Dominican Sister Mary Sarah Galbraith was invested as president of Aquinas College in Nashville, Tenn., Jan. 26, at a Mass celebrated by Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput.

Sister Mary Sarah brings a wealth of experience and goals to the college as it celebrates its 50th anniversary year.

Sister Sarah entered the Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia Congregation (the “Nashville Dominicans”) in 1988. She holds advanced degrees in education administration and medieval history and a doctorate in modern history.

In 2008, following World Youth Day in Australia, Sister Mary Sarah served at the University of Sydney’s campus ministry before returning to Aquinas College in 2011 to teach history.

What do you see that makes Aquinas strong and unique?

When I came to Aquinas, I had a sense I was entering into something much larger than myself. Aquinas is not as well known as it should be. But the curriculum at Aquinas combines the best of both worlds. It has a strong liberal arts component at its center. Specifically, our students are formed in the trivium: grammar, rhetoric and logic in all courses. In addition, this is wedded to practical programs of teaching, nursing and business, so that we form students first as persons, and then give them the necessary skills and competencies to be ethical business men and women and great teachers and nurses.

Another reason I’m excited is that Aquinas is 50 years old this year, and even before Ex Corde Ecclesiae was implemented, Aquinas was and has always been that; and happily so, from the heart of the Church. The people who work here want to and are happy to be teaching in the heart of the Church — teaching the truth with joy.

To me, it just seems natural. No one can deny there is a great spiritual conversion happening in the Church today. We are seeing the fruits of the generation of John Paul II. The seminaries are filling up again. There’s a great return to and renewal of the things most important in our faith. And it seems natural an intellectual conversion would follow from a spiritual conversion.

It was the great Gothic cathedrals that came first, and then the universities, the great medieval institutes that followed from them. The conversion of the heart naturally calls for a conversion of the intellect, in order to know more and deepen in the faith. So Ex Corde seems natural to us.

Also, culturally the threats to the identity of the human person and marriage between a man and woman are forcing Catholic institutions to examine why we exist in the first place. This can only lead to a deeper commitment to the Church, to imparting the truths of the faith and to renewing our identity as Catholic institutions of higher education. We’re in a very exciting juncture in the history of the Church.

What are your goals to build on the strengths of Aquinas?

Three things are right on the horizon for us. Pending approval, in fall of 2012, we’ll have a master’s in nursing education and a master’s of teaching. Our board has approved this; we are awaiting final accreditation for the masters’ degrees that will occur this spring.

Secondly, our faculty and staff built a plan for residential life modeled after the Oxford plan, also known as the Oxbridge model, of households. The life of the students, faculty and staff will be grounded in the liturgical year. It’s designed to impart the art of living. Our hope is that students learn in residential life what they need to be happy for the rest of their lives and that they take this into their families — the joy of simple things, of living well, of believing.

It’s a very old model and making its way back in this country and around the world. Two friends from Sydney who are familiar with the model agreed to be guides for us. Residential halls with space for 80 will be opening with this model this fall.

This Oxbridge model is quite Dominican, and we’re re-learning it 800 years later. Everyone affiliated with Aquinas will belong to a house, regardless if they live on campus or not, or are staff, faculty or board members. The house system addresses the problem of alienation and loneliness that occurs in large dorms, along with the many social problems that confront our youth. The structure and design of the Oxbridge model for residential life is a powerful tool for the New Evangelization.

And we have many more halls to build. We would like to have at least 600 students on this campus.

What do you see as the most important challenge facing Catholic higher education today?

The central issue is Catholic identity and what it means to be an institute of higher education that’s Catholic and useful to society, that has its own integrity and still can compete in the market. It’s an interesting challenge.

What is the state of youth’s faith today?

Anywhere in the world you go — irrespective of background, time, place or location — young people are surprisingly open to the faith. There are many students in Sydney whose parents are non-practicing, agnostic or atheistic. And yet, when the students come in contact with Christ, or when any person meets the Truth, the truth sets us free. That happens over and over again.

One particular joy was introducing those young people to St. Thomas Aquinas. I remember them downloading the Summa on their iPhones. They understood that he is a master you can follow from the beginning to the end. Other ideologies address a certain part of life, like economics. They’re limited. St. Thomas can take you from the beginning to the end, and they recognized that when they met him. It was like introducing friends to each other and finding out they enjoy each other.

Two other things struck me with people in Sydney — one, their desire to know more about their faith. We had a theology of the body course on Thursday nights, and 120 young people would be in the room. Two, their courage to stand up for what they believe. Marriage and the identity of the human person are under great threats in Sydney right now. Yet they were courageous in standing up for what they believed and were even persecuted in their classes at the secular university for it. It was a privilege to stand beside them and to support them. In many cases, their parents were not there to support them. It enlivens your own faith when you see that sort of courage in action.

Joseph Pronechen is the Register’s staff writer.