For the better part of two decades, rising high school seniors from across the U.S. and the world have come to Thomas Aquinas College for two weeks each summer with one thought on their minds: Do I want to spend my next four years here? Ever since the College opened its East Coast campus in 2019, they have also had an additional question to consider: California or New England?
Serving as their guides in this discernment are the prefects of the Great Books High School Summer Program. As current TAC students and recent graduates, the prefects — who work hard to make the program a faithful and fun reflection of the intellectual, spiritual, and community life of the College — are well suited to help answer these questions. And whether serving on the California program or its New England counterpart, they are prepared to answer questions about either campus.
“We’ve used a mix of prefects from both campuses on both programs,” says Director of Admissions Jon Daly. “There have been prefects from the New England campus on the California program, and vice versa. We’ve even had some hearty prefects who worked the California program, then jumped on a plane, and started work on the New England program the very next day!”
Irene Collins (NE’23, left) with fellow prefects at the New England High School Summer Program
One Program, Two Coasts
For the prefects, working with peers from across the country — some of whom they have never met before — poses little difficulty. Last summer on the College’s Northfield, Massachusetts, location, two students from the two campuses worked side-by-side as the head women’s prefects: Irene Collins (NE’23) and Maggie Dillon (CA’21). Formerly strangers, the two soon became fast friends.
“Maggie and I met each other around the same time that a lot of the Summer Programmers were meeting one another,” says Irene. “But she and I just had this instant connection, which surprised them and made them think we had always been best friends. We were able to illustrate to them how it is that we are all united because of our common goal that we are working toward. That was just so cool — none of them expected that!”
In the prefects, that abstract notion of “One College, Two Campuses” takes on a human form. “Irene and I worked really well together because, even though we had different experiences on different campuses, it was all grounded in the same core values,” Maggie reflects. “We worked so well together because we’re literally going to the same school.”
On their separate campuses, the prefects take the same classes, read from the same Great Books, and partake in rigorous conversations by way of the same Discussion Method. “When we prefects were leading the high school students through discussions about the curriculum, we were able to work together to convey to them the beauty of what we learn here because we had all been through the same program,” says Tanner Sheffield (NE’23), who served as a prefect on both coasts last summer. Adds Irene, “Our job was to be examples of the ideals of Thomas Aquinas College — which are the same on either campus.”
Maggie Dillon (CA’21, right) with students on the California High School Summer Program
But if the program is the same on both coasts, why should a prospective student choose one campus over the other?
“One evening at the New England program, Irene and I were sitting around the fire, and we had students asking us why we chose our respective campuses,” recalls Maggie. “We told them that we didn’t necessarily choose TAC, California, or TAC, New England, because they were foundationally different; both schools follow the same curriculum that is rooted in the Catholic faith. The choice between one campus or another is based purely on accidentals — where you feel most at home.”
Some prefer the century-old, red-brick buildings of Massachusetts; others, California’s Mission-style architecture and Santa Paula’s proximity to the beach. “The two campuses are different only in the environment — the location,” says Tanner, a California native who opted to spend his four student years in Massachusetts. “But, in the end, it doesn’t matter whether you went to the California or New England Summer Program — the beauty of the one curriculum remains the same.”
For Maggie, the experience of being a prefect on an unfamiliar campus only deepened her love for the College’s program of Catholic liberal education. “I fell in love with the school all over again,” she observes. “The amenities of each campus are bonuses, but what makes both campuses feel like home is that everyone shares a love of the education and the Faith.”
Working together to give the Summer Programmers a wonderful experience, all three of these bicoastal prefects reported that, on both campuses, their shared experience in roundtable discussions, devotion to the Catholic faith, and dedication to the mission of the College enabled them to give the high school students a beautiful two-week taste of life at Thomas Aquinas College.
“It was interesting to compare the different customs of the different campuses, but at the same time to see how they were all grounded in the same core values,” says Maggie. “We all share a love of TAC that is grounded in the Great Books and the Catholic faith.” Adds Irene, “We’re there to show all the kids what the school, on either campus, has to offer — and to be examples of who you could be, should you come here.”
Prefects Jean Guerreiro (NE’22) and Tanner Sheffield (NE’23) on the California High School Summer Program