You might not have heard of the College of the Holy Cross, but you’ve probably heard of some of its alumni.
Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, MSNBC commentator Chris Matthews and White House speechwriter Jon Favreau are among its graduates.
Even more noteworthy, the small liberal arts college in Massachusetts has also graduated four current Members of Congress: Democrats Sen. Bob Casey (Pa.) and Reps. Tim Bishop (N.Y.), Jim Moran (Va.) and Peter Welch (Vt.).
For a college of 3,000 students, that’s quite a feat. Although Harvard, Stanford and Yale claim more (13, 10 and 10, respectively), Holy Cross has one of the highest ratios of current Members of Congress to students.
The college’s president, the Rev. Michael McFarland, attributes its success to its Jesuit background.
“That’s part of the Catholic consciousness, to appreciate larger community structures,” he said. “It had at least some sense that community structures were good things and that you could work change through them.”
The college also lives this philosophy through its approach to student input. Student representatives sit on the faculty assembly, which makes major decisions at the college.
Welch said that as a high school senior, he was not expecting his time at Holy Cross to be life-changing.
“It was the path of least resistance for me when I was a bit of a stubborn high school senior,” he said.
But Welch added that studying history at Holy Cross in the 1960s proved to be a formative experience.
“It was very much a part of the education at Holy Cross that you thought beyond yourself,” he said.
Taking that message to heart, Welch left Holy Cross during his junior year to work with a community-organizing project in Chicago. After learning about the project from his classmates, Welch intended to spend only the summer in Chicago, but he was so drawn to the cause that he remained for the following year. His parents objected, but the college was supportive.
Welch remembered his father approaching the college’s dean, hoping that someone from Holy Cross could talk Welch into returning to school.
“He looked at my father and said, ‘But Mr. Welch, you don’t understand. We think what your son is doing is very good. We support him.’”
The dean made an arrangement with Loyola University, a Jesuit university in Chicago, to allow Welch to remain enrolled in college and avoid being drafted.
“They thought what I was doing was worthwhile, and they independently made arrangements so I could continue doing it,” Welch said. “I am indebted to them to this day.”