Father Richard Salmi, President of Spring Hill College, had spent very little time in the south before his appointment in 2009. An avid Cleveland Browns fan and bicycle rider, Father Salmi has adapted to the cultural differences including the cuisine. He recently shared about the historic contributions of the 182-year-old college, the challenges it faces today and how important his grade school nuns were.
"I felt like a bit of a stranger in a strange land. I never saw grits until I moved here, but then I discovered shrimp and grits, which I have to say has converted me. One of the things I love about the south is just how warm and friendly people are and its genuine. They're just genuinely very polite and friendly people. That's been the biggest thrill of coming down here, is just getting to meet a lot of really wonderful people. It's been great. The city has been so welcoming," shares Father Salmi.
Father Richard Salmi came to the deep south from Loyola University in Chicago. He has served a Spring Hill College's President for three years. The Jesuit Educator believes the foundation for his success today was laid years ago by his grade school nuns and his family experience.
"Being in a big family without a lot of resources, you learn how to make what resources you have work. You learn to negotiate. We had seven kids and my parents in a house with one bathroom. You also learned to be efficient. We developed a good sense of humor. We learned how to tease each other in a loving way," says Fr. Salmi.
"My grade school nuns, as I think back, they were the ones who taught me the fundamentals. They were the ones who managed to give us each personal attention. I think their dedication really helped lay the foundation and my love for learning," he believes.
His freshman year at Ohio University was where his interest in the Jesuits began.
"My freshman year in college was the year of the Kent State killings and the Vietnam War protests, and so it was a rather turbulent time for America. I had a Jesuit as an instructor at this big state school. One of my professors was a Jesuit Priest, and so he was the one who actually got me interested in the Jesuits. I looked at the Jesuits and saw all the good works they were doing all over the place. I was going to, again idealistic youth, I was going to save the world and certainly the Jesuits were going to help me do it. I made a weeklong retreat with the Jesuits to discern whether or not I should go to the priesthood or join the Peace Corp. After the retreat, I applied to the Jesuits and they were foolhardy enough to take me. I like the idea that as a Jesuit you could be a doctor or a lawyer. You could have a profession in addition to being a Priest," Father Salmi shared.
"Social justice has always been at the core of what we are about and we've always been on the cutting edge in the cusp of justice issues," says Fr. Salmi.
Alabama's oldest college was founded in 1830. Spring Hill has been a leader in social change, educating orphans, admitting women and African-Americans.
"A part of the deal was in getting this land that we would make an education available to folks who wouldn't have a means otherwise to go to school. The fact that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. mentions us in his letter from Birmingham jail is truly a point of pride for us. The fact that we were almost a decade ahead of every one else and we took those chances at a time when folks were still pretty divided on the issue. From our very beginning, our heritage and our history, and we continue that today. As we look to the future, what are we doing to enable Hispanics, Latinos to come to Spring Hill and how are we going to speak out for the undocumented folks and how do we stand for the Dream Act and being able to say, that, that is the next civil rights issue that our country needs to face," Father Salmi states.
Spring Hill's future will continue to be determined by how it faces old challenges.
"Spring Hill College has always struggled financially since 1830 when we were opened. And we're like all private liberal arts colleges, these times have been challenging. I think taking over the college at the height of the recession was a real challenge and a bigger challenge than I anticipated. It's important that we keep Spring Hill and a Jesuit education available to anyone who really wants it. Last year, we handed out about $17 million in financial aid to students. We do that largely from balancing and managing our budget, but also from the generosity of folks who share our mission and vision. We are also seeing a lot more positive signs with our endowment and the growth that we're seeing there," shares Fr. Salmi. "In terms of our admissions, there's a lot more energy and excitement that we see in high school students about wanting to come to Spring Hill College and so when you're tuition dependent you have to have the students. I'm confident that we are already starting to see the turnaround. We're
pretty, very confident that our future is solid," says Fr. Salmi.
Father Salmi says he wants to see Spring Hill's 1,300 student body grow over the next five years to 2,000 students. He's also concerned about student loan debt. Father Salmi wants Spring Hill graduates to leave without astronomical debt, one that they can pay back in a reasonable amount of time. And, according to Fr. Salmi, as a Catholic college, Spring Hill should be a place that people of all faiths feel welcomed and safe.
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