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Donnelly SHINEs light on first-in-their-family college students

Msgr. Stuart Swetland facilitates a student and alumni panel during the SHINE 2020 livestream. Participants in the panel are: (from left) Shane Rainey, Erica Thoman (’20), Sunita Kalikote, Jose Marquez (’17, ’19) and Msgr. Swetland. PHOTO BY CRAIG DOTY

by Katie Peterson
Special to The Leaven

KANSAS CITY, Kan. — Interpersonal relationships and community support were the underlying themes throughout Donnelly College’s annual SHINE event Oct. 15, which raises money for student scholarships.

The event was broadcast live from the new Donnelly Education Center in compliance with COVID restrictions and has raised a record $525,000 so far.

The college was founded in 1949 by the Benedictine Sisters of Mount St. Scholastica.

“Bishop [George] Donnelly said yes to their amazing vision of providing quality, faith-based education to those who might not otherwise have access or might not otherwise be served,” said Msgr. Stuart Swetland, Donnelly president. “We’re proud of the [new] education building because, for the very first time, Donnelly College . . .  has a first-class building for a first-class education.”

The new education center includes 72,000 square feet of academic space and a chapel dedicated to Blessed Francis Xavier Seelos.

“This is the miracle on 18th Street,” said Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann. “But it’s not just the building that’s a miracle. There are miracles that happen inside this building every day.”

A student panel that included both students and alumni bore witness to that statement as they discussed the family feel of the campus, the diversity of the student body and how it all transitioned last spring when in-person classes were suspended because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I chose Donnelly because it was a small college. I didn’t want to be at a university because I didn’t want to be remembered by a number,” said freshman Shane Rainey. “I wanted to have that one-on-one time with my teachers.”

Erica Thoman, class of 2020, said the relationships she built helped as a nontraditional student coming in at 34 years old and a mother of three kids.

“I was really looking for a college that could help support me with relationships,” Thoman said. “I knew I was going to need some support with my instructors and I was going to need to make relationships with other students. . . . Right away, [Donnelly] really just made me feel comfortable. It felt like it was going to be a second home for me and it really turned out to be that way.”

Donnelly College, for four years in a row, has been ranked first in ethnic diversity in the Midwest by U.S. News and World Report’s 2020 Best College Rankings.

“My classroom is very diverse. And seeing my friends that are from all over the country? They really motivate me, and we all have the same goals to be where we want,” said senior Sunita Kalikote. “I love the fact that we don’t know each other much, but we still motivate each other because we are all from different cultures and backgrounds and that just makes me want to do better every day.”

Jose Marquez, class of 2019, said the diversity motivated him to learn more.

“I like to learn new languages. Coming here, I only spoke English and Spanish,” Marquez said. “But I had very good friends from Thailand and Iran, and I’m interested in learning more [languages].”

Rainey feels the diversity prepares students for tomorrow.

“When you go out into the real world, everything and everybody is going to be different,” Rainey said. “They’re going to have different cultures, different backgrounds, and I felt like it prepares me for life.”

Thoman said she found similarities among the differences.

“Most of us, for different reasons, thought that college wasn’t going to be a possibility for us,” Thoman said. “It’s very cool to see that we felt that way and we all had obstacles, and we all ended up here. We all have this supportive environment with such a diverse group of students — and some of the teachers, too.”

Thoman said that these relationships and experiences didn’t change as classes were forced online last spring.

“Those personal relationships that I had really went a long way for me,” Thoman said. “My instructors cared about my success and were willing to work with me on certain things.”

“I had people reaching out to me because I got depressed, and I think a lot of people did initially, not knowing what was going to happen,” she continued. “I really felt that support even through the distance and that just meant everything to me.

“I don’t think I would’ve had that same experience if I was at a bigger school and didn’t have those relationships and connections.”

Finally, panelists agreed that their educational experience wouldn’t have been possible without the support of the community.

“Thank you so much for being the great people that you are,” Rainey said. “If you didn’t help students like me, I wouldn’t be here today right now, and I really do appreciate everything you’ve done for me.”

Thoman said supporting Donnelly students supports the world.

“Donnelly does serve a large community of diverse students and so donations really go a long way to helping people that really care and really are hungry for that education,” Thoman said. “So, any investment that you make in this school is really not only an investment in our community but also an investment in the bigger world, because it’s not going to go to waste.

“It’s going to people that really wanted that education that they thought they might not necessarily get.”

Kalikote said she was one who thought she’d never be able to go to college.

“I am the first generation in my family to graduate from high school and attend college,” she said.

Marquez said he is inspired by the community support.

“I’m very grateful for everything that this college has given to me by its supporters and donators,” Marquez said. “I plan to invest and do the same in the future, so thank you so much for making a great influence on me.”

To make a donation to Donnelly College and the SHINE program, visit the website at: www.donnelly.edu/give/give-now-shine.

About the author

Katie Peterson

Katie Peterson attended Xavier Catholic School, Immaculata High School and the University of Saint Mary in Leavenworth. She majored in English and minored in music. Katie joined The Leaven as a freelance writer and photographer in May 2017. Her favorite assignment, though she’s enjoyed them all, was interviewing her dad, David, in 2017, after he completed his 100th shadowbox rosary, which he has been making as gifts since 1983. Katie’s full-time position is as reporter for the Fort Leavenworth Lamp newspaper.

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