With Mission to ‘Impact Culture for Christ,’ JPCatholic University Won’t Settle for Mediocrity

George Simon

George Simon spent his first two years in college at a state university, but he wasn’t satisfied with the education he was receiving. He transferred to John Paul the Great Catholic University in Escondido, Calif., which is recommended in The Newman Guide, and the University made a “huge impact” on every aspect of his life.

“JPCatholic,” the nickname adopted by students and graduates, is a faithfully Catholic institution that combines an exciting emphasis on creative arts and business with serious theology and liberal arts. It has developed a creative community of artists and innovators in the heart of Escondido, which lies between San Diego and Hollywood. The university strives to prepare young people to evangelize and transform culture.

Today, Simon is a professor of film production at JPCatholic and is married to a fellow graduate. The Newman Society recently asked Simon to share about his experience at JPCatholic, and why it’s important for young creative Catholics to develop their artistic gifts.

Newman Society: Can you tell us about your background and relation to JPCatholic?  

Professor George Simon: Sure! I was born in Michigan and my family moved to American Samoa when I was seven years old. My parents bought a video camera so that we could record home movies and send them back to our family. My dad agreed to let my brother and I use the camera, and we spent the next seven years running around the island making movies.

In 2006, I enrolled at a state university in Michigan, which was not a good fit. I decided to transfer, and after hearing about a small Catholic film school in San Diego from my mom, I sent in my application and enrolled at JPCatholic in 2008. I graduated in 2012 with an emphasis in screenwriting.

After graduating, I spent four years growing a video production company and working in San Diego, Grand Rapids, and Chicago. In 2016, I married my wife, Melinda, a fellow grad of JPCatholic, and accepted an opportunity to work at JPCatholic. I was awarded my Master’s degree in film producing in 2018 and currently work there as a full-time professor.   

The Simon Family

Newman Society: Why did you choose to transfer to JPCatholic?   

Professor George Simon: After two years studying broadcasting and cinematic arts in Michigan, I became really discouraged by the lack of hands-on filmmaking classes. I researched other universities in Michigan that had programs related to film and television, but none of them offered a rigorous, hands-on curriculum that involved actually making movies.

When I discovered JPCatholic and saw that I would be taking multiple classes in film production, directing, screenwriting and post production in my first year, I knew it was the right fit. As I went through the curriculum, every class made me say, “Yes, this is exactly what I want to be studying.” Three months later, I was on a train from Michigan to San Diego, and it was the best decision I’ve ever made.   

Newman Society: How did you benefit from the Catholic education and formation provided by JPCatholic?   

Professor George Simon: The decision to transfer from a secular university with 25,000 students to a small Catholic university had a huge impact on every aspect of my life. I went from a culture where the expectation is that everyone is going to party for four years, straight to a place where I was surrounded by passionate Catholics and where daily Mass and confession is offered on campus.

I was born and raised Catholic and my dad is a deacon, but it wasn’t until I started attending JPCatholic that I ever went to adoration or spent time in an adoration chapel. The theology and philosophy classes helped me to grow in my faith and challenged me to think for myself and tell stories that are good for humanity, instead of just trying to emulate whatever Quentin Tarantino or David Fincher are doing.   

Newman Society: Can you share about some of your film projects like Get Clean and Almost Home

Professor George Simon: Absolutely! ​Get Clean​ is a short film that my wife and I made while we were both in college. Melinda came up with the idea of a character whose sins begin manifesting as marks on her skin. The character tries, unsuccessfully, to wash the marks away and is ultimately only able to remove them by receiving the sacrament of confession.

The process of making the film was crazy, because it was put together really quickly. We didn’t have any equipment other than a camera, so I used a giant roll of trash bags as a make-shift tripod. We edited the film that night and submitted it to a scholarship contest an hour before the submission deadline.

We ended up winning the top prize, which was a $25,000 scholarship for Melinda and a $25,000 grant for JPCatholic. Unfortunately, I had withdrawn from the university due to financial reasons and was not eligible for the scholarship. Derry Connolly, the president of the university, used the grant to create an additional scholarship to make it possible for me to come back and finish my degree.   

Almost Home​ is a short film that was created as part of the 8Beats Anthology, which is an anthology film that explores modern parables based on the eight Beatitudes of Jesus Christ. The story follows a truck driver who is trying to get home to his family and a little boy on a road trip with his parents, who cannot stop fighting. The film just concluded its festival run after winning awards at multiple festivals including the Windy City Film Festival in Chicago and the Transparent Film Festival in New York City. The 8Beats Anthology is produced by Catholic Creatives and is scheduled for release in 2020.   

My most recent project is a short film titled ​The Scar,​ which tells the story of Arthur, who cares for his wife Mercy in the aftermath of an accident that destroyed her memory. In an effort to stimulate her mind, Arthur tells tall tales about the mysterious scar on his chest, which appeared the same day Mercy lost her memory. The film is extremely ambitious and required scenes in feudal Japan, the old West, and the Mediterranean Sea. We’re close to finishing up post-production, and I’m excited to send this small-but-mighty film out into the world.   


Newman Society: How does the Catholic faith influence the courses you teach as a film professor?   

Professor George Simon: As artists who are seeking to impact culture for Christ, we all recognize that we cannot settle for mediocrity in our art. Everyone strives for excellence and pushes one another to be excellent, not just for their own personal benefit, but because the mission we are all undertaking demands that we become exceptional storytellers. Otherwise we have no ability to compete in an industry that has immense power to either call humanity closer to Jesus Christ, or to push them away.   

I teach a Fundamentals of Production class that is basically movie making 101—students learn how to use a camera, record audio, set up lights, write, produce, film and edit. It can seem challenging to infuse a demonstration on how to set up a C-Stand with the deep theological truths of the Catholic faith, however, even in these technical moments is the collective faith of the students and faculty that have the greatest impact. The Catholic faith that is shared between my students is powerful and influential.    

Newman Society: Why do you think it’s important for young creative Catholics to develop their artistic gifts? Why do you think it’s important for the Church to be involved in the arts?   

Professor George Simon: For me, as a filmmaker, developing my creative gifts and growing as an artist is inseparable from my journey to heaven. God invites every one of us to develop our talents and when we accept that invitation, we glorify Him and show the world the unique beauty He has planted in our souls. Every young Catholic artist should develop their creative gifts, because it is an integral part of who God made them to be.

One of the first things I tell my students is that, as filmmakers, we live in the best possible time in human history to make movies. As cameras and film equipment have become more accessible, it has become more possible than ever to create content that can compete with major studios. It is crucial for young Catholic artists to develop their gifts in order to become exceptional storytellers and earn the right to be heard.

Studios and networks spend billions of dollars each year creating stories that have tremendous impact on the world. In order to fully answer the call to “make disciples of all nations,” it is imperative that young artists are perfecting their raw talents into precise and experienced craftsmanship, enabling them to share the experience of God’s love, whether overtly or subtlety, in every script they write, set they work on and story they create. 


Catholic College Prepared Youth Minister to Overcome COVID Separation

At Walsh University in Canton, Ohio, which is recommended in The Newman Guide, Cari Shell was able to pursue her interests, especially theology and digital media. Now—less than a year after graduation—Shell has been able to put her knowledge into action in an important way.

Shell currently serves as the director of youth ministry at St. Francis of Assisi Parish in Gates Mills, Ohio. With public Masses suspended across the country due to COVID-19, Shell has been able to find creative ways to keep parishioners engaged with their faith.

The Cardinal Newman Society is grateful to Shell for sharing about how her faithful Catholic education prepared her to respond to the crisis, as a part of our “Profiles in Faithful Catholic Education” series.

Newman Society: What was your experience like at Walsh University, and how did it prepare you for ministry work?

My time at Walsh University formed and prepared me for life after college. I was fortunate to have had many opportunities inside and outside of the classroom to prepare me for my future. One of these opportunities was the Honors Program. Because of the interdisciplinary nature of the Honors Program at Walsh University, I was encouraged to explore my varying interests. I studied theology, with hopes of becoming a youth minister after college, but I also loved my communications classes and learning about media.  

My professors encouraged me to pursue my passions which turned into my thesis, Ministry in the Digital Age: The Use of New Media to Promote Fruitful Youth Ministry in the 21st Century.  I surveyed youth ministers in the Diocese of Cleveland on their use of new media, primarily social media, in their ministry. I was able to study and find the best practices for using new media within the context of ministry, which would not have been possible without the Honors Program. 

I was also able to be very involved in the Campus Ministry Program at Walsh, serving as the campus ministry intern, campus ministry club vice president, and Agape Retreat director during my senior year. Within Campus Ministry, I was able to learn ministry in a hands-on way. I organized the annual Agape Retreat, but also took time to brainstorm new ideas and initiatives within Campus Ministry. With a small team, we held the first women’s overnight retreat as well as a retreat especially for seniors. Those lessons in planning and preparing, working with a team, and ministering to the needs of the students are among many lessons learned that I have used in my role as a youth minister.

In the classroom, my professors across the disciplines encouraged me to study ministry. Of course, ministry was a topic that came up often in my theology classes, but professors all over campus worked to help prepare me. One semester I did an independent study course in Spanish for Pastoral Ministry, working to learn how I might be able to help the Hispanic community, especially in my work.  

In classes in history, English, psychology, sociology and communications, I was encouraged to write papers on topics that I was interested in, or would help in my future, creating an interdisciplinary nature to learning. I wrote a paper for a history class on how youth ministry and participation in religious activities can be a deterrent for juvenile delinquency. I presented at the National Collegiate Honors Council on a project comparing the Old Testament prophets and current popular faith beliefs found in mainstream Christian media.I was constantly encouraged to take the material I learned in any classroom and apply it to my future career. 

Newman Society: How are you helping keep parishioners connected to the Catholic faith during this COVID-19 crisis?

When the Ohio bishops made the difficult decision to suspend publicly celebrated Masses and our church building was closed, we began figuring out how to reach out to our parishioners at home. The first and biggest thing we did was setting up our daily Mass livestream.  

We were fortunate that our pastor already had a camera and other equipment to easily setup our livestream. In the beginning, there was quite a bit of troubleshooting and learning, but working as a team, our staff has been able to broadcast our livestream to the greater community. 

It is such an honor to be able to bring the Mass to our community during this time, and a blessing that I do not take lightly. It was hard to be in an empty church on Easter and sing of the joy of the Lord’s resurrection, but I know that everyone at home was praying and celebrating with us. 

One of my favorite ways that we have been able to digitally minister during this time is through adoration. Before the churches closed, St. Francis was going to be hosting an XLT, a night of adoration, praise and worship with the diocesan vocation office, CLE Priesthood.  With the closing of the churches, we were no longer able to gather people together in praise, so the event went digital.  

We streamed live on the CLE Priesthood Facebook page and reached over 6,000 people to join us in praise and thanksgiving. That night bore fruit in many hearts and we have continued to stream different adoration nights with CLE Priesthood, as well as our monthly adoration nights, “First Fridays at Francis.” It has been wonderful to hear from others about the gifts that God pours into their hearts even when we are not able to gather for adoration.

When our churches and schools closed, so did our youth ministry program. I asked some of our teens what they might be interested in tuning into to help them grow in their faith and stay connected to the church, and I came up with a “break schedule.”  

We had a weekly Bible study that we could no longer meet in-person for, so we met digitally instead.  Praying for an end to the pandemic and the needs and intentions of our teens, we have prayed the Rosary, Divine Mercy Chaplet, and Stations of the Cross on Instagram Live. We normally have Life Teen Sunday nights, but right now we cannot gather on Sunday nights, so we have joined in with Life Teen’s Global Life Night series and have our own Zoom call together, where we are able to catch up, pray together and even have a virtual game night! It has been wonderful to connect online, even though we are not able to connect in person.

Newman Society: How did your education at Walsh University help prepare you to respond to this crisis?

One of the biggest ways I was prepared for responding to the crisis was through my previous studies in ministry and media. When I began my job in ministry, I had wished I chose a different topic for my thesis, because I did not see how it was really helping, but God had bigger plans. As everything began shutting down, I was able to take the knowledge I had learned through my study for my thesis and apply it to the current situation to serve the teens and parish best. 

At Walsh, asking for collaboration was always encouraged. In Campus Ministry, we often worked with other groups and offices on campus for events. Through collaboration and working together we could find a new way to look at something. Collaborating with the parish staff and with other youth ministers throughout the diocese during this time has been a blessing. We have led Rosaries together on Instagram Live, shared ideas on what has worked and what has not, and led people in worship together. 

There are many valuable lessons I learned at Walsh, but one that I saw modeled so well for me by professors and staff all over campus was the important lesson of listening. They were always there to listen to me, to my stress and struggles, and to support me along the way. I think especially in this time, listening has been such an important lesson. Listening to the struggles that people are facing, praying with them, and asking how we can help them. There is a lot of uncertainty in the world right now, but there is also a lot Good News to share.

Dr. Mark Kissinger

Catholic College Graduate Directs County’s Response to COVID-19

Dr. Mark Kissinger, a graduate of Newman Guide-recommended Franciscan University of Steubenville in Ohio, is now responsible for the health of Steubenville residents as well as others in the surrounding Jefferson County. As the medical director of the Jefferson County Health Department, he oversees the response to COVID-19 but has not seen a large surge in COVID patients.

Dr. Kissinger says that Franciscan University provided “many opportunities to grow in faith and reason” and prepared him well for medical school. Now, he strives to treat each of his patients with the respect and dignity that they deserve.

The Cardinal Newman Society is grateful to Dr. Kissinger for sharing about the impact of his faithful Catholic education, as a part of our “Profiles in Faithful Catholic Education” series.

Newman Society: What was your experience like at Franciscan University, and how has it impacted your life?

I grew up in Steubenville, the son of a business professor. To be honest, I thought I wanted to get out of Steubenville as I was leaving high school, but my parents made it clear that if I wanted their help paying for college, I had to go to Franciscan. 

My experience at Franciscan was excellent. I had the chance to grow in faith and knowledge, along with the chance to grow up surrounded by people who were deeply involved in their faith. I was academically very well prepared for medical school. Incidentally, my daughter is following my path from Franciscan to medical school next year.

More importantly, there were many opportunities to grow in faith and reason at Franciscan. The sacraments were available daily. We had faith-based “households” to choose from and join if we felt inclined — they are similar to a Catholic version of a fraternity (minus the negative connotations). The professors were top-notch. It seems like every professor tried to bring God into their work and their teaching. I was given a very good foundation of theology and philosophy. Of all the things I learned at Franciscan, faith and the understanding of objective value have had the most profound impact on my life.

Like many, my wife and I started dating while in college. God really blessed me when He put her into my life. When considering that many people meet their future spouse in college, it is important to us that our children attend schools where they are likely to be surrounded by a positive peer pressure and potential future spouses who live the faith.

The Kissinger Family

Newman Society: How did your education at Franciscan University prepare you for the work you do today as a doctor during the COVID-19 crisis?

Franciscan gave me a good foundation in the sciences, which got me into and through residency. Yes, there was a lot of hard work, but I could not have succeeded without that base of knowledge.

COVID-19 has disrupted society dramatically. There are many healthcare professionals who are actively involved in care of patients with COVID-19 and overwhelmed in some places. I am involved, but not as directly as many of them. We have been fortunate to not see the surge in patients that many areas have seen. Because of this, most of our work has been disaster planning, tracking patients with the disease and educating the public. This has been very time-consuming, but not the heroic service that many across the nation have been part of.

My Franciscan education has taught me to remember that we are dealing with people, not statistics and cases. As such, all people deserve respect and dignity as God’s own. On the difficult days, one of the most important things I can do is focus on serving those that God has placed in our care, rather than focus on doing what I need to get out of the office quicker. It is unfulfilling to focus on me and fulfilling to focus on the objective good of the person God has allowed me to serve.

Incidentally, a couple of the Franciscan biology professors, including Dr. Daniel Kuebler and Dr. Joseph Pathakamuri, have directly aided our COVID-19 efforts locally, by bringing equipment and knowledge to our local hospital to set up in-hospital testing for COVID-19. Until now, we had to send out our tests to an outside lab, which can take from one to eight days to get results back. With the new testing, we can test 10-plus patients every three hours. This means we can more effectively diagnose and treat patients earlier, which should lead to better patient outcomes and better utilization of resources and protective gear.

Daniel Torres

FOCUS Missionary: Strong Catholic Education Offers ‘Lifechanging’ Experience

“Catholic education that is authentic, alive and abundant can be a lifechanging experience,” says Daniel Torres, a graduate of a faithful Catholic college.

For Torres, Belmont Abbey College, in Belmont, N.C., which is recommended in The Newman Guide, certainly made an impact. At the College, Torres met his wife and was prepared to “engage the world with truth, goodness and beauty.” He studied Theology, minored in theatre arts and was active in student clubs, campus life and service opportunities made possible by the College.

Torres graduated from Belmont Abbey in 2017 and now is a Fellowship of Catholic University Students (FOCUS) missionary at Rice University in Houston, Tex., with his wife, Maddie. Many graduates of Newman Guide colleges have selflessly served as missionaries with FOCUS for a couple years after graduation.

The Cardinal Newman Society is grateful to Torres for sharing about the impact of his faithful Catholic education, as a part of our “Profiles in Faithful Catholic Education” series.

Newman Society: How did your education at Belmont Abbey College help prepare you for your vocation and working in the New Evangelization?

Daniel and Maddie Torres
Daniel and Maddie Torres

Daniel Torres: The culture of excellence and virtue at Belmont Abbey prepared me not only for my call to ministry in evangelization, but also for the call to holiness through my vocation to marriage. My wife, Maddie, and I met freshman year and dated all throughout college. It was the foundation of authentic friendship established at the Abbey that helped Maddie and I have a strong community and witness to selfless love.

I always knew that I wanted to work in ministry, even before coming to Belmont Abbey.  However, I didn’t realize how much of an impact the faculty, staff and administration would have on that desire for ministry and sharing my faith. I received profound intellectual formation from my teachers in theology, providing me the opportunity to understand the significance of the truth of the Catholic faith.

The guidance and support of FOCUS missionaries at the Abbey probably had the greatest personal influence on my life. They instilled within me a deep awareness of the poverty of isolation and loneliness in today’s society. The only answer to that poverty is the love and mercy Jesus has to offer.

Newman Society: Why do you think a strong Catholic education is good preparation for a missionary?

Daniel Torres: I firmly believe that a strong Catholic education can prepare one to engage the world with truth, goodness and beauty. I was challenged by my teachers and peers to tackle tough topics head on and enter into dialogue. The Catholic worldview and values I received have been invaluable in my missionary efforts. The Catholic college campus is the perfect environment for peer-based ministry, which helps make Jesus come alive with students. 

Catholic education that is authentic, alive and abundant can be a lifechanging experience. It allows you to become the best person you can be, because you are surrounded by virtuous people who help reveal to you who you are. The whole process of holiness is recognizing the truth of who you are, but striving for the truth of who you’re meant to be. It is possible—and the best opportunity for that is found in Catholic education.

Maura Roan McKeegan

Children’s Author Inspired by Faithful Catholic College

Catholic families are always looking for beautiful Catholic books for children. An alumna of a faithful Catholic college is giving families more timeless options.

Maura Roan McKeegan says that her education in the theology graduate program at Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio, inspired her to become an author. Now she’s published several Catholic children’s books as a fruit of her experience in the Franciscan University community, including St. Conrad and the Wildfire, just recently released.

The Cardinal Newman Society is grateful to McKeegan for sharing about the impact of her faithful Catholic education on her life and work, as a part of our “Profiles in Faithful Catholic Education” series.

Newman Society: Why did you choose to attend Franciscan University of Steubenville? What impact did the University have on you?

Maura Roan McKeegan: When I was a young adult—after I graduated from a state university—I attended a summer conference at Franciscan University. I loved it so much that I went back the next year, and the next. I began to daydream of going there to study full-time. I wanted to know more about God, and I couldn’t think of a better place to learn. Franciscan had changed my life so much in three weekends; I could only imagine what three years there would do.

At first, it felt like an impossible dream. I was a classroom teacher and didn’t know how I could leave my job. But soon, God showed me that He was calling me to go to graduate school at Franciscan. I moved to Steubenville to pursue a master’s degree in theology, and Franciscan became a second home to me. The material I studied was so beautiful that it sometimes made me cry. The classes I took, books I read, and people I met helped me grow exponentially in the way I understood and lived my faith.

Eighteen years later, I am still here with my husband, raising our children in Steubenville, and marveling at the way God used three weekends to give me a gift that would last a lifetime.

Newman Society: How has your education at Franciscan University influenced your work as an author?

Maura Roan McKeegan: My education at Franciscan University inspired me to become an author. I remember sitting in Dr. Scott Hahn’s class and listening to him talk about typology—how Adam, Moses, and Jonah prefigured Christ; how Noah’s Ark prefigured baptism; how the Ark of the Covenant prefigured Mary. It was all new to me. I had just spent five years as a classroom teacher, and I thought to myself, “Children would be fascinated by this!”

I had the idea of writing a series of picture books that placed Old and New Testament stories side by side, so that children could see the connections. The idea stayed in my head for ten years, until I finally realized that God was calling me to write the series. Now, through Emmaus Road Publishing, I’ve written three books in that series, with a fourth currently being illustrated.

My newest book, St. Conrad and the Wildfire, is separate from the Old and New series. All of these books are the fruit of my time at Franciscan University, both as a student and as a member of the Franciscan family.

St. Conrad and the Wildfire book cover

Newman Society: Can you tell us about your recently released book for children, St. Conrad and the Wildfire?

Maura Roan McKeegan: About five years ago, I learned about St. Conrad for the first time and was immediately captivated by his story. He was a medieval nobleman who went hunting one day and accidentally set a forest on fire. He didn’t tell anyone the truth about what happened until an innocent peasant was blamed and sentenced to death, and only Conrad’s confession could save him. The course of events that began with his errors eventually led Conrad to become a saint.

St. Conrad’s story struck me as perfect for a picture book. With medieval nobles, a castle, hunting, fire, false accusation, a near execution and the challenge of telling the truth in the face of danger, it had all the elements of an exciting and enduring tale. I also loved how it showed that imperfect people can become saints—that our mistakes can become paths to grace. As a person who makes a lot of mistakes, I found that message consoling.

Newman Society: Why do you think beautiful and well-written Catholic books for children are important?    

Maura Roan McKeegan: Picture books are my hobby and my passion. I love the way they unite generations, when young and old cuddle up together and delight in stories that capture hearts through words and pictures. Beautiful and well-written Catholic picture books give us a way to follow what Jesus says when he tells us to “become like little children” in Matthew 18:3. When we sit with children and read aloud together, we build bonds of love in a world of childlike simplicity that children will remember long after they are grown. Beautiful picture books awaken lifelong connections between love, spiritual childhood and faith.

Unique College Prepared Artist to ‘Impact the Culture for Christ’

Although truth and beauty are often lacking in the creative arts today, graduates of John Paul the Great Catholic University in Escondido, Calif., are working to buck that trend and positively impact the culture.

JPCatholic, which is recommended in The Newman Guide, provides students with a solid formation in the liberal arts and faithful Catholic theology, while also preparing them for careers in the creative arts, business, film-making and other new media.

Graduate Nate Sjogren says that the College’s curriculum “forms Catholic artists to be well-rounded Christian storytellers,” and he sees the creative process as a “cooperation with God and his creation.” Today, Sjogren is a motion graphics designer at Drive Studio in San Diego, Calif. The Cardinal Newman Society is grateful for his time in sharing about the impact of his faithful Catholic education, as a part of our “Profiles in Faithful Catholic Education” series.

Newman Society: How did your education at John Paul the Great Catholic University help form you as a Catholic artist?

Nate Sjogren: From the outset, JPCatholic begins with the intention to impact the culture for Christ. This mission influences everything we were taught and encourages us to create art with a greater purpose beyond ourselves. Throughout the curriculum there is one central theme: story. Our entire formation is motivated by telling meaningful, powerful stories. Even now as a motion graphic designer, everything I create has a narrative, even if it is metaphorical. The curriculum forms Catholic artists to be well-rounded Christian storytellers, regardless of their expertise in the industry.

Newman Society: JPCatholic combines practical classes like film-making and new media with courses in the liberal arts and theology. How do you think this well-rounded education has influenced your professional success?

Nate Sjogren: I think the well-rounded education is the key. Like myself, many students are struggling to discover their expertise as they journey through film school. It is crucial that young adults are well-formed in many areas so that they are able to sample a variety of creative specialties. In fact, it wasn’t until I began my internship at Drive Studio that I discovered my passion for motion graphics. Being well-rounded increases the opportunities to get a foot in the door. Beyond that, expertise — let alone success — is earned through practical experience in real-world scenarios.

Newman Society: What does Pope St. John Paul II’s “Letter to Artists” mean to you?

Nate Sjogren: The idea that artists are called by vocation to be co-creators with God is revolutionary. When I first sat down to design, I was immediately stumped by the blank canvas in front of me. How am I supposed to magically come up with a completely original idea out of thin air and also put it on paper? The task is daunting… until I realized that nothing is original. God created everything already.

This very fact diffuses the pressure that new artists feel to be completely original. Instead, the creative process becomes a cooperation with God and his creation. It is liberating knowing that any creative brilliance doesn’t solely rely on me, and that my designs are a fusion of life experiences, inspiration and concepts already in existence. I’m not the Creator, but I’m brought into the creative process with God. That truth is humbling yet exhilarating.

Newman Society: Do you have any stories or experiences from your time at the college that stand out to you?

Nate Sjogren: When I was in my third year, I was hired for my very first gig as an editor. After the studio had filmed the interview I was supposed to cut together, I received a call from one of the producers. He mentioned that they would like to add in some motion graphics to complement the interview, and he asked if I could pull it off. Although I had never done motion graphics before, I knew some basic After Effects [motion graphics software], so I told him, “Let’s do it!” 

That weekend I spent every last bit of free time learning After Effects. YouTube and other free tutorial sites like Video Copilot and Creative Cow were invaluable during this formation process. And as a result, we pulled off our first motion graphic commercial without a hitch.

This was a breakthrough moment for my education and my career. Through the formation and network at JPCatholic, I got my first gig and discovered my passion for motion graphics. Not long after, I was offered an internship at Drive Studio because of my interest in graphic design and animation, and the rest is history.

Newman Society: As a motion graphics designer, you’ve produced logos, motion graphics and branding for the FIFA World Cup, the NFL, NBC Sports, National Geographic and others. What have been some of the most exciting projects to be a part of?

Nate Sjogren: When I was a kid, I was obsessed with soccer — watching every professional match I could, training with my team all year round, and even playing the FIFA video games for hours. So it was a dream come true to help design and animate the entire graphics package for the 2018 FIFA World Cup on FOX Sports with the Drive Studio team.

It was also very exciting to see the months of hard work pay off on the Super Bowl LIV scoring system and information graphics that debuted on FOX earlier this year. You may recognize the larger-than-life touchdown graphic that my team and I came up with as an innovative solution to make the scoring moments more dramatic.

Thomas Alexander

Pentagon Leader: Faithful Catholic Education Provided ‘Fundamentals to Succeed’

When Catholic education is done well, it benefits not only its graduates, but also society at large.

Thomas Alexander is a top leader in the Pentagon who is the principal advisor to the Secretary of Defense on special operations, counterterrorism, and more around the world. He credits his education at Thomas Aquinas College in Santa Paula, Calif., which is recommended in The Newman Guide, with preparing him with the “fundamentals” he needed to “succeed” in his work.

“You can study all of the things that you want foreign policy-wise to try to prepare for these types of positions,” explains Alexander. “But I don’t think you can do any of those things well if you don’t have the fundamentals.”

“Thomas Aquinas College gives you the ability to quickly analyze, break down a particular issue into its parts, put it all back together in a way that makes sense, reach a conclusion, and then go forward,” he explains.

Students develop this “analytical training” through the College’s great books curriculum. “By putting the original works in front of you, you’ve got sit down with Aristotle, with St. Thomas Aquinas, with other great thinkers, and figure out what they were saying, and then apply it across the board.”

The College also provided Alexander with excellent ethical training. “In policy jobs, we are answering the question, ‘Should we be doing a particular activity?’ What are the ramifications one, two, three steps down the road for doing things?”

“The good teaching at Thomas Aquinas College really prepares you for this so that you do have that good moral sounding board inside of you,” he explains. “It allows you to perform that gut-check. Yes, we can do something, but is it a good thing to do?”

As the senior-most civilian overseeing special operations, Alexander also provides advice on the manning, training and equipping for special operations, and he oversees a budget of $14 billion. Recent high-profile special operations include the Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi operation and the Osama bin Laden operation.

Helping keep our nation safe is no small task, but Alexander is up for the challenge. He has successfully climbed the ladder in his career, thanks to his strong Catholic education, both at Thomas Aquinas College and Ave Maria School of Law, hard work and the relationships he has built.

“There hasn’t been a day that I ever regretted attended Thomas Aquinas College, and receiving the education that I did.”

Successful Businessman Says Faithful Catholic College ‘Changed My Life’

Mike McGrath
Mike McGrath

All too often, students go off to college and lose their faith on campus — but the opposite is true in the case of Mike McGrath, who is forever grateful for the influence of a faithful Catholic college on his life.

After spending a semester at a state university in New York, Mike McGrath was preparing to join the Army. An ear infection delayed his plans — during which time he went on a retreat, met a family associated with Magdalen College of the Liberal Arts in Warner, N.H., and ended up enrolling in the College.

McGrath immersed himself in the Great Books curriculum provided by Magdalen College, which is recommended in The Newman Guide, and was “blown away” by the education. He remembers being introduced to Euclidean geometry for the first time, and all the subject areas that are “parallel paths to open your mind to the truth of things.”

“My whole perspective on life, on what was really true completely opened up,” he shares, noting how the students went to Mass, classes, meals, activities, and study together.

Growing up, McGrath attended mostly public schools and was raised in a nominally Catholic family. He entered Magdalen as an “un-catechized” young adult, but that quickly changed. At Magdalen, he was immersed deeply in the faith, and exposed to beautiful and reverent liturgy.

“When you go to confession regularly, when you go to Mass daily, when you’re praying the rosary, your life is going to get great,” he explains, noting the infusion of grace from the sacraments. “It’s night and day between who I was as a person before and after attending Magdalen College.”

“Magdalen College has a rich history of liturgy and music,” explains McGrath. Even though he studied vocal performance at the state university, he said that he never delved deep into the music in the way that he did at Magdalen College. At the state university, “we never asked the question, ‘what is music?’” and he was pleasantly surprised to be introduced to an “incredible repository of music” at Magdalen.

“My life is so rich now because of my Catholic faith,” McGrath continues. “Magdalen College played a significant role— it changed my life.”

The College altered McGrath’s life in nearly every way, including propelling him into his successful career of the past 20-plus years in the software sales industry. Through the College’s Socratic style classes, McGrath learned “how to listen,” which is essential to becoming a business leader.

“You listen to the master thinkers, and then you discuss the truth of that work whether it’s Aquinas, Aristotle or Nietzsche,” says McGrath about the courses at Magdalen. “When you stop talking and start listening, you learn so much.”

He also gained hands-on leadership experience. “Because it was a small campus and a small community, there were a lot of opportunities for leadership.”

In McGrath’s experience and as countless studies now show, employers today are desperately in need of liberal art graduates who are “well-rounded.” The ideal candidates are “versatile” and don’t just know a particular subject area, but can “think critically, learn how to work within and lead a team, are strong writers, delegate tasks, listen, and grow organically in their career.”

Today, McGrath serves on the board at the Magdalen, and has two children who attend the College. He is excited about the changes Magdalen has made in recent years, the direction it’s headed, and its emphasis on “forming the whole human person.”

“Magdalen really helped me grow as a person,” McGrath says. “The students there today are afforded similar opportunities to lead, to grow in community, to grow in their faith, to grow as a human person.”

“The College will prepare students with the foundation they need to remain faithful and serve the Church and world in whatever capacity they’re called to.”

Lauren Merz

Pro-Life Leader: Strong Catholic Education Can ‘Turn the Culture’

Lauren Merz
Lauren Merz

Strong Catholic education is essential to the pro-life movement, because it “equips the next generations of leaders — of saints! — who are so desperately needed to restore all things in Christ,” says one of the nation’s pro-life leaders.

Lauren Merz was recently named vice president of strategic partnerships at one of the most effective national pro-life organizations today, Live Action. She is gearing up for the March for Life and for her presentation about changing hearts and minds about abortion the following day at the National Pro-Life Summit, a gathering of more than 3,000 students and adults.

The Cardinal Newman Society asked Merz to explain the impact of her education at Christendom College in Front Royal, Va., which is recommended for its strong Catholic identity in The Newman Guide. We are grateful for her time as a part of our “Profiles in Faithful Catholic Education” series.

Newman Society: How did Christendom College help prepare you for the work you do today?

Lauren Merz: Truly the most important thing Christendom College did to prepare me for my work in the pro-life movement was to strengthen me in the Faith and to fall in love with the Church, and with Christ.

Christendom refined my analytical and writing skills I now use every single day in my work. The very rigorous curriculum and expectations pushed me to pursue excellence in how to think, strategize and communicate. I remember crying over papers and the many hours poring over my studies — they were so challenging, but so worth the effort.

Christendom also taught me how to learn, how to study. I carry the love for study and the search for wisdom with me always. I am constantly reading, learning and studying in my work and personal life, constantly seeking wisdom from those who know better than I, constantly seeking the Truth.

The professors at Christendom are also such beacons of virtue, examples of love and true pursuers of wisdom. Professors and Drs. Mike Brown and John Cuddeback instilled in me a love for philosophy and pursuing the virtues. The essentials we learned about human nature and ethics have been fundamental to me, as I help form Live Action’s messaging and strategy with our team. The understanding of human dignity, morality and the Church’s teachings I formed at Christendom are the roots of the pro-life work I do today. 

I was also lucky enough to have a work-study in the Student Life Office for all four years (and full-time job for two summers!) of college. Tambi Spitz was the associate dean at the time, and her inspirational mentorship was invaluable. She taught me how to organize my time and prioritize many tasks at once, manage a team, how to be assertive and honest, yet kind, merciful and loving. Her belief in me that I could do great things and that I was a natural leader and her constant pouring into me truly helped set me up for success.

I volunteered with the Student Activities Council on campus for three years, giving me the event planning and execution experience that I didn’t know I would love and need for my future career.

I served as a Resident Assistant for a year and a half during my time at Christendom, building my leadership abilities. I now serve as one of the top three executives at a national pro-life nonprofit, so those skills are used every day along with all the others.

I also have to give a shout out to Professor Mike Brown for preparing me for the work I do today. I had him for Philosophy 101 (so I have him to “blame” for my major choice!) and he was my thesis director. I will never forget a conversation I had with him during my last week of finals right before I graduated. He stopped me in the parking lot and said “Lauren, what are you going to do with your life after college? You have so many talents, you have a mission to use them for. Go find it!” It really stuck with me that I had a mission I was made for from that moment on. I sought out to find it. And here I am. My deepest gratitude, Professor Brown.

Lauren Merz
Lauren Merz (middle) at her graduation from Christendom College in 2010.

Newman Society: How did your time at the college help strengthen you for the spiritual battle involved in pro-life efforts?

Lauren Merz: Most importantly, Christendom instilled an understanding of the power of prayer and a true, strong, deep, personal relationship with our dear Lord Jesus.

Before going to college, I didn’t know adoration was a regular thing Catholics did. I only remember going during Lent growing up. The regular, monthly holy hours promoted and encouraged for all to attend moved me to fall in love with our Lord in the Eucharist. My time in adoration since then has been truly life-changing. I prayed and discerned my current job in adoration. I love visiting Jesus at St. Agnes Perpetual Adoration Chapel in Arlington, Va., where I live, it’s one of the most peaceful places on earth!

Christendom also instilled in me a deep love of the Sacraments, of course, most especially Confession and the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. Christendom had one of the most beautifully said liturgies I had attended until then — reverent and full of the majesty and mystery which are so essential. I also become comfortable with going to Confession regularly for the first time at Christendom. Everyone talked about how they needed to go — and they went! The example of my peers and teachers impacted me so much in this.

Today, I am completely dependent upon the generous Grace of God to do this work in the fight to defend the preborn. Among all the cultural battles we are facing today, the spiritual battle is especially strong on the pro-life front. We are fighting such a horrible evil. Some days I can’t even believe that I have to fight this battle — that we are actually killing our own children in such a beautiful, bountiful country and that I have to fight to stop it. It’s mind-boggling and gut-wrenching. It’s only by God’s generous grace and mercy through the Sacraments that I am able to continue the fight every day. Without Him, the evil is too great and I would have quit long ago.

Newman Society: How can strong Catholic education benefit the pro-life movement?

Lauren Merz: Strong Catholic education doesn’t just benefit the pro-life movement — it is essential to the pro-life movement.

The Catholic Church unabashedly upholds and defends the inherent dignity of the human person from fertilization to natural death. It is always the first defender of our dear brothers and sisters in the womb. Without passing down and instilling the wisdom of the ages, the Tradition of the Catholic Church, through Catholic education, our entire culture is lost, and it will be impossible to win the fight to end the killing of children in the womb.

With strong Catholic education, we will turn our culture around and save souls. Strong Catholic education equips the next generations of leaders — of saints! — who are so desperately needed to restore all things in Christ. And who is more desperate in our culture right now than the most vulnerable little ones in the womb at odds against their own mothers?

Timmerie Geagea

Catholic Radio Host Learned How to Tackle Tough Topics at Faithful Catholic College

Given the secularism in our culture and relativism all too evident on college campuses today, Timmerie Geagea knew “hands down” that she wanted to attend an authentic Catholic college. Now, equipped with her faithful Catholic education, Timmerie faces the culture head-on and tackles tough topics from a Catholic perspective on her nationally syndicated radio show.

Timmerie attended John Paul the Great Catholic University in Escondido, Calif., which is recommended in The Newman Guide, where she “fell in love with studying theology” and also had the unique opportunity to “fuse together communications, philosophy and theology.” She credits her faithful Catholic education with helping prepare her for her ministry and for her life, including her marriage to a fellow alumnus.

“Close proximity to the sacraments, my formation in theology, and my education in business and communications equipped me not only for my apostolate but most importantly for a life oriented toward the Cross of Christ,” says Timmerie about her undergraduate years at JPCatholic. “I sharpened my tools of communication, and I learned to appeal to the deepest desires of the human heart — authentic love and, ultimately, God.”

On her radio show, Trending with Timmerie, which is nationally syndicated every Sunday on Relevant Radio and is also downloaded internationally as a podcast, she discusses topics such as gender identity, abortion and pornography. She believes that it’s important to tackle controversial topics, especially those related to human sexuality.

“Society is parched for relationships that express authentic love and ultimately the sacrificial love of Christ,” Timmerie explains. “Our culture and the breakdown of the family doesn’t prepare people for sacrificial love anymore.”

Lamenting that many in the culture are “miserable today,” Timmerie is eager to share why there is reason for hope.

“Catholicism has the healing balm for the festering wounds of the culture that is stuck in sexual ambiguity and promiscuity, as they look for love,” she explains. “This brokenness is just a sign of the need for God the Father in our lives.”

“People need to see that faith makes sense,” she continues. “They need to remember that God transcends all human reality and relationships. By looking to the Cross, we know how to love.”

To find strength for her work, Timmerie strives to stay close to the sacraments, a devotion that was fostered during her undergraduate years at JPCatholic.

During college, Timmerie attended daily Mass, but she wanted even more time with Our Lord. She took the initiative to organize students so that daily Eucharistic Adoration could be put in place. “This devotion to the Eucharist equips me even now, as I am exposed every day to the horrors our culture faces through sexual promiscuity, abortion, the breakdown of the family and the confusion and ambiguity [of] gender ideology,” she explains.

Through the “grace of God” and her “faith,” Timmerie can see the “hope and beauty” that is alive within the “brokenness of the culture.” Timmerie’s faithful Catholic education has equipped her to share that message with a global audience.