Teaching young people about diverse cultures and religions helps to prepare them to compete and communicate effectively in today's global economy.

At Sacred Heart University, a college founded in 1963 by Walter W. Curtis, former bishop of the Bridgeport diocese, learning is based in its Roman Catholic roots but also open to other faiths and ideologies, University President Dr. Anthony Cernera told members of the Westport Y's Men during the organization's April 8 meeting at Saugatuck Congregational Church.

Among the many accomplishments during his 21-year-and-counting tenure at the Fairfield campus, Cernera co-founded the Center for Christian-Judaic Understanding. Under its auspices, a seminary and rabbinical studies program allows its students to come together and share knowledge and commitment about each other's respective faiths. He said that this exchange of values and religious ideas is essential to strengthening one's own beliefs as well as fostering compassion and understanding.

"Judaism is the parent religion of Christianity," Cernera explained.

Cernera noted, however, that "good structures of dialogue" are not easy to do nor has it been present historically.

The center was, in fact, formed "as a way to ensure that a new generation of religious leaders would carry on the work of inter-religious dialogue," Cernera said.

Sacred Heart University's "Colleagues in Dialogue" provides a venue so that those in religious fields could stay connected to each other following graduation. "It's a great opportunity to learn about the other," he explained. "People need to be brought together, to listen and to learn from each other."

As a Catholic university, Sacred Heart retains its religious identity while also continuing Curtis' mission of providing an ecumenical setting for learning to occur. "The university was founded to be for lay people and run by lay people," Cernera explained.

He pointed out that he will often remind his faculty that the university's role is to "on the border and boundary line of the church and society."

"We are here to offer wisdom, insight, a place for ideas to be challenged, a place for criticism," Cernera said.

Sacred Heart University, like many colleges and universities in the United States, is committed to providing students with a firm foundation in knowledge at the undergraduate and graduate levels.

Citing that students today will receive approximately five post-baccalaureate degrees and certifications in their lifetime, Cernera said, "At Sacred Heart, we are committed to undergraduate education but we also realize that we're preparing people for the work force."

To this end, offering a strong liberal arts curriculum continues to be essential to higher education, he added.

At Sacred Heart, undergraduate students are required to take core classes in several disciplines.

Although Sacred Heart University' has a premier physical therapy program, including high-level doctorate degree coursework, Cernera explained that undergraduate students interested in this profession are required to major in a subject other than physical therapy. Young people still need to be exposed to Shakespeare, Plato and other great writers as well as understand science and math, he said.

Some changes in higher education, though, include taking classes online.

The amount of people, young and old, enrolling and completing university classes online is growing. Some students are even completing degree and certificate programs using computer technology. "Learning online is here to stay," Cernera said.

For educators, the challenge is to understand this specialized forum for learning and to be able to maintain high standards from a remote location.

Higher education needs will also continue to be influenced by an emerging population of Hispanic students, Cernera said. In the past, a low percentage of Hispanic students have enrolled in colleges and universities because of the high costs associated with certificate and degree programs. Addressing this important issue of affordability, Sacred Heart University recently announced that it would provide scholarships to qualified students in Fairfield County whose family income in less than $50,000.