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History of La Roche University

La Roche University was founded in 1963 by the Congregation of Divine Providence as an independent, private, Catholic college for religious sisters. The University is named for Marie de la Roche, a French woman of noble birth who became the first superior of the Congregation. The La Roche logo, the fleur-de-lis, is part of her family’s coat of arms.

From its initial role as a college for religious sisters to its current incarnation as an institution for students from around the world, La Roche offers quality educational opportunities that reflect its Catholic heritage and the dynamism and spirit of its founding and sponsoring congregation. Sister Annunciata Sohl, CDP, was appointed the first president of La Roche and served until 1968.

By 1965, the University admitted its first lay students and conferred degrees on its first seven graduates, all members of the Sisters of Divine Providence. Two years later, to accommodate its growing enrollment, the University expanded beyond its leased space to construct its first building, the John J. Wright Library, named for John Cardinal Wright, the eighth bishop of the Diocese of Pittsburgh. At the time, the $1 million library was a state-of-the-art facility among college libraries. By 1969, La Roche admitted male students.

Early Challenges

As is often the case with new institutions, La Roche encountered financial difficulties soon after its founding. The Congregation gave serious consideration to closing the University. However, the institution had already made such an impact on the community that students, community leaders and state officials urged the Congregation and Sister de la Salle Mahler, CDP, college president from 1969-1975, to give it another chance.

Responding to this outpouring of support, the Board amended its charter in 1970 to establish La Roche as the independent, coeducational Catholic institution that it is today. At the same time, La Roche diversified its course offerings through its affiliation with the Art Institute of Pittsburgh. This gave birth to several new areas of study, including the graphic and interior design programs that continue to rank among the University’s strongest programs.

By 1973, the revitalized College earned accreditation from the Middle States Association of Colleges and Secondary Schools, tripled its enrollment and built its first residence facility, Mahler Hall. Sister de la Salle had successfully led the University through a period of uncertainty and laid the groundwork for a bright future.

A Growing, Changing Campus

The 1970s saw an enrollment boom that sparked an ambitious building program. La Roche built two new residence halls (Schneider and Peters) in the mid-1970s. Under the leadership of Sister Mary Joan Coultas, CDP, Ph.D., who served as president form 1975-1980, the University launched its first capital campaign in 1979 to finance the construction of a science building, and the Palumbo Science Center opened in 1980.

During the tenure of Sister Margaret Huber, CDP, Ph.D., who was appointed president in 1981 and served for 11 years, the University continued to grow with an expanded, strengthened curriculum and active building program. In 2018, the Annex classroom building was named the Huber Academic Center in her honor.

La Roche marked its 25th anniversary in 1987 with the dedication of the $2.5 million Zappala Campus Center. The Magdalen Chapel was added in 1990.

Monsignor William A. Kerr, who served as president from 1992-2004, expanded the University’s global reach, raising its visibility and broadening its academic, cultural and athletic programs. The University’s athletic offerings were enhanced with the completion of the 1,200-seat Kerr Fitness & Sports Center in 1993.

In 1993, the Pacem in Terris (Latin for Peace on Earth) Institute was created. Reflecting the University’s vision and mission to foster global citizenship, this program brings students from conflict, post-conflict and developing regions of the world to study at La Roche, and encourages greater global and transcultural awareness throughout the La Roche community. More than 400 students from 71 nations are graduates of the Pacem in Terris program.

The University added to its on-campus housing in 1997, with the dedication of Bold Hall. In 2002, “smart” classroom technology was unveiled with the completion of a new classroom building adjacent to the Zappala Campus Center, and in 2003, on-campus housing was expanded again with the completion of the second phase of Bold Hall.

Improvements to the University’s athletic facilities included baseball, soccer and softball fields, outdoor tennis/basketball courts, a dance studio, gymnasium, indoor track and weight room. Upgrades to the athletic fields – the latest in 2014 – have helped with recruiting students with an ever-growing interest in Division III sports.

A Sharpened Focus

In 2004, the La Roche University Board of Trustees selected as its seventh president, Sister Candace Introcaso, CDP, Ph.D. She already was familiar with the University, having served as a trustee, a member of the founding Congregation of Divine Providence, and a former faculty member and administrator. Sister Candace began her career in higher education at La Roche in the 1980s, serving on both the faculty and administrative staff. She also served as vice president for planning and assessment at Barry University in Miami Shores, Florida, and assistant vice president for academic affairs at Heritage College, on the Yakama Indian reservation in Toppenish, Washington.

Sister Candace is firmly committed to diversity and carries a strong belief that the missions of institutions founded by women religious are extremely important to the landscape of American higher education. She has maintained the University’s global outlook while strengthening the focus on serving the needs of the Pittsburgh region.

Today, the University is characterized by programming that addresses the changing needs of our nation and world, attracts a student body with a strong international presence, and exhibits a renewed commitment to the Pittsburgh metropolitan area that is its home.

Under Sister Candace’s leadership, La Roche has expanded its academic offerings, implemented improvements in campus facilities and attracted increased support form private individuals, foundations and government agencies. La Roche has been named one of the Best Northeastern Colleges by the Princeton Review for 15 consecutive years. Since 2012, La Roche has been named a Pennsylvania College of Distinction and a Catholic College of Distinction. In addition, the Institute of International Education’s Open Doors Report designated La Roche as one of the top 25 U.S. baccalaureate colleges.

La Roche was cited by for its campus internationalization efforts by NAFSA: Association of International Educators and received the Senator Paul Simon Spotlight Award for international program innovation. There are a number of aspects to the international programs at La Roche, but two were cited specifically by NAFSA. One was the Pacem in Terris program (described above). The other was the Global Problems, Global Solutions conference, which originated at La Roche. The conference uses the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals as a framework to inform students from La Roche and other regional universities about the environmental, economic, social justice and health challenges facing people throughout the world.

Recent Campus Improvements

The sale of the University’s West campus between 2007 and 2009 prompted the move of all students, faculty and staff onto one main campus, the former East Campus. This paved the way for the plan to update the Wright Library.

A capital improvement plan for the Wright Library was developed in early 2007 to add new features such as a multi-purpose room, news monitor and media screening facilities. Interior Design students worked on the library renovation project, providing input based on contemporary learning practices.

Donald Cardinal Wuerl (Archbishop of Washington, D.C. at the time and former Bishop of Pittsburgh) and the family of the Library’s namesake, the late John Cardinal Wright, participated in the Library rededication on September 16, 2010. As a seminarian studying in Rome, Cardinal Wuerl served as secretary to then Pittsburgh Bishop Wright and became a close friend.

The addition of wireless technology and software to support communication and long-distance learning, along with other updated technologies, were part of this $1.6 million renovation project. The project was funded by private donations and grants totaling $500,000 from Pennsylvania’s Redevelopment Assistance Capital Program and a Pennsylvania Department of Education Higher Education Opportunity Grant. La Roche’s overall efforts to incorporate more sustainable and green initiatives on campus are evident in the Library’s lighting, carpeting and tile, and HVAC system.

Varied Curriculum and Activities

Although the majority of students are from the greater Pittsburgh area, La Roche’s student body hails from 25 states, the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico, and 35 countries, creating a learning environment that prepares students for careers in a fast-paced global economy.

Today at La Roche University, students find a unique combination of 21st century education, technology and individualized attention. Fully accredited by several national governing bodies, the University offers more than 50 undergraduate career-focused majors, 20 undergraduate minors, six graduate degree programs and one doctorate program, with particular strengths in education, business, criminal justice, psychology, health and medical sciences, interior design and graphic design.

Established in 2010, the Study Abroad + Study USA program is a unique experience for qualified La Roche students to broaden their horizons and marketability in an ever-expanding global workplace. The program offers the value-added component of studying abroad or in a multicultural setting in the United States at no extra cost for full-time traditional students with 60 completed credits. Among the destinations: China, Cuba, France, Greece, Guatemala, Ireland, Italy, London, Paris and Peru. Traditional study abroad programs also are available for those who wish to choose that method of study.

Competitive Athletic Programs

La Roche fields 14 intercollegiate athletic teams including women’s lacrosse and bowling which were recently formed, and competes in Division III of the NCAA and in the Allegheny Mountain Collegiate Conference (AMCC). The University hosts numerous high school athletic championships and tournaments at its sports facilities. In 2014, La Roche opened its Baierl Athletic Complex, a renovated outdoor facility which features an artificial turf field, a pavilion for concessions and restrooms, a press box and additional parking. The women’s basketball team has won eight AMCC conference championships, and the La Roche baseball team has won seven AMCC championships.

The Next Chapter

On March 26, 2019 La Roche announced that the Pennsylvania Department of Education had approved its application to become La Roche University, effective immediately.

Becoming La Roche University was the fulfillment of a vision that many on campus shared for several years and recognition of how far La Roche has come. La Roche now offers 66 undergraduate programs of study, six master’s degrees and one doctoral degree. More than 14,000 alumni live in every state in the U.S. and in 65 countries around the world. University status supports a growing student population and new academic programs, and it helps La Roche market its offerings to students unfamiliar with its reputation, both domestically and abroad.

La Roche continues to make major improvements across campus, including the Zappala Campus Center and Palumbo Science Center.

In 2015 the Square in the Zappala Campus Center was renovated to accommodate the changing needs of the University community and encourage optimum interaction among students, faculty and staff. The renovations expanded to the information desk in the main hallway of Zappala the following year in 2016. The space is bright and welcoming to the campus community and guests.

To support the growing number of STEM students, renovations were made to the Palumbo Science Center in 2019. The second-floor renovation was unveiled in January 2020 and features new state-of-the-art laboratories, classrooms, common areas and faculty offices that are conducive to the changing nature of STEM education.

Additionally, the first floor of the Palumbo Science Center is now home to the Anthony J. Battaglia Clinical Simulation Center, completed in spring 2020. The Center provides nursing students with a variety of opportunities to practice assessment skills and critical thinking to prepare for live patient care in clinical settings.

The next step for La Roche is the campus master plan. In collaboration with the Sisters of Divine Providence, the University’s oldest partnership and prime relationship, La Roche issued an RFP to conduct a campus master planning process that considers each property separately, but also determines ways in which each could meet the other’s needs.

While the plan will take years to implement, the first phase is slated to begin in summer 2021 as the University moves several offices to the Motherhouse, which will create space on campus for the following departments: Freshman Admissions, University Advancement, Alumni Relations, and Mail and Printing Services.


The Spirit of Providence

La Roche University has undergone a number of transformations in its history to become the vibrant institution that it is today – one with genuine international impact. From its scenic campus in the North Hills of Pittsburgh, La Roche reaches out to students from across the United States and from many nations, offering the promise of more fruitful lives for individuals and the hope of a better world for all.

One thing that has remained constant throughout its history is the spirit that brings life to the institution. It is the same spirit that has animated the Congregation of Divine Providence since its founding more than 150 years ago. It is that spirit that will lead La Roche University for many decades to come.