Megan Donley, now a lawyer working to defend religious liberty, will never forget visiting Palm Beach Atlantic University when she was a high school senior. She sat in on a class of the Supper Honors Program and became enthralled by the vibrant discussion among the students and their professor.
“It was just such a fertile atmosphere for discovery of ideas,” she said. That did it. Megan was hooked. She applied to PBA, was accepted into the Honors Program, and in 2004 she dived into the unique Honors curriculum made possible by a generous gift from Frederick M. Supper, a prominent business advisor.
Supper Honors, built around a rich Christian Liberal Arts tradition, did not disappoint Megan. She not only found that fertile ground for learning that she had sampled; she bonded with her Honors classmates as they formed a community of learners, “living life together and exploring together.” Those classmates remain some of her best friends to this day.
She graduated in 2008, earned her law degree from Regent University (graduating summa cum laude), and now works in Washington, D.C., on the Government Affairs team with the nonprofit firm Becket. With the goal “Religious Liberty for All,” Becket has won landmark court cases for such clients as Catholic nuns serving the elderly poor, Muslim inmates demanding their civil rights and InterVarsity Christian Fellowship operating on a state university campus.
Victory in the U.S. Supreme Court
In June 2021 Megan’s team celebrated Becket’s U.S. Supreme Court victory in behalf of Catholic Social Services, which had been barred by the City of Philadelphia from conducting its foster care agency in the city. Megan’s job involved digging up research and communicating the results to officials. “It really changed the conversation in government about the role of faith-based providers in foster care and adoption,” she said.
Working on such cases requires the ability to spot key issues, ask critical questions, analyze complex written work and communicate effectively. “All of those skills were formed through the Honors Program,” she said. “When you have that sort of classical education, your mind builds the skill of answering questions.”
Megan’s Classical Education
In the classical education Megan refers to, students read and discuss original works from luminaries such as Plato, Martin Luther, Frederick Douglass and C.S. Lewis. Dr. Tom St.Antoine, director of the Honors Program, delights in the results of students “shoulder to shoulder, engaged in one of those books that has spoken to humanity” for so many years.
“What happens in an Honors classroom is impossible to describe, once you’ve seen it,”
Tom said. That’s why he loves for the PBA Admissions office to arrange class visits for prospective students.
Honors grad now directs the program
The Honors Program at PBA began in 1989, with freshman Tom St.Antoine among the first members. He went on to earn his Ph.D. in communication at Louisiana State University, joined the Palm Beach Atlantic faculty in 1998 and became director of Supper Honors in 2000.
In his 20-plus years in the program, Tom has seen a wonderful variety of inquisitive students. “You don’t have to be a genius,” to succeed in this rigorous program, he said; you need a love of learning. And attitude is more important than aptitude. He and the other professors who teach in the program joke that, “if when you were little, you asked Santa Claus to bring you a book for Christmas, that’s all we need to know.”
The Supper Honors curriculum includes courses for all four years of undergraduate instruction. Currently 180 students are enrolled. In a new option this year, additional students have enrolled to obtain an Honors minor without going through the full curriculum.
This fall 53 new students joined Supper Honors. They include a healthy mix of high school grads from public, private and homeschool education. In a ceremony in the DeSantis Family Chapel they read together the Honors pledge, which describes an “examined life in the context of Christian truth and integrity.” The “good life,” the pledge outlines, is a life of gratitude, purpose, conviction, courage, curiosity, creativity, humility and service.
As those newcomers work their way through the program, many of them will grow into leadership in roles throughout the University community, Tom said. “Honors students improve the intellectual quality of life for the entire university.”
Honors students graduate from PBA in a wide variety of majors, and they have become doctors, lawyers, professors and leaders in many fields. One became a federal judge and another a CIA agent and author. Tom sends a letter to all those grads at the end of each academic year, and he smiles as he receives word back about what’s going on in their lives.
He’s proud of their accomplishments, accolades and titles earned, but he gets his greatest satisfaction from something deeper, from the outstanding character these graduates display: “Whether you’re a kindergarten teacher or a nurse or a judge, the real outcome isn’t what you do,” he said. “It’s the kind of person you are doing that work.”
Dr. Debra A. Schwinn, a physician, researcher and innovator, is president of Palm Beach Atlantic University. (www.pba.edu) For more articles by Dr. Schwinn, visit goodnewsfl.org/author/dr-debra-a-schwinn/