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MATTERS OF FAITH

Fresh-man class

Arrival of male students at Regis signals change at Catholic college

Derek Brown, attending orientation at Regis College, shares some laughs with (from left) Judy Norton, Ashley Saia, and Caitlyn Geagan.
Derek Brown, attending orientation at Regis College, shares some laughs with (from left) Judy Norton, Ashley Saia, and Caitlyn Geagan. (Globe Staff Photo / Suzanne Kreiter)

WESTON -- History may remember them as gender pioneers, but they looked more like typical teenagers, wearing T-shirts, baggy pants, and shy grins.

They were the first men to be admitted to Regis College since it was founded by the Congregation of the Sisters of St. Joseph in 1927. The college trustees voted last year to go coed in hopes of boosting enrollment at the financially troubled school.

The nearly 60 young men are (forgive the expression) still outmanned at what was the state's last all-women's Catholic college. More than 250 young women are also enrolled in the class of 2011, putting the guys in a minority that isn't likely to equalize for years.

However, all the young men who gathered on campus recently for freshmen orientation seemed pleased about being surrounded by X chromosomes. Especially those who had spent years at all-boys Catholic high schools.

"It feels great to be in the first class of guys," said Derek Brown, 19, of Brighton, a recent Matignon Prep grad who will play on Regis's first-ever men's basketball team. "My friends say I made a smart move."

Alain Fetau, 18, of Roslindale -- one of five Boston College High School grads who will be coming to Regis in the fall -- said he was also happy to decamp to the bucolic campus in the state's most exclusive leafy green suburb.

"I've already lived in the city," said Fetau, who plans to major in psychology. "This is a whole new experience."

Thomas Golding of Mattapan, a 17-year-old graduate of the Academy of the Pacific Rim charter school in Hyde Park, said he was attracted to Regis's community feeling.

"I got good vibes," said Golding, who wants to study business. "I feel like I already have friends here. These people seem like good people, with good heads on their shoulders."

Young women mingling with coaches, faculty, and one another during the weekend's activity and academics fair said they were also pleased to be part of a history-making class.

"I think it will be great," said incoming freshman Judy Norton of Allston, a recent graduate of Boston Latin.

The social atmosphere is the most positively charged and optimistic anyone had seen in years, many Regis staffers said.

"It's created a lot of energy here," said Edward Mulholland, an economics professor, whose table was visited by a steady stream of students interested in discussing a business major.

To his surprise, he said, many of the prospective majors had been male.

"I'm excited," he said. The students coming are good ones," he said, welcoming another male prospect, Yash Shah of Waltham.

Sister Catherine Meade, a museum studies professor, also gave the newcomers her vote of approval.

"I think it's necessary to have men," she said. "Regis is a wonderful place, and we have a lot to offer."

When Meade, a 1954 Regis alumna, was an undergraduate, students from all-male Catholic schools like Boston College and Holy Cross would make weekend trips to Regis for dances and dates with women training to be the next generation of social workers, teachers, and nurses.

For so many decades, Regis fulfilled a crucial need -- educating young Catholic women when so many doors were closed to them, said Dr. Mary Jane England, Regis president. She is a 1959 Regis alumna who became a physician.

The area's male-only schools began to admit women in the late 1960s and early 1970s, but Regis stayed same-sex, although it established cross-registration with Babson College in Wellesley, Bentley College in Waltham, and a dual engineering degree program with Worcester Polytechnic Institute.

The school also diversified its student body over the years, with fewer students considering themselves observant Catholics. Today, 40 percent of Regis students come from homes where the primary language is not English.

Shrinking enrollments and the lack of a wealthy alumna donor base have put Regis at a financial disadvantage, and its endowment has dipped to just $15 million. (By contrast, all-women's Wellesley College, located just a few miles away, has a $1.4 billion endowment, one of the largest in the nation.)

Last August's decision to go coed was a controversial one, with several alumnae posting bitter reactions to the news, which the school posted on its website's discussion board.

"This is disappointing news to say the least, said a 1997 graduate.

"I am deeply saddened by Regis's decision to admit men," said a 1999 graduate. "I think this is a major loss for women."

But most alumnae said they were resigned to the idea that to survive, Regis needed to educate both men and women.

"I would much rather have a degree from a college that is still in business than not," wrote a 1992 graduate. "Thank you for having the courage to see the future as coed," said a 1974 graduate. "Men are 50 percent of the population; why not learn with them?"

England puts it this way: "Regis has attracted students because we help them to be successful. And guys want that, too."

Incoming freshman Justin Sharifi of Tewksbury is the third generation of his family to attend Regis.

His mother, Liz Surette Beaudoin, a 1978 graduate, said she never in her "wildest dreams" imagined her son would attend her alma mater.

She said she was pleased when Justin first agreed to apply, and then became genuinely excited to enroll.

Beaudoin said the news that Regis was going coed was a little hard for her to accept, but she's pleased her son can carry on the family tradition.

"I hope he takes away that Regis community sense of giving back to the world when he graduates," she said.

Thomas Pistorino, the college's vice president for finance, said the decision to admit men was one of several long-ranging fiscal strategies, which include expanding the nursing school.

Regis has also proposed building a 350-unit luxury retirement village on campus that could generate $5 million annually for the school, but that plan has met massive opposition from town officials and neighbors, who say the project is out-of-scale for the area. The proposal is now stalled in state Land Court.

But the coed plan went forward, and school officials hope to see undergraduate enrollment swell from 650 to 1,200 in the next several years. With men and women, the class of 2011 is already considerably larger -- by more than 75 students -- than the several classes that came before it.

Regis is known for its generous financial aid policies, and several of the new male students said scholarship packages made them choose Regis over other options, like Boston University, Northeastern University, and Suffolk University. Full tuition and room and board at the school is $35,000 a year.

But Pistorino said the influx of extra students meant that a slightly smaller proportion of the student body needed significant aid, although he stressed that all eligible students in need of aid would continue to get it.

If all goes well, the school could break even by 2009. Then, the school will feel able to take more debt for short-and-long-term projects, and the endowment could then swell to $40 or $50 million in a few years, said Pistorino.

"People who predicted the demise and funeral of Regis were too hasty," he said.

Donations to the school's annual fund are already up 60 percent from last year to $1.4 million, from less than $900,000. But nearly $1 million will be spent on costs related to bringing in men, as the faculty and staff grows by about 60 people, including new coaches and athletic trainers.

A floor of the Angela Residence Hall will become men-only. Money will also be spent refurbishing locker rooms and playing fields, and improving the campus fitness center and running track. Soon, Regis will offer 17 club and varsity teams for women and men, up from its current 10.

Athletic director Mary Beth Lamb said many of the infrastructure improvements were necessary and would have happened anyway, with or without men on campus.

"We definitely don't want to send the message to women that we got all of this great new stuff because there are men coming," she said.

Lamb said she saw admitting men as "removing an obstacle" when it came to recruiting students. "I think this is going to allow us to reach out to more women athletes."

In just a few months, dining tables in Alumnae Hall will be populated by both genders at all meals for the first time. Will the building honoring generations of female graduates be changing its name?

"Oh no," said student activities director Laura Bertonazzi, a Southborough native and 2003 alum. "They built it."

One in an occasional series of columns touching on religious issues in area communities.

Erica Noonan can be reached at enoonan@globe.com.

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