FairfieldNews published an article in September of 2021 that announced a proposal by President Mark R. Nemec, PhD, to open an academic unit in Fairfield’s neighboring city of Bridgeport, Conn. According to the article, the academic unit will offer a two-year associate’s degree program for students of lower socioeconomic backgrounds with the intention of increasing educational access for underrepresented communities. 

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It was stated that the University’s efforts toward the initiative would continue in partnership with the Bishop of the Diocese of Bridgeport, Reverend Frank J. Caggiano. In September of 2022, however, this source remains the only information released by means of the University on the proposed academic unit.  

Since the proposed academic unit was announced last fall, the University has faced setbacks. The University administration has outlined details of prospective course offerings and services. Additionally, Bridgeport community members have expressed their sentiments on the project, as locations in the area have been discussed. 

The University has spent two years developing the model for the academic unit and is on track to welcome its first class of 100 students in the Fall of 2023, according to Vice President of Marketing and Communications Jennifer Anderson. The University adapted its plan from other models, including Arrupe College of Loyola Chicago, Dougherty Family College of St. Thomas and Pine Manor of Boston College. Fairfield looked into similar projects “to ensure that our model would prove successful for our students,” Anderson shares. 

Although the name of the academic unit has yet to be finalized, Anderson states that the name will most likely include “Bellarmine” after St. Robert Bellarmine, an Italian Jesuit and a cardinal of the Catholic Church. Fairfield University was founded in 1942 as “Fairfield University of St. Robert Bellarmine” and Fairfield’s first students were first generation Catholic families, she shares. 

“Given Fairfield’s commitment to access and commitment to Bridgeport, the name of our founding Jesuit seemed most fitting,” says Anderson. 

The new academic unit will include classrooms, a science lab, faculty and staff offices, study and gathering spaces, counseling and career services, academic support, worship space, recreation space, a dining area, and lockers for incoming students. Courses will be offered in the fall, spring and summer semesters. Such offerings will include 10 core curriculum classes, as well as an additional 10 courses within their chosen major of business, computer science, health care or liberal arts, according to Anderson. 

The Bellarmine Initiative will also provide students with services to assist students emotionally and financially, and ensure that students have access to activities and resources on Fairfield’s main campus. 

“Fairfield will be providing wrap around, hands-on student support services to bolster the student experience and support strong graduation completion rates. Small class sizes and cohorts will ensure one-on-one attention, dedicated faculty, and strong support services,” states Anderson.

Many of the resources offered to Fairfield University students will be offered at the new academic unit as well, with the goal of providing students an easier transition to the University’s main campus or another four-year institution following graduation. According to Anderson, Fairfield University’s writing and math center staff will have a presence on the new campus, along with peer tutors, means of transportation, academic advisors, a social worker, a college transfer director, and career planning services. In addition, students will be able to participate in University clubs, activities and intramural sports and will have a representative on the Fairfield University Student Association board. 

“Bellarmine will have a dedicated Dean for Student Life,” states Anderson. “Students will be actively engaged in planning and forming a student government, clubs, athletic activities, and social and faith-related events at the Bellarmine campus.” 

It is expected that students attending the new institution will come from little to no financial support.

“Fairfield University is committed to providing a values-based, student-centric, outcomes-focused education that is attainable to all students through new pathways of access, and finding ways to remove barriers so students can experience a Fairfield education,” says Anderson. 

 Students will complete the program with little or no debt, since most or all of their tuition and expenses will have been covered by federal and state grants and philanthropy. 

Although plans for the Bellarmine Initiative are progressing, there has been some struggle to solidify a location for the establishment. 

On March 28, 2022, the Connecticut Post published an article entitled “Neighbors rally against Fairfield U, Bridgeport diocese college for low-income students.” In the article, reporter Brian Lockhart discloses that the University and the Diocese of Bridgeport sought out the latter’s Jewett Avenue headquarters as a location. 

However, the University was met by the same roadblock faced in 2017 by Bridgeport’s school board when efforts were made to relocate the school district’s Classical Studies Academy to the Jewett Avenue headquarters. City Councilwoman, Michelle Lyons, is cited as the head spokesperson for the neighborhood community regarding traffic concerns and issues of overcrowding in both articles. 

Although Fairfield University and the Diocese of Bridgeport continued in their efforts to utilize the Catholic Center, offering “open house” meetings on April 28, 2022 in attempts to ease neighborhood concerns, Mayor Joe Ganim’s office announced the municipal law department had concluded “a college is not a legal use” in that particular residential neighborhood. 

Moving forward, the University is now looking at the former St. Ambrose Catholic School on Mill Hill and Boston Avenues, according to an article published by The Connecticut Post on June 30, 2022. Nick Roussas, who heads the Mill Hill Neighborhood Revitalization Zone organization is reported to be in support of the idea, however he acknowledges the importance of addressing any neighborhood concerns that arise. 

“…Am I dissatisfied with a university going there? No, I’m not. Kind of like the idea,” Roussas stated. “But it’s got to work out for the neighborhood.”

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