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.”
He cited what he saw and learned while in Chicago as one of his inspirations for getting involved in politics.
“What I saw when I was in Chicago was how law really stacked the deck against opportunity, in this case for African-American people,” he said.
“When people organize and challenge injustice, they can have an impact,” he continued. “I saw how changing laws would provide fairness and opportunity.”
Bishop, who graduated in 1972 with a major in history, also recognized the Jesuit influence in his education.
“There’s a real ethos of commitment to others and public service that runs through a Jesuit education,” he said.
He also credited the political climate that existed while he was at Holy Cross with sparking his interest in his future career.
“The whole world was changing from 1968 to 1972,” he said. “It was impossible to not be politically aware.”
Moran, who graduated from Holy Cross in 1967 and studied economics, cited a particular moment at Holy Cross as his introduction to political issues. He remembered a student from Alabama delivering a racist speech during class.
“The priest who was teaching the class responded to his racist speech in a way that was the first time I had really seen somebody speak out on behalf of civil rights,” Moran said. “Experiences like that focus the heart and mind.”
The issue became even clearer when Moran went home the following weekend. There, he watched as a neighbor approached his father looking for signatures for a petition to prohibit a black family from moving into the neighborhood.
“My father was so incensed that he punched him in the nose,” he said. “All of a sudden I was exposed to an issue that I had been protected from in my white, middle-class, Irish-Catholic neighborhood.”
Looking back on his time at Holy Cross, Moran remembered his experiences with his classmates the most.
“The positive experiences came from my classmates and watching them develop their belief systems and interact with one another,” he said. “The classmates that I grew to admire the most and learn from were those who, when they got out of college, wanted to make it a better world, a more peaceful and more just world.”
As an example, Moran also pointed to a former roommate. He said the roommate failed a biology class after disrupting an experiment that involved watching a stray cat die. Because he so strongly opposed the experiment, the roommate set the cat free, which resulted in his failing the class and then being drafted into the Vietnam War.
“I chair the Animal Protection Caucus now,” Moran explained, “and I relate it to his sensitivity.”
Casey also credited his time at Holy Cross with some of the most influential moments in his life, including meeting his wife, who he says got the better grades of the two. But he also remembered the philosophical effects Holy Cross had on him.
“The Jesuits were a great influence on me because of their reminder that if you have an opportunity to serve, you should,” he said.
After graduating from Holy Cross in 1982 with a degree in English, Casey spent a year with the Jesuit Volunteer Corps, a group that works around the country.
“Holy Cross has a particularly higher percentage of people,” he said, “so that obviously influenced my willingness and my interest in service.”
Casey returned to Holy Cross in 2009 to give the commencement address.
Dean of the College and Vice President of Academic Affairs Tim Austin said the college often invites alumni to lecture in classes and speak with students. “Alumni here are fiercely loyal,” Austin explained.