Dr. Bassam Deeb — the sixth president in Trocaire College’s 56-year history – believes in the higher power of education.
“That philosophy of education for practical outcomes – to find work – is instilled in me,” Dr. Deeb says. “Employment and economic improvement can be the focus of a successful institution of higher learning.”
Talking Trocaire: Past, present and future
In an hour-long midsummer conversation, Dr. Deeb discussed several topics, including Trocaire’s place in the Western New York education community, its role in Buffalo’s ongoing revitalization, the rationale for new four-year programs and the relevance of its Catholic mission in 2014.
That ability to change lives – to help students be as competitive as possible in the workforce, to make positive improvements in their lives and communities – was never far from his thoughts.
Why is a school like Trocaire important to Western New York? How does the college differentiate itself in a market that has two dozen or more schools in a 70- or 80-mile radius?
We are a career-oriented institution that allows its students to be laser-focused on their education – and we’re not-for-profit.
Why is that important? In a non-profit world, you do need to pay the bills, but you can also remain focused on your mission as an institution, rather than be totally absorbed with the bottom line.
That gives us a little more flexibility to be offer programs and services that are more in line with our history and mission.
In 2009, Trocaire made a strategic decision to expand into four-year, bachelor’s-level degree programs. The school now offers 2+2 programs in nursing and radiologic technology, and others are being considered. Why make these changes to the foundation of a Trocaire education?
The fields in which we train students are changing. Take nursing, for example. All you need is an associate’s degree to sit in for the registered nurses’ exam in NY State. But many employers now prefer to hire someone with a baccalaureate degree as a registered nurse.
The environment is changing, and we need to be prepared. We can’t sit, as an institution, and wait until the profession completely changes and say, “Now we need to retool.” Colleges and universities are not as nimble as they like to think they are.
I believe our task is to have these options — we can still offer the associate degree in nursing, but continue to improve our baccalaureate program, because I believe local employers are beginning to show that they prefer registered nursing candidates with baccalaureate degrees.
For Trocaire to be successful over the next decade or more, we would need to be that aware of what the professions are demanding. These are the things we have to think about as we look at not only the academic programs we have, but also the academic programs needed for the type of students we want to attract and need to serve.
There is a new campaign to attract women to Trocaire’s computer network administration program, and men to the healthcare programs. Why has Trocaire decided to pursue nontraditional students for these fields of study?
We felt like we needed to add that diversity. For the last four or five years, Trocaire — as part of its strategic initiative — has made diversity a priority. As an institution, we believe that diversity is important to our success, and needs to be defined as widely as it can be defined.
Fortunately, we’re also able to tap into some state funding which allowed us to fund these kind of initiatives, so we are able to dedicate additional resources to improve Trocaire’s diversity.
It’s a win-win – we are able to pursue the issue, and tap into some resources that can make it happen. That’s fantastic.
Western New York has developed an economic focus on healthcare. We are also hearing and seeing that some of the new business development in the region will be technology-driven.
Hopefully, we can be a part of that growth. The college has always had a focus on healthcare, business/hospitality and technology. As we move forward, we must continue to articulate those themes.
With that in mind – that the school’s core programs seem to dovetail with the region’s economic drivers — what role does Trocaire play in the ongoing revitalization of Buffalo and Western New York?
What is happening today in Western New York is the precursor to Trocaire playing a bigger role in the local economy. As people move into the area, and current residents require additional training, and their family members need training and education – that’s the role that we’re going to play.
This also provides an opportunity for us to diversify the age of our student population. The age of our average student has been about 27. We also believe, however, that students of the traditional college age are going to be able to thrive in our career-focused environment.
We have initiatives with the Lackawanna public schools and Mount Mercy Academy, for instance, because we feel the programs at Trocaire could be attractive to their students.
For Trocaire to benefit from the positive growth that is taking place in Western New York will require us to be clear and present with our message. People need to know who we are. For people who have lived in this area for years, who have been born and raised in Western New York, the name Trocaire resonates. For people who are new to the community, it doesn’t. That needs to change.
How does Trocaire adhere to the mission of the Sisters of Mercy in a society that perhaps does not hold those values in the same regard as it did when the school was founded in the 1950s?
If we are to look at the landscape of private higher education in Western New York, we know there are private institutions that have shed their religious affiliations to be more ecumenical. We have opted not to do that, and frankly, in the development of our new strategic plan, we have made it very clear that there is no interest in abandoning the Mercy mission of the college.
So what does that mean in 2014 in Western New York? We work very hard to maintain the presence of the Sisters of Mercy on the campus. The philosophy of providing support for those who are less fortunate is front and center. We emphasize the tradition of the Sisters, which is to do service in the community in which we live and work.
As our students complete their academic programs, we ensure that there is a vibrant service component in their training. That’s service to the community at large, not service to get clinical hours – service to do something that goes above and beyond who they are as budding professionals.
Respecting people’s religious beliefs is front and center in our thinking, as well. Not everyone who attends Trocaire has to be Catholic – many of our students belong to other Christian denominations, and a sizable percentage are not Christians at all – but we believe that the traditions of the Catholic Church and the Sisters of Mercy can transcend a particular religious denomination. We view this as a very positive duality.
So what’s the best part of your job?
On a personal level, I’m honored to have been chosen as the president. What I am trying to do here with my colleagues is to create an environment for people to be successful. When I look back at my life, my career, I think about all of the people who helped me become successful – and I have a chance to do the same for the students we serve. Collectively, we work to help them create new futures, new opportunities, to change their lives. Helping people – that’s probably the best part of the job.