How Franciscan University of Steubenville Is Helping Students in Wake of COVID-19 Pandemic


Franciscan University of Steubenville recently announced a new way it will help students: covering tuition costs for the fall 2020 semester for all incoming full-time undergraduate students enrolled in its on-campus programs.

Father Dave Pivonka, president of Franciscan University of Steubenville, joins the podcast to talk about how and why Franciscan University chose to do this during the COVID-19 pandemic. Plus, he discusses what he thinks of Generation Z and how to stay hopeful in these times.

We also cover these stories:

  • Attorney General William Barr said he does not anticipate a criminal investigation into former President Barack Obama or former Vice President Joe Biden in regard to a Justice Department probe, but says the investigation is looking at others. 
  • Barr also said there are “significant ties” between al-Qaeda and the shooter, Mohammed Alshamrani, who last December killed three U.S. sailors and injured eight others at the Naval Air Station in Pensacola, Florida.
  • Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, has concerns about whether the Judicial Conference’s Committee should determine if federal judges can be part of the conservative Federalist Society or liberal American Constitution Society.

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Rachel del Guidice: I am joined today by Father Dave Pivonka. He’s the president of Franciscan University, which, for folks who don’t know or might not know, is my alma mater. Father Dave, it’s great to have you on The Daily Signal Podcast.

Father Dave Pivonka: It’s my pleasure. It’s good to talk with you, Rachel.

Del Guidice: Well, thank you so much for being here with us. So, you recently came out with a very creative way to help students attend Franciscan University in the wake of the economic fallout caused by coronavirus. Can you tell us a little bit about that?

Pivonka: It’d be my pleasure to. The reality is—and it’s actually all across the country—schools, colleges, universities were just kind of up in the air with what to do and how we can help students who were trying to transition, particularly freshmen students who were going to a new place, a new environment, some new town, new cities, new states, and the word we were getting was a lot of people were anxious about moving.

Obviously, we have a university that is in a small town in Ohio, and it’s imperative that the young people are able to go to college and to go to university without fear, without trepidation, without anxiety. But the other part of it that was really difficult is just the financial implications that this coronavirus has had on so many families, and not just families, but the students themselves.

So we’re a small Catholic college in Steubenville, Ohio. And when I would meet with my faculty and staff, I said, “OK, we need to plan well,” but there’s no plan for a pandemic, a global pandemic, and the entire world shutting down. I mean, there is no three-ring binder. There’s no app. There’s nothing that says, “This is what you’re supposed to do.”

So I just invited our faculty and staff to do as we should do, and that is, let’s pray, and just try to figure out what’s the best way of doing this.

Then I said several times, whatever we need to do, we have to make a step in faith, that we don’t know what the future holds, nobody knows what the future holds, so it’s going to have to be a step in faith.

Well, somebody from our business advisory board got back to me and they said, “Father Dave, I think this would be a step in faith. What if we invited all of our new students to come to school here next year, next fall for free?” I laughed. I said, “That’s ridiculous. That’s not a step in faith that I was thinking about.”

But you know, Rachel, the more I thought about it, I thought this may be exactly the right thing to do. So many families are anxious about what the future’s going to hold. If we could take away that small anxiety about having to handle tuition next fall, then we can do that.

So what we decided is all freshmen and all transfer students, new transfer students, after grants and scholarships, were not going to have to pay any tuition and the university will cover it.

And their response has been fantastic. Just the number of people who have been really touched by [this] … Honestly, it’s a step in faith for us as a university as well. We don’t have these multibillion-dollar endowments like some universities do. So it’s a step in faith using part of that, but it’s really what we think we’re supposed to do.

Del Guidice: Thanks for sharing that. You mentioned how the idea was new to you and hadn’t been something you’d thought of. How did the larger leadership of Franciscan University’s staff and others … respond to that idea?

Pivonka: That’s the thing, that’s just such a great question and that’s really what I was touched by. When I first approached, actually, the director of our finance, I said, “This is what I’m thinking,” and he said two things. He goes, “That might be what God wants us to do, and it also might be brilliant.”

So we took a look of it of a step of faith, but also from a business perspective, and it turns out that it’s going to, God willing, … work out great.

Our board of trustees, 100% unanimous said, “This is a great thing for us to be able to do for … incoming students.” So, obviously, it couldn’t have happened if our board of trustees wasn’t willing to allow us to use some of the monies from our investments, but every one of them said, “This is a great thing to do.”

It’s interesting, Rachel. Even you, as an alumni, one of my concerns would be, … although we’re going to have financial aid available, more financial aid available in a grant that every student is going to get, it’s not going to be the same, and I was wondering, “What are they going to think?”

And their response has been overwhelming. I mean, you’re an example of the type of students that we had at [the] university. They were excited. They were rejoicing. The response has been fantastic.

Del Guidice: You mentioned that there will be some aid for students who are returning. Can you go into that a little bit and explain how that will work?

Pivonka: Sure, sure. That’s a great question as well.

All of the students are going to get a certain number, a grant, … we’re calling it the Step in Faith Grant, so every student will get that. … You know, it’s interesting, when people see something that inspires them or that they like, they say, “OK, I want to support that.” So we’ve had people writing us and giving us money.

A really cool thing was two of our alumnus, young couple, been married about five or six years, sent me a note and they said, “Father Dave, we’re just so inspired by this.” They gave a check for $2,400 and [that] was, and you can do the math, their stimulus fund. And they said, “We want the university to have this to be able to help students come.” So people are inspired by that.

So what we’ll do is we’ll create a fund that allows us to provide more financial aid for all of our returning students, particularly the families that have been impacted by COVID.

Del Guidice: You mentioned, Father Dave, that you’ve received a really positive response from the alumni like myself. What kind of response have you received from potential students? [People who are] looking into Franciscan and have been given this news?

Pivonka: Yeah. You know, I wish I could send you—I don’t know if I could send you a link, Rachel, or not, but I just received in my Instagram account yesterday maybe 40 of the new students got together and they created this little montage video of talking about what this has meant to them. It just brings tears to your eyes.

The response has been beautiful. And we’ve had a lot of students who are applying who might not have been able to afford to come that have applied. So the response has been fantastic, from just a personal point of view, but also for students being able to come to the university.

Del Guidice: For those who might not be familiar, can you tell me a little bit about what makes Franciscan University’s education so unique?

Pivonka: Yeah. Oh wait, I should let you talk about it. Well, actually, we’re both alumni. I’m an alumni of the university as well.

What has been created here at Franciscan University is really like no other place in the country. It’s a small Catholic college, about 2,500 students, where we really put faith, we put the Lord, our relationship with Christ in the center, as well as an outstanding academic education.

We don’t think the mind and the heart are opposed to one another, they’re actually, they work well together. So when we nourish the heart, nourish our spiritual life and our academic or intellectual life, the human person really blossoms and grows.

So we’re a small school. We’re faithful to the teachings of the church. We are pro-life. If you’ve ever gone to the March for Life, you’ve seen a thousand of our kids are there, and we’re really pro being faithful to the church and faithful to the gospel. So it’s just a wonderful, wonderful place.

Del Guidice: As a university president, what are your thoughts on Gen Z who are beginning to go to college, as opposed to millennials, and how do you compare these two generations? You know, the millennials, some of them are just graduating or have been out of school for a few years, and now, as Gen Z is beginning to step onto campuses and become involved.

Pivonka: Yeah. I think one of the biggest changes that we’re seeing is, honestly, in anxiety. I think we’re seeing it in our country, is that they are so polarized and this is being experienced in them, that they feel like they’re being torn apart and not quite sure where they’re going to land or what they should think. And nothing is objectively true. Nothing is solid, nothing is firm.

And we have a young people, particularly because of this most recent event, where there’s just a great deal of anxiety. … I think that every human person, honestly, particularly the young, they’re looking for something that makes sense, something that’s firm, something that’s solid, something that they can depend on. And I think that’s one of the unique things that we offer at Franciscan University, is helping them discover that.

Del Guidice: So, virtually all students this year who graduated either high school or college or even graduate work weren’t able to have a commencement ceremony due to coronavirus. Do you have any encouraging words for them?

Pivonka: Well, first off, let me say that we are going to have a graduation here at Franciscan University. I think you’ve got to celebrate. The human heart, the human spirit wants to celebrate. So we’re actually going to hold our graduation in August, the second weekend of August, because it’s important for us to come as a community again.

… Let me just also say that we can’t minimize it. Somebody said to me, I was talking about the difficulties that high school seniors had, and they said, “Yeah, I mean, they’re young. They’re going to be fine.” OK, well enough, but we can’t dismiss that. That’s significant.

I remember, you remember when you were in high school graduating. If that all would have been taken away, I mean, my last year of playing sports, that was significant.

So what I would tell them is, I’m obviously coming from a faith perspective, that anxiety, that sadness, that fear, that God really wants to meet us in the middle of that, and he’s going to be able to bring us his peace, his presence.

One of the things that I’ve encouraged people is hope. The Scripture tells us that hope doesn’t disappoint. When our things are just and our plans don’t come out the way we think they should, we need to trust and hope that God has a better plan and that he’s going to take care of us.

And just realize that hope is believing, not just what we’re going through at this moment, but believing that the sun’s going to rise tomorrow, that tomorrow is going to be a better day, that things are going to work out. And that’s what I encourage people to do, is remember that.

Del Guidice: Thank you for that perspective.

Pivonka: Sure.

Del Guidice: In your remarks about the initiative, you had mentioned how Franciscan’s patron, St. Francis of Assisi, had a deep concern for those who are in need. Can you talk about how this charism has influenced this initiative?

Pivonka: That’s just such a great question. You know, St. Francis of Assisi was born in 1184 and he wanted to be wealthy and powerful and influential. And through a series of experiences that he had, he came to understand that that was not the most important thing, that wealth and power and influence and prestige ultimately were fleeting.

But it was in him reflecting on how Jesus was poor [that] he decided and came to understand that that’s what God was calling him to.

And then what he realized—and this is just, I think, so important for the day right now—is that there was a whole population of people that he just didn’t like to spend time with, and it was the poor and the outcasts and the lepers at the time that he just didn’t want to have anything to do with them.

One day, he was in the little valley outside of Assisi. He ran into a poor person who had leprosy, and he embraced that person. And he realized that when he embraced the person, first off, that God was present in that person, but that person had value and dignity and beauty and worth. And had he not embraced that poor person, he wouldn’t have seen that.

That’s what we’re trying to do as friars, is recognize that God is present in everybody.

We live in a world that’s become so polarized and we want to demonize everybody else. And what I think our faith, what St. Francis reminds us is that the other person … deserves respect and dignity. And those who are less fortunate, if we can reach out and if we can help them, it’s our responsibility to be able to do that

Del Guidice: For new students who are looking to come to Franciscan in the fall and they want to take advantage of this program, how can they do that?

Pivonka: If you just go to our website, franciscan.edu, there’s the Step in Faith program. It’s at the very top of it, they can just click on that and get all the information.

Del Guidice: As we wrap up, Father Dave, on somewhat sort of an unrelated note, as a religious leader or someone who is mentoring people in the faith all the time, do you have any advice for people during this time of pandemic?

Pivonka: Well, one of the things that I’ve been thinking about, and it’s sometimes we equate our faith with we have to go do things. We have to do this. We have to go there. We have to go to church. We have to go to Bible study.

And one of the things that’s unique about our Christian faith is that we believe that God came to us, that he comes to us in the infant, that the beauty reminds us of the beauty and the dignity of human life. He comes to us as a baby. He comes to us as our savior. And I think that’s one of the things the pandemic has invited us to, is to allow God to come to us, to allow him to visit us.

I love the story of the Good Shepherd, where Jesus goes looking for the lost sheep. This has been an opportunity because we couldn’t go—we couldn’t go to church, we couldn’t go out, we couldn’t even go to work. Let God come to us and let people encounter us where we are. So that’s been one of the things that I’ve encouraged people to.

Del Guidice: Father Dave, thank you so much for sharing this really important perspective, as well as for sharing about this new initiative at Franciscan. It’s been such a pleasure to have you on The Daily Signal Podcast. Thank you for joining us.

Pivonka: It’s my pleasure, Rachel. We hope you can come back and visit us sometime, OK?

Del Guidice: I’m looking forward to it.

Pivonka: Thank you. God bless everybody.





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