By 1917, she also established a preparatory school for teachers, one of the few career tracks available to Black Americans at the time. A few years later, that school was able to offer other degrees as well, and became a full-fledged university in 1925.
In a sense, Verret said, Mother Katharine "rescued the Church from herself" at the time, because she opened an institution where students of all colors were welcome. Xavier University was also the first Catholic university where men and women studied together, he added.
The spirit of Mother Katharine, now St. Katharine Drexel, and her mission to provide a quality education to those in need is still foundational to the mission of Xavier today, Verret said.
"Mother Katherine, when she came here with her sisters in 1915...she had in her mind those who needed an education," Verret said. "...and every 15 years, maybe even 25 years, we look at ourselves and say - who else needs our service? If Mother Katharine was beginning today, she would have others on her list as well, because this is our mission."
When it comes to academic performance, Xavier is a school that "is punching above our weight," Verret said.
Though the school enrolls only 3,000-some students, Xavier ranks first in the country for the number of black graduates who will go on to complete medical school, according to the Association of American Medical Colleges.
It is also ranked among the nation's top four colleges of pharmacy in graduating African Americans with Doctor of Pharmacy (Pharm D) degrees, and is number one in the nation in awarding bachelor's degrees to African American students in the biological and biomedical sciences, the physical sciences, and physics, and number three in the nation for the number of African American graduates who go on to earn a Ph.D. in science and engineering fields.
Verret said that Xavier's achievements show the important role that smaller, specialized colleges, such as HBCUs, or women's colleges, or other religiously-affiliated colleges, can play in American higher education.
"That diversity of education (options) to satisfy young people's needs is important to us, and HBCUs are one part of that landscape."
HBCUs were founded at a time where it was illegal for black students to attend other institutions of higher education, and so they catered to black students out of necessity. Xavier is still predominately black, Verret said, but it always has been and continues to be accepting of students of all ethnicities and creeds, which was something Mother Katharine anticipated.
"We have an important reservoir of experience and knowledge and intuition about what America should become, which came from the children and descendants of former slaves," Verret said, but students of all races and creeds are able to receive a good education at Xavier.
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Among the other ethnicities at Xavier are a large group of Vietnamese students, as well as students from Iraq who came to the United States during the Iraq war, Verret said. More than 71 percent of Xavier students are African American, while just 19 percent are Catholic, in large part because African Americans in the south are primarily from Protestant or Evangelical ecclesial communities, Verret said.
Still, Verret said, it is important to have HBCUs as predominately black institutions, where black students who are still a minority in this country can go and not feel like they stand out.
Speaking from his own experience as a young college student, Verret said that HBCUs offer students a place where their race is "not an issue."
"I'm not the representative (of blacks or African Americans). I am the editor of the school newspaper. I am one of the members of the chemistry club, I'm not the black member of the chemistry club," he said. "It's a certain freedom that many whites in the United States cannot understand because they're not experiencing that."
As for its Catholic identity, Verret said the school has a strong sense of Catholic service and social justice engrained into its mission.
As one example of service, Verret said that every year, student deans and other peer leaders volunteer their time to help move in new students on campus. When asked why they did so, Verret said one of the student leaders told him: "So that they'll know next year, it's their turn."