No one stumbles onto the campus of Saint Mary's College. You have to know where you're going to find it, nestled in the rolling hills alongside a winding, two-lane road in Moraga.
Students don't choose it by accident, either. They are drawn by the school's distinctive appeal: small classes, personal interaction with teachers, a world view of education and a clearly defined purpose.
"We're a college," said Brother Raphael Patton, a math professor there for 42 years. "Every other dinky school you can think of is a university. We are an undergraduate college with kids and beds on campus, trying to give them a bachelor's degree."
This marks the milestone 150th year that Saint Mary's has welcomed students of all ethnicities (51 percent of freshmen are minorities) and economic levels (31 percent are eligible for Pell grants) with an academic menu that embraces teachings from Plato to Shakespeare to Einstein.
The school's mission says it all: "To probe deeply the mystery of existence by cultivating the ways of knowing and the arts of thinking."
The wonder is how the institution has grown from such an unlikely seed, founded in 1863 in San Francisco and staffed by Lasillian Christian Brothers to teach immigrants who were too poor to afford school. Patton, the school's unofficial historian, said the melting pot included Irish, Polish, Slav, Mexican and Spanish students. From that modest beginning, Saint Mary's moved to Oakland (1889) and then Moraga (1928), expanding its horizons and broadening its educational platform.
What distinguishes the curriculum now are two required programs: College Seminar -- liberal arts courses that examine literature, philosophy, history, government, arts and science -- and January Term, an intensive one-month experience that often takes students off campus.
No one has taken them farther than communications professor Shawny Anderson, whose January Term projects have visited the Brazilian Amazon, Mount Kilimanjaro and, most notably, Haiti after the 2010 earthquake. Her students participate in what is known as DIRT (Deep Immersion Relief Team) courses, working with natives to improve the quality of their lives.
"We built a new house for a family of 11," Anderson said. "We put a new roof on one house and an extension on another. We taught English and did smaller projects."
That was their first visit to Haiti. On their second, they installed rain-capture systems with solar-powered water filters to help stem a cholera outbreak. Student fees covered travel costs. Donations from friends, family and readers of their blog paid for materials.
Such experiences imbue students with warm feelings, Anderson said, but they are only part of what separates Saint Mary's from other schools.
"I once taught a 450-student lecture class at Purdue," she said. "I would stand in the lower part of a sloped classroom and use a microphone. The idea of that happening at Saint Mary's is laughable. Almost all our classes happen in a small circle, and a faculty member is in the circle."
Courses are more like conversations than lectures; studies elicit discussions. When students seek advice, they are within arm's reach of their instructors.
"It is a substantially different experience than most college students will have," she said.
Maybe that's why the school's still thriving after 150 years.
Contact Tom Barnidge at email@example.com.