College Road Trip to Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America

The Catholic University of America is the only college founded by U.S. bishops and the only one that three popes have visited.

In 2015, Pope Francis celebrated Mass at the neighboring Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception — the largest Roman Catholic church in North America — in front of tens of thousands gathered on the Catholic University Mall, a green space where students can usually be found studying, lounging, playing lawn games with friends and — in recent months — interning remotely.

Also the second-oldest research university in the U.S. after Johns Hopkins University in Maryland, CatholicU aims to marry faith and reason for more than 3,500 undergraduate and 3,000 graduate students. Of 12 schools, 10 offer undergraduate programs, including professional options in architecture and nursing. All told, undergrads can choose from upwards of 70 majors.

[READ: Pros, Cons of Applying to College as an Undecided Major.]

About 3 miles north of Capitol Hill, CatholicU’s manicured green spaces and gothic and Romanesque-revival-style buildings offer a traditional campus feel inside D.C. “You don’t really feel like you’re in the city,” says Sydney Hartman, a recent marketing grad from Eldersburg, Maryland.

Students are required to live in one of the single-sex residence halls until senior year, which tends to build relationships. “I can’t walk three feet without having a 15-minute conversation,” says Gemma Del Carmen, a senior from the Dallas-Fort Worth area studying political science and psychology . “It’s really what makes this place feel like home.”

But with a metro stop next to campus, the entire city is only minutes away. Del Carmen recommends studying at the Library of Congress and strolling the National Mall’s monuments at night with friends.

From jobs to internships, “D.C. is full of opportunities,” says Kelly Woodson, a senior from Hollywood, Florida, studying psychology and brain science. “I’ve interned at Capitol Hill and I’ve worked at a gym at the same time.”

With the help of the Center for Academic and Career Success, 80% of CatholicU students complete an internship by graduation; some 60% complete two or more.

[See: Top Colleges, Universities for Internship, Co-Op Programs.]

In the first year, students are grouped into learning communities of about 18 that take four core classes together in philosophy, theology and English. This cohort experience kicks off the larger core curriculum, which requires up to 15 courses across disciplines.

The liberal arts framework allows for an opportunity to “round out your education” and “sample classes from different schools,” says Huey Bodger, a junior philosophy major from Woodbridge, Virginia.

CatholicU has a student-to-faculty ratio of 10:1, and the average class size is under 20. This encourages close working relationships, Woodson says. “Some of the professors that I have had really have gotten to know me as a person.”

In addition to required theology courses, there are “tons of opportunities to grow your faith,” Hartman says. About 80% of students are Catholic, and about half say they go to Mass on campus weekly. Campus Ministry hosts frequent events, some professors pray before class and students can even request to have their rooms blessed by a priest during the first month of every academic year.

[READ: 21 Places Worth Seeing on College Tours.]

“It’s a very welcoming community that meets you where you are on your faith journey, whatever that faith is,” Del Carmen says. “We all just respect each other.”

There are more than 100 clubs, and events take place pretty much every night, students say. “You’re always going to find things that you would like to do,” says Woodson, a member of the Black Student Alliance, Red Line A Capella and March For Our Lives, an anti-gun violence group.

The Cardinals have 25 Division III sports teams that count about one-fifth of students on their rosters.

Students flock to community service experiences, collectively logging over 28,000 hours each year. Two initiatives are particularly popular: Mother Teresa Day of Service in the fall and Martin Luther King Jr. Day of Service in the spring, when students, faculty and staff spread out across D.C. to serve people experiencing homelessness, harvest vegetables from the nearby Franciscan Monastery’s garden, and teach children to read, among other possibilities. The days “are just really rewarding,” Hartman says.

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This story is excerpted from the U.S. News “Best Colleges 2022” guidebook, which features in-depth articles, rankings and data.

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