University’s first graduates celebrated as ‘pioneers’ and ‘heroes’

Graduates of John Paul the Great Catholic University / Photo credit: The Southern Cross
Graduates of John Paul the Great Catholic University / Photo credit: The Southern Cross


Receiving their diplomas last month, the first graduates of John Paul the Great Catholic University were hailed as “pioneers” and “heroes,” whose legacy will be remembered by future graduating classes. Nineteen students earned bachelor’s degrees – 10 in business and nine in communications media – during a graduation ceremony in St. Francis Chapel at Mission San Diego de Alcala.

“A lot of people have gone to a lot of trouble to make this look like every other graduation that you’ve ever attended,” said Derry Connolly, the university’s president, in his welcoming address. But despite the mortarboards and graduation gowns, he said, “there is something very different about this graduation.”

That “something,” Connolly said, is the belief among graduates and their parents that “there is nothing more important” than deepening one’s relationship with Jesus. As a result, he said, they “took an incredible risk” in choosing John Paul the Great Catholic University, a brand-new school with an accreditation process still underway and a temporary campus in the Scripps Ranch area.

The San Diego-based university was founded in 2003 with the hope that its intensive, hands-on curriculum would produce the next generation of Catholic innovators and entrepreneurs in the fields of media, business and technology. The university, which prides itself on its Catholic identity, welcomed its first students in September 2006.

At the graduation ceremony, other speakers echoed Connolly’s message, reflecting on the uniqueness of the school and the trailblazing path of its first graduates.

Commencement speaker Patrick Lencioni, a best-selling author and a nationally known expert on making organizations more effective, described it as “a rare and amazing experience” to be present at the graduation.

Contrasting the modest ceremony with the more lavish affairs traditionally held at older universities with longer histories, Lencioni noted that the United States and the Catholic Church also began in “a humble environment.”

“Yes, this is a humble day,” he said, “but 10, 20 and 30 years from now, we will look back at John Paul the Great (Catholic) University and think of you, and this day only gets bigger as those years go by.”

“This may not be Harvard or Stanford, and we might not be in a big arena or the stadium with people with their Emmys and their Oscars and their awards yet,” he told the graduates. But “this is better because you kids – young men and women – are pioneers.”

In a final speech, delivered right before the closing benediction and recessional, film professor Christopher Riley asked the graduates to think back to a lesson he taught them in their freshman year about the nature of storytelling.

“A story is a hero’s struggle against an obstacle to reach a goal,” he said. “Today, we come to the end of the story you’ve all been living. You’re the heroes of this story … and now you need a new story.”

Noting that the best stories are those in which the heroes have the best goals, Riley offered the following as a worthy goal for each graduate: “Light up the darkness.”

“Go, leave this place and walk into the dark,” he said. “The dark is dangerous because the darkness might overcome you; it might get inside you; your light might get snuffed out. … But we have avoided the darkness too long. We’ve been too afraid.”

“Now is the time, you are the generation, today is the day,” Riley said, “for the people of the light to leave the comfort and safety of home.”

He urged the graduating business students to “go into the darkness and create jobs for those who have no jobs” and called upon the media graduates to tell “stories that help the ones wandering in darkness find their way home.”

Graduates with Companies

At John Paul the Great Catholic University, students graduate with more than just a diploma.

“There’s no other university” that walks each student through “the fundamentals of building a business from the ground up,” Connolly said.

Supporting the students along the way are the university’s professors, who are business and media professionals with real-world experience. (Riley, for instance, has written screenplays for major studios, worked as a script proofreader and authored The Hollywood Standard: The Complete and Authoritative Guide to Script Format and Style.)

In their first two academic years, Connolly said, students learn what is necessary to create and run a successful business. Then, during their junior and senior years, the students form teams that are responsible for creating a viable business plan. Through this process, he said, students develop “a great appreciation for the mechanics of a business.”

Since the university was founded, its administrators have hoped that students will take their business plans with them after graduation and develop them into thriving companies guided by Catholic ethics.

Connolly said about four or five student plans have already been developed into revenue-generating businesses. Other members of the first graduating class continue to pursue their business plans with the expectation of financial success in the near future.

Business student Justin Wilga graduated last month as co-founder of his own company, Creative Rhetoric. The company serves nonprofits and other organizations by helping them craft their messages in the most effective ways. Creative Rhetoric was founded after the organizers of Proposition 4 sought the university’s help with their campaign; the proposition was a parental-notification initiative that appeared on the November 2008 ballot in California.

By graduation, Wilga said his company already had committed revenues of about $6,500 and would be working to increase those numbers to $20,000 for the next quarter. He will continue to work part-time with Creative Rhetoric, holding another part-time job until he can grow his company into a full-time enterprise.

Wilga said the university’s hands-on approach to studying business was “an awesome way to just experience business from essentially a CEO-level viewpoint, and you don’t find that opportunity very often with a young college graduate.”

Before hearing about the university, communications media graduate Mollie O’Hare had researched several Catholic institutions of higher education, ultimately “whittling [her choice] down to about three.”

“I wasn’t really thrilled about any of them,” she admitted, “just because they were all liberal arts, and I really wanted to do something practical, so when I graduated … I could just jump right into something.”

She quickly recognized John Paul the Great Catholic University as “the perfect fit,” a Catholic school that would provide her with practical experience in the mass media.

As a student, O’Hare founded Yellow Line Studios, a company that produces Web series, short films and feature films on controversial contemporary issues. The company’s name, she said, comes from its “middle-of-the-road approach” which is intended “to get both sides to dialogue” on issues that sometimes can devolve into “a shouting fest.”

O’Hare is currently at work on “Bump,” a Web series about three pregnant women faced with the decision of whether or not to carry their unborn children to term.

Many of the university’s graduates are embarking on their careers with an impressive body of work and demonstrated experience in their chosen fields.

Matthew Salisbury, a communications media graduate and co-founder of Creative Rhetoric, graduated with two feature-length screenplays and two graphic novels among other projects completed during his time at the university. His first graphic novel, Paul of Tarsus, will arrive in stores next month.

Christopher Lane, a business graduate, not only studied marketing in his classes, but also gained practical experience by working with the admissions department on the university’s own marketing campaigns. He believes the university’s hands-on approach to education will help graduates in job interviews by providing them with a list of concrete accomplishments.

“I think it allows you to kind of separate yourself from … the rest of the applicants that are out there for the job, that are right out of college,” he said.

A New University Model

The inspiration for John Paul the Great Catholic University came to Connolly during a visit to the Eucharistic adoration chapel at Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio.

It was 11 p.m. on a Friday night in early November 2000 and, as Connolly prayed before the Blessed Sacrament, he was amazed to see that almost 20 students were still gathered in the chapel, deep in prayer. He wondered if it would be possible for one university to combine the spirituality of Franciscan University with the sort of top-caliber business and technology programs offered at the University of California, San Diego.

John Paul the Great Catholic University represents his effort to do just that.

In 2003, Connolly and four other lay Catholics from San Diego’s North County – Philippe Dardaine, Wes Fach, Scott McKenna and Ed Snow – founded the university. For its first 18 months, it operated under a temporary name, New Catholic University. But after the death of Pope John Paul II in April 2005, the university’s board of trustees voted unanimously to name the university after the late Pope.

Two degree programs were available when the university’s first students arrived in 2006 – a Bachelor of Science in communications media, with an emphasis in entertainment media, and a Bachelor of Science in business, with an emphasis in entrepreneurial business. Since then, the university’s academic offerings have continued to expand.

Starting in 2009, communications media students have been able to pursue their degree with an emphasis in either screenwriting, directing and producing, interactive media or video journalism.

Meanwhile, business students have been given the opportunity to major in business with an emphasis in the “business of entertainment.”

Also in 2009, John Paul the Great Catholic University opened a graduate school of biblical theology and began offering a Master of Business Administration program with an emphasis in entrepreneurial business.

The university also plans to offer a Bachelor of Science in technology with an emphasis in video game development (starting in 2010) and computer engineering (starting in 2011). Future degrees will include a Master of Business Administration in politics, a Bachelor of Science in fashion and a Bachelor of Science in music.

The university plans to receive its regional accreditation by 2012 and be housed on a permanent campus by 2015.

Regardless of their chosen field of study, all of the university’s students receive a solid grounding in Catholic theology and spirituality.

Every Wednesday during the academic year, students are required to attend a school Mass in the campus chapel and, at a time of their own choosing, commit to at least one hour of Eucharistic adoration each week. But students often surpass this minimum level of spiritual participation, and it is not uncommon for groups of students to gather for recitations of the rosary or night prayer, attend weekday Masses on campus or take class assignments to the chapel, where they can work on them in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament.

“At the end of the day, that’s really what drew me to the university – the idea of an authentically Catholic university,” said Lane, whose friends have shared “horror stories” about heterodox theology classes at “some big-name Catholic schools.”

“It was nice knowing that what I was learning was authentic Church teaching,” he said.

For more information on John Paul the Great Catholic University, visit

Printed with permission from The Southern Cross, newspaper for the Diocese of San Diego.

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