At Cabrini University: Bettings on Immigrants
Located in the wealthy outskirts of Philadelphia, Cabrini University hasn’t stepped out of his original mission: to bring education to immigrants, with a special emphasis on Latinos.
There was a time when the image of a small, private university called to mind images of young, white, affluent students who would go on to succeed in prescribed careers as lawyers, thinkers and authors. While this stereotype remains largely accurate in campuses across academia, changing demographics demand a new, more inclusive approach to higher education. Cabrini University, located just outside Philadelphia in the quiet suburb of Radnor, is implementing strategies to bring in more students of color with a special emphasis on Latinos.
Led by the university’s current president, Donald B. Taylor, Cabrini has launched an ambitious plan to increase Latino student enrollment 25 percent over the next several years. Doing so in Trump’s America is complicated as deportation threats and anti-immigrant fervor spread throughout the country. But Cabrini, a Catholic institution, holds itself accountable to a higher authority.
“It’s one of the tenets of Catholic social teachings … being welcoming to diverse learners,” says Taylor, who was raised Protestant but has embraced Catholic education since his early days as a science professor. “It’s part of our DNA as an institution.”
Cabrini University is perched atop a tree-lined hill near Philadelphia’s Main Line. The wealth of nearby residents does not go unnoticed - gated homes with sprawling lawns dot the landscape leading to the serene campus. The small university is tucked away from this suburban oasis, but the struggles of the outside world continue to play out despite an overwhelming sense of privacy.
Several students at the university are protected under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, a program that stands to disappear under the new presidential administration. Echoes of Donald Trump’s anti-immigrant campaign platform overshadowed the days leading up to winter break as people questioned what would happen to their status come January.
To alleviate some of that anxiety, Taylor signed a letter drafted by the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities to Trump’s transition team promising not to voluntarily identify undocumented students. Taylor won’t go as far as to call Cabrini a sanctuary college, like the University of California, for instance, but he does refuse to expose his students to deportation unless federal law forces him to do so. It’s a fine line to walk during these uncertain times.
“This country was founded by immigrants. It is a melting pot that we continue to support. We do not ostracize immigrants,” he says. “We asked them to support the DACA act and not deport those students from a human standpoint.”
Eighty institutions of higher learning signed the letter, which quoted Pope Francis’ visit to Philadelphia last year. It reads:
“Undocumented students need assistance in confronting legal and financial uncertainty and in managing the accompanying anxieties. We pledge to support these students — through our campus counseling and ministry support, through legal resources from those campuses with law schools and legal clinics, and through whatever other services we may have at our disposal.”
Read the entire letter here.
This interpretation of social justice is not new to Cabrini, which was founded in 1957 by a nun from the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. Francis Cabrini was born in 1850 in the small Italian village of S’ant Angelo Lodigiano, near Milan. A devout Catholic since birth, Cabrini founded the Institute of the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus in 1880 with seven other young women. Together, the sisterhood scoured for donations to fund missionary expeditions in far flung corners of the Eastern world. But when she unveiled her plans to Pope Leo XIII, he encouraged her to go “not to the east, but to the west.” She was to minister to Italian immigrants in New York and other part of the United States.
The mission brought the sisterhood to poverty-stricken Manhattan, where they helped to educate new arrivals and provide resources to young orphans. Cabrini and her sisters begged on the streets of Little Italy to raise enough funds for their first orphanage. They later established various schools and eventually took their passion for education to Europe and part of Central and South America. By the time she died in 1917, Cabrini had made 23 transatlantic trips and founded 67 schools, hospitals and orphanages. Her knack for acquiring prime real estate belied her physical fragility - she is described as thin and small, with frequent bouts of childhood illnesses.
In July, TIME magazine described an especially feisty encounter with professional rivals:
“When a group of highbinding Chicago contractors tried to get the better of the sisters in remodeling a hotel into a hospital, the little Italian nun fired them out of hand, tucked up her habit, and stumped about the scaffoldings for weeks directing the laborers herself. She was an American after America’s heart.”
Carbini was canonized in 1946 and named the patroness of immigrants in 1950. She is the first U.S. citizen to be sainted in the Catholic Church.
Watch the video of the ceremony here
Cabrini’s devotion to helping immigrants continues to this day under Taylor, who joined the university in 2014 after spending more than two decades at Benedictine University in Illinois. His mission to recruit more Latino students is steeped in the Cabrini tradition of ministering to immigrants not only through the Catholic faith, but through instilling an “education of the heart.” To offset the steep cost of tuition, Cabrini offers financial assistance to 98 percent of undergraduate students.
“This isn’t some overlay of something that is trendy or a way to fill seats,” Taylor says. “This is part of a natural evolution of our institution. The schools the sisters opened were designed to serve immigrants and populations that might not have access to education whether it’s primary, secondary or higher learning.”
A molecular biologist by training, Taylor takes a practical approach to diversifying the university’s student body. He established a 2020 roadmap within his first year as president, vowing to increase enrollment for Latinos, African-Americans and other underserved communities. The university started by hosting the National Hispanic Institute’s Collegiate World Series, a five-day program that invites Spanish-speaking students from the U.S., Mexico and Dominican Republic for an inside look into the competitive college admissions process, securing financial aid and strategic planning for future success.
Ever the pragmatist, Taylor hopes to bring more lawmakers into the fold by speaking to them about immigration from a workforce development perspective. He doesn’t the conversation to hinge completely on religious social teachings, but instead on what the country will look like down the road.
“It’s really hard to move the needle if you just talk about it from an immigration standpoint because the country is so polarized,” he says. “But if you get the legislators in the room and talk to them about what the high school graduation demographic is going to look like in the next 10 years … then they start listening.”
Cabrini also partners with other institutions within its Catholic network to recruit Latino students from around the world. Some of the students closer to Philadelphia come from so-called feeder programs that hope to place disadvantaged students in college with the hope of one day employing them as teachers or administrators at their alma maters. It’s a way for college educated adults to give back to their own communities, but also to speak to current students in a manner they understand.
One such partnership is with the Norristown school system to help undocumented students apply to college, complete assignments and receive necessary resources for themselves and their families. In the mentoring program, Cabrini students are paired up with Norristown students during bilingual tutoring sessions.
“Many of the kids have English as a second language,” said education major Brittany Lambert. “It is hard for them, so that is why we are here. To help translate for them.”
This focus on social justice for the common good has been with Cabrini University since its founding, and recently earned the institution recognition from the National Hispanic Institute as college of the year. Taylor says the school’s relationship with NIH is a natural fit, and part of his ongoing mission to empower immigrant students from Latin America and beyond. That the federal government could interfere by dismantling DACA is a concern that will have to wait until the new president takes. Until then, Cabrini will continue is mission to protect and serve disenfranchised communities.
“Initially, it was Italian immigrants, Irish immigrants and, now, it’s largely Hispanic,” Taylor says. “Mother Cabrini would say ‘Identify an area where there is a primary need, where there are people on the margins … and help them.”