For Smith, helping students develop their individual writing persona is the main objective of teaching. “I want people to feel comfortable [with] and to value their own voice,” she said. “I want everyone to live their sole purpose — their divine purpose — and be loved in that process.”

Her own creative process is a balance between excess and void. “Poems come from the excess of emotion. Emotions are heavy. Artists make something or explode,” she said.

The void, too, inspires Smith, particularly when it takes the form of silence on an issue she feels strongly about. “Is someone going to say something? Do I have to say something?”

Helen Thorpe (photo courtesy of Regis University)

Helen Thorpe (photo courtesy of Regis University)

For the teachers and mentors in the Mile-High MFA program, the answer to that is an unqualified yes. Each of them has discovered that they do have to say something, and found powerful language for doing so.

In her award-winning non-fiction, Helen Thorpe makes broad topics like immigration and women serving in the military deeply personal through the individual stories. Most recently, her digital-only collection of essays, Finding Motherland, walks readers through the experiences of past generations of immigrants, highlighting what they have in common with families who are immigrating to the United States today.

R. Alan Brooks deploys his words to challenge bigotry. Brooks’ forthcoming graphic novel, Anguish Garden, created alongside artistic collaborators Kevin Caron, Dailen Ogden and Sarah Menzel Trapl, uses allegory to investigate race, identity and xenophobia. At the same time, Brooks is preparing the next generation of artists and writers to take their place in an emerging, and increasingly recognized, storytelling format.

Khadijah Queen (photo courtesy of Regis University)

Khadijah Queen (photo courtesy of Regis University)

In Anodyne, her sixth poetry volume, which was released in August to widespread acclaim, Mile-High MFA mentor Khadijah Queen addresses issues of femininity and race, intertwines violence and beauty, and provokes and soothes. Her poetry does this with words as lyric as they are bravely personal.

Kristen Iversen’s latest book, a literary biography of the troubled genius Nicola Tesla, follows her award-winning memoir, Full Body Burden: Growing Up in the Nuclear Shadow of Rocky Flats. That book examined a childhood indelibly marked by the nuclear arms race, and exposed the secrets and sometimes deadly cost of the Cold War.

That Mile-High MFA’s teachers and mentors examine some of the most pressing issues facing society through a personal lens is no accident. In keeping with the Jesuit values that are the underpinning of a Regis education, the MFA program compels students to explore ways that their own writing talents can contribute to the greater good.

That fits Smith’s teaching philosophy. For Smith, poetry is an act of cura personalis. She teaches that writing is a process for evaluating the emotional landscape of life: it helps us discern our relationships with ourselves, our communities and our faith. And in the process, poets are caring for their soul. Smith said, “Writing helps us with what we’ve inherited. What we were given. What we have chosen. What we were chosen to do.”

By Dave Pemberton, Web Content Specialist, University of Detroit Mercy

Zoom screenshot courtesy of the University of Detroit Mercy

Zoom screenshot courtesy of the University of Detroit Mercy

This past summer, University of Detroit Mercy English Professor Nick Rombes decided to do something, well, creative for his undergraduate creative writing class: he invited several alumni to audit the online class in real time.

“The idea was to bring together students and alumni from different age groups and geographies so that we could draw on each other’s different life experiences,” Rombes explained. “Typical undergraduate creative writing classes have students who are close together in age. This was an opportunity to broaden that.”

Bringing together people of different ages, races and geographies allowed the students to learn how to improve their writing from each other. “The alumni really brought a new dimension and perspective to the class that I hadn’t experienced when I was just taking undergraduate classes,” said Alyssa Porcerelli, a sophomore in the 5-year MBA program at Detroit Mercy. “I enjoyed the intimacy of having a smaller group, and the community that all of us built with each other. Having a place to be vulnerable and share personal writing was really nice and comforting.”

Giulia Pink graduated from Detroit Mercy in 2015 with a degree in English; she said that it was through two of Rombes’ classes that she developed a passion for writing. She took Rombes’ online class this summer because she wanted to hear others critique her work.

“Everyone can benefit from slipping back into the role of ‘student,’ ” said Pink, who is now a copywriter in the Boston area. “There’s so much to learn. Self-improvement starts with understanding that everyone comes into a situation with their own web of experiences, stories, realities. You can’t expand as a human being if you’re incapable of questioning how you see the world, or if you’re not open to hearing someone else’s experiences, stories or realities. I felt myself stretch into a better writer and a better me in this class.”

Rombes admitted that he thought being all online might not be ideal for a class like creative writing but after a few sessions, he doesn’t feel that way anymore. “It was a much more intimate, personal experience than I’d ever imagined,” Rombes said. “I think we have this idea that technology, especially when it comes to teaching, is cold, remote and a poor substitute for in-person learning, but in this case, at least, the opposite was true. For instance, when students read each other’s work aloud, we could see each other’s faces and reactions. This in itself provided powerful feedback for each student writer.”

Students agreed. “In the video call format, I found it fascinating to watch everyone’s faces as classmates told authors what they liked, what confused them and what might be improved,” said Jon Whitener, who graduated from Detroit Mercy in 2011 with a degree in Computer Science. “I won’t soon forget some of the looks on people’s faces as they braved this critique. What I often saw was a writer who was insecure about their abilities and nervous their work wasn’t ‘good enough,’ who then discovered from the comments of other students that they had done something good.”

The students all had great things to say about Rombes, who they felt brought out the best in their writing.

“He is the perfect teacher for this course,” said alumna Michelle Styczynski ’11. “If you’re nervous or intimidated by creative writing, like myself, he will only lift you up and help you develop the voice you want or are searching for.”

The alumni enjoyed interacting with current students, which gave them a chance to do something they thought about, but maybe didn’t have time to do during their time at Detroit Mercy. “Raising three kids, working full time and trying to maintain an old house never left much time for writing,” Whitener said. “But over the last couple of years, I tried to hack out stuff here and there. When I learned about the summer class, I immediately felt like I didn’t want to be alone as a writer anymore.”

The alumni also enjoyed getting a chance to reconnect with the University and some of its current students. “I’ve been so happy to see how involved my classmates are with social justice and equity,” Pink said. “Meeting people just starting their careers mid-pandemic, mid-crisis as a country, well, it was just plain inspiring to see that Detroit Mercy is supporting emerging leaders who are driven to make this world better.”

Rombes hopes to offer the course again in the future. “I would love to have the opportunity to do this again,” Rombes said. “It made me fall in love with teaching in a new way.”

This article originally appeared at and is re-published here with permission from the University of Detroit Mercy.

By Lesley J. Higgins, English Professor, York University (Toronto)

Gerard Manley Hopkins, S.J. (open-source image  obtained via Wikipedia)

Gerard Manley Hopkins, S.J. (open-source image obtained via Wikipedia)

Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins was acutely aware of humanity’s impact on the environment. He could marvel at engineering projects like the Great Laxley Wheel on the Isle of Man but fret when nature became “smeared” with human detritus, or lament when a stand of poplars was destroyed to feed the insatiable industrial appetite for lumber. Each poem features a speaker finely attuned to the natural world, its creatures and processes—whether a bird breasting the wind, a fierce storm at sea, or “cliffs of fall/ Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed.”

Hopkins (1844‒89), who was raised in a comfortable, aspirational Anglican home near London, was encouraged to be creative by his parents and artistic family members (not just sketch artists, but an uncle who excelled at the new-fangled art of photography). Diaries and letters are vivid repositories of responses to the natural world; his poetry celebrates the “grandeur” of creation and its Creator. Like many Victorians, he loved to ramble: frequently, in the Oxford countryside while a university student; arduously, in Switzerland; ecstatically, when exploring the valleys of Clwyd (Jesuit theological studies took him to St. Beuno’s, in northeastern Wales); contentedly, when roaming near Monasterevin, Co. Kildare. But also like many Victorians, walking in the working-class parishes of Liverpool, Glasgow, Oxford and Dublin taught Hopkins that humanity’s habitats could be infernal.

As a poet, Hopkins was ahead of his time—unapologetically so. When his friend (and future British Poet Laureate) Robert Bridges complained about experiments with rhythm, genre and wordplay, Hopkins replied, “With all my licences, or rather laws [of creating verse], I am stricter than you and I might say than anybody I know.” Because of those innovations, when his poems were first published in 1918, the Victorian writer seemed a natural contemporary of modernists such as T. S. Eliot, Marianne Moore and Ezra Pound.

As an environmentalist, Hopkins was also ahead of his time. “Ecocriticism” only emerged as an academic subject in the 1990s, at the intersections of environmental studies, ethics and the imagination (Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, 1962, was a vital inspiration). Major works in the field range from Lawrence Buell’s ground-breaking studies, The Environmental Imagination: Thoreau, Nature-Writing, and the Formation of American Culture (1995) and Writing for an Endangered Planet: Literature, Culture, and Environment in the U.S. and Beyond (2001), to Pope Francis’s encyclical, Laudato Si’: On Care for Our Common Home (2015).

Organizers of a virtual international Hopkins conference being planned for June 2021 are hoping that the theme, “Hopkins and His Environments,” will attract presenters who are particularly interested in ecocritical approaches to the creative, ethical and cultural dimensions of his writings. “Environments” is broadly defined, however: natural, textual, aesthetic, political, theological, Jesuitical and social. Topics that participants find compelling could include Hopkins and Victorian science; Victorian eco-systems and environmentalism; the literary and aesthetic environments of his poetry and prose (including Pre-Raphaelite, Aestheticist, or Decadent art); the intersections of his works and those of his contemporaries; and the political and cultural “surroundings” of Hopkins’ life in England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland.

As a popular term, “environment” came into its own in the 19th century, featured in works by the likes of Thomas Carlyle, Herbert Spencer and Henry Sidgwick. “Hopkins and His Environments” will be a three-day exploration of its literary, scientific, social, political and cultural implications in relation to a remarkable poet. Faculty at Jesuit colleges and universities are invited to submit proposals for 20-minute presentations during the Conference, which will be held by Zoom. The deadline for submissions is January 25, 2021; please consult the conference website,, or contact Professor Lesley Higgins,, for more information.

By Jenny Smulson, Vice President of Government Relations, AJCU

What a startling difference a year makes. In the span of one Congressional session, our priorities underwent a massive shift, in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. Covid-19 has monopolized the agenda, with cause, as the coronavirus has rocked our economy, devastated employment, and deeply and negatively impacted students, families and higher education.

We are in the closing days of the 116th Congress and pandemic relief remains at center stage. The week of December 7th could be the last week that both the House and Senate are in session, and there are several high-stakes issues of great importance to our students and schools that AJCU hopes are addressed before adjournment sine die. The most pressing responsibilities for Congress are to finalize appropriations for Fiscal Year 2021 (FY21) and to reach agreement on a supplemental spending bill that will assist states and communities most affected by Covid-19.

Back in July, the House passed the FY21 Labor, Health and Human Services, Education subcommittee bill. This bill provides level-funding (and some slight increases) for most of the federal higher education programs that AJCU advocates for: Pell Grants; Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grants (SEOG); Federal Work Study; TRIO; Title VI (International Education); Title II/Teacher Quality Partnership grants; Institute for Education Sciences; and Graduate Assistance in Areas of National Need (all under postsecondary education).

The proposed funding levels from the Senate Appropriations committee closely mirror those of the House, but at slightly lower figures. While these differences must be resolved, it is clear that there is a pathway to finding common ground in these negotiations. Our colleagues at the Committee for Education Funding (CEF) have a helpful chart to see the proposed funding levels from the House and Senate for FY21 (and allows for a comparison to FY20).

Over the past two months, the government has operated and been funded under a continuing resolution (CR) that will expire on December 11. The Labor, HHS, Education, Appropriations bill is one of twelve bills that needs to be resolved and finalized this week. Before the CR expires, Congress seeks to pass these bills together as part of one large omnibus appropriations bill (which may be the vehicle for the Covid supplemental and other legislation to hitch a ride). This task is a heavy lift within a short timeframe, which means that Congress may have to pass another short-term CR before finalizing the FY21 funding bills.

Last week, a bipartisan team of Senators and Representatives came together to jumpstart Covid-19 relief supplemental funding talks with a proposal of $908 billion in funding, of which $82 billion would be reserved for education. Of this amount, it is speculated that $20 billion may be made available for higher education: we will continue to advocate for as much funding as possible for students, colleges and universities.

While there is relief that Congress is taking this issue seriously before wrapping up the year, the levels proposed for higher education do not correspond with the extraordinary needs facing campuses and their communities. In a joint letter sent in November, higher education associations provided Congress with estimates of expenses and losses resulting from the pandemic during the fall semester. This letter gives context for our request of $120 billion and, using survey data, provides insights to the challenges that the pandemic has imposed on students, families, institutions of higher education and the communities surrounding our campuses. AJCU and other higher education organizations are pressing Congress to include as much funding as possible for higher education, and to provide flexibility in how those funds can be used to best serve students and support campus communities. Negotiations over the bipartisan Covid-19 relief package continued this past weekend and could be finalized as soon as the end of this week.

Among other priorities that AJCU is hoping to see resolved in the next two weeks is passage of the Temporary Reciprocity to Ensure Access to Treatment Act, or TREAT Act. As a key partner, AJCU is leading the charge to have the TREAT Act included in any package that moves before the end of the 116th Congress. The TREAT Act is bi-partisan, bi-cameral legislation that provides temporary state-level license reciprocity (not a federal license) for health care professionals in all states during a public health emergency. Our Jesuit institutions need this measure passed to provide vitally important mental health care support and treatment to students who may not be residing on campus because of the pandemic. In addition, we are working hard on issues affecting our student veterans to make sure they have access to housing allowance funds (used to support their living expenses) as the spring calendar shifts due to the pandemic.

What lies ahead? With a new Administration comes new opportunities and new challenges. We are already seeing many Jesuit-educated leaders appointed to senior positions within the Biden/Harris Administration, along with those returning and newly-elected to the 117th U.S. Congress. We are looking forward to working with them and hope that their Jesuit education will guide their work.

AJCU’s priorities for the next Congress will center on ensuring that all students have access to a Jesuit postsecondary education and the federal programs that advance this goal. Why? Because our commitment to the formation of persons dedicated to the common good, where care and attention is placed on academic, social, emotional, and spiritual growth and well-being, is just what the world needs more of now and in the future.