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A Founder With a Vision: Tech-based Catholic University in Los Angeles to Open This Fall

Articles | January 24, 2024 | by Catholics for Catholics

By Kate Quiñones at Catholic News Agency

CNA Staff, Jan 23, 2024 / 17:30 pm

When a Catholic mother in California couldn’t find a university with a strong math and science program that she felt comfortable sending her kids to, she decided to found one herself.

The Catholic Polytechnic University (CPU) in Los Angeles announced that it will welcome its first inaugural class of students in fall 2024 after receiving its license from California at the end of 2023.

Jennifer Nolan, a neuroscientist, mother, and now president of Catholic Polytechnic University, hopes to build a culture that immerses its students in the Catholic faith while also giving them a firm background in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM).

“We have the unique opportunity to bring people to faith through science,” she explained. “We want to inspire awe in our students so that they are taken aback by what they see of God — to develop that intense faith.”

Nolan, who earned a doctorate from the Department of Cognitive Science at the University of California, Irvine, wanted to send her kids, who aspired to be scientists and engineers, to a high-level STEM-based university — but she didn’t want them to lose their Catholic faith.

“There wasn’t really a good answer because what I really wanted was a Catholic CalTech or a Catholic MIT, where we could get the top degrees in science and tech, and innovation opportunities,” she said.

So Nolan decided to work with Christopher Plance, who received his master’s degree in theology from Franciscan University of Steubenville, to start a technical college rooted in Catholic values.

Franciscan University, a private liberal arts college in Ohio, is known for its devout Catholic community. Plance was already working on launching a Catholic university in Los Angeles when he and Nolan decided to combine their efforts. 

CPU will offer bachelor’s and master’s degree programs in computer science as well as courses in subjects including data science, technology, and cybersecurity, but it will also offer humanities courses in theology, history, economics, and other subjects. 

CPU’s board also includes Father Richard Erikson, Ph.D., a retired Air Force brigadier general; Michael Stefanini, senior engineer for Caltech at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory; and John Tran, who has a doctorate in computer science from the University of Southern California. 

A distinct vision

A faithfully Catholic STEM university would help students keep their faith and enable researchers to live their faith, Nolan hopes. 

“I want an institution where professors and researchers are not afraid to do pro-life research or pro-religious research — that they can operate freely,” she explained.

When ethical dilemmas arise in scientific research, Catholic professors are not always given the freedom to follow their conscience. 

“For example, I’ve had some professors reach out to me who work in biochemistry on stem cell research, and they’ve been pressured to do embryonic stem cell research,” she said. “And they don’t want to do embryonic stem cell research. They want to do adult stem cell research or umbilical cord stem cell research.”

Nolan ultimately hopes to create a space where professors can do research through “the lens of Catholicism.”

She also is working to develop corporate partnerships where corporations would donate to get first access to students for internships and jobs.

“The student would get lower tuition and hands-on learning at these partners, and a foot in the door to these partners for jobs,” she explained. “And then also, the university would have less reliance on philanthropy and student tuition and possibly the ability to work without using government dollars, which in California might really be helpful.”

‘His project’

Nolan said she hopes the university will become a vibrant faith community. 

“This is going to draw new people in. This is going to create converts,” she reflected. “This is going to draw lukewarm Catholics to be more fervent in their faith.”

Though the process hasn’t always been easy, Nolan believes that Christ is guiding it.

“But also it’s these daily miracles that happen that give me discernment that shows me that this is a project for Christ,” she said. “This is not my project. This is his project.”

When asked about her faith journey, Nolan shared about her experience with autoimmune arthritis. 

“I loved [St. Joan of Arc’s] quote that says, ‘It matters not whether the hand that holds God’s sword is big or small,’” she said. “I especially love that because my hands are crippled from an autoimmune arthritis. So, I think it doesn’t matter that my hands are crippled — I’m holding God’s sword.”

Nolan said that she grew up Catholic but it was “not fervent Catholicism at all.”

“I actually sought it out as I became a teenager and young adult — and ventured away a little bit in graduate school — but eventually came back realizing that Catholicism was my identity, that by not practicing it, I was actually denying part of who I was. And I want to foster that identity in others also.”

The archdiocese gave approval for the university in January 2020. Nolan and Plance received approval from Los Angeles Archbishop Jose Gomez, but when COVID-19 hit, the institute began offering cybersecurity certification classes in September 2020 in the midst of the pandemic. The process of getting licensing approval from California then took about two years.

While a location has been identified, the details are still being finalized. In the meantime, CPU is seeking partnerships to help lower tuition costs as well as seeking to fill certain roles.

To learn more about CPU, visit its website here.

For the original Catholic News Agency article click here.

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