By Susan Dunne
Hartford Courant • May 15, 2022 at 6:00 am
Noreaga Davis of Bridgeport entered the University of Saint Joseph in West Hartford as a freshman in 2018. Davis was a biology major and a member of the basketball team.
He left the basketball team in his sophomore year and changed his major to English, with emphasis on education. On Saturday, Davis graduated with a bachelor’s degree. He will begin a job as a teacher in late May and will start graduate school in the fall.
“At first basketball was all I knew. As I got older and started experiencing more things, I decided to step away,” Davis said. “I was so used to doing one thing. It was hard to step away from it. I feel what I experienced here matured me as a person and as a man to make those decisions.”
Davis was one of 38 men awarded undergraduate degrees from USJ in Saturday’s ceremony at the XL Center in Hartford. The men are making history, as the first full-time, four-year male undergrads in the 90-year history of the school, which was founded in 1932 as a college for women.
“It’s not real to me yet. It won’t be real until I pass across the stage. Then it will be a part of the school’s history forever,” Davis said last week.
Alongside the men, 129 women received undergraduate degrees. In addition, 34 men and 257 women were awarded master’s degrees, and 17 men and 33 women earned doctorates in pharmaceutical studies.
In 2018, to boost enrollment and offer more opportunities to its students, USJ decided to admit men into the undergraduate class as full-time students. This came after decades of allowing men to take undergrad classes part time, and to get graduate degrees at USJ.
Noah Fitzgerald is another of the pioneering men. Fitzgerald was a student at Sacred Heart High School in Waterbury in 2018 when he visited USJ for a campus tour.
“I liked the environment of the campus. I walked around and everyone was very welcoming,” he said. “It was a smaller school, and that is what I was interested in.”
An added bonus was being in a historic class: “That definitely was another attraction, being part of something that is growing and expanding.”
Fitzgerald graduated with a degree in math, with a concentration in actuarial science. He will soon join Aetna’s actuarial leadership development program.
Rhona Free, who has been president of USJ since 2015, said the decision to go coed was motivated by the desire to add courses of study and majors. That couldn’t be done with such a small student body.
“We couldn’t support the whole range of majors we can support with more students. Since 2018, we’ve been able to add a number of majors to enroll both male and female students. We wouldn’t have had that without higher enrollment,” Free said.
In fall 2017, the last year all full-time undergrads were women, the student body was 654 full-time and 156 part-time students, Free said. In fall 2021, when this school year began, the student body was 852 full time and 54 part time. Free said many part-time men went full time when they were allowed. The full-time enrollment is still 78% women, she said.
The incoming student body this fall is “quite a bit larger” than 2021, but Free did not have solid stats because admissions are still coming in.
In the four years since USJ went coed, several new majors have been introduced: health science, computer data science, bioinformatics (the practice of using data to understand aspects of biology), sports management, exercise science and digital media. Actuarial science, Fitzgerald’s discipline, is a new division of the department of mathematics.
“Health science is now the second-most intended major of incoming students. Sports management is right up there, too, at number four,” Free said.
In addition, in the last four years women’s lacrosse and field hockey teams have been added, increasing the number of female student athletes from 86 to 149, she said.
Men’s sports teams now include basketball, lacrosse, soccer, swimming, diving and cross country, and baseball is coming next year.
“The athletics have made a name for themselves and are continuing to grow and excel,” Fitzgerald said. “The academic part already spoke for itself.”
Recruiting legendary UConn coach Jim Calhoun to be the inaugural coach of the men’s basketball team — he started as a consultant in 2017 and as a coach in 2018 — was done in part to help the school’s coeducational plans succeed, Free said.
“We thought he would attract basketball players, and also just the public’s interest. Someone with Coach Calhoun’s reputation would bring a positive perspective on St. Joe’s and get more people to know about us,” she said. Calhoun retired in 2021.
Men have been part-time undergrads at USJ since 1965 and graduate students since 1974, Free said.
Fitzgerald said he felt the school, even as it welcomed men full time, has stayed true to its history as a place for women’s empowerment.
“I took a women’s history course. I liked it a lot. It was the only class I took where I was the only male in the class. It definitely opened up my perspective on the disparity between men and women, specifically in regard to art history,” he said. “So many women artists don’t get recognized because of their gender. It was a great class, and it opened my eyes to things I may not have realized prior to that.”
Free said “the basic culture of the campus didn’t change all that much.”
“Female students did a really good job making it clear that on this campus we have a culture of respect of leadership among women, and that is not going to change with men on campus,” Free said. “At the same time, we found that men integrated rapidly into campus activities. It was a smooth transition.”
Fitzgerald said his freshman year was the year he felt most acutely that he was going to a school in transition. As each year went by, this feeling faded.
“Now it feels as if it’s been coed forever,” he said. “Now you’re not able to tell that previously it was an all-women’s college.”
Susan Dunne can be reached at [email protected].