San Damiano Scholars for Church Leadership Program Captures Attention at National Catholic Youth Conference

by Jackie Kretz | May 06, 2020

San Dam seniors newsGrace Harmon ’22 thought it would be fun to celebrate her faith with 20,000  other students from around the country at the National Catholic Youth Conference (NCYC) in Indianapolis  in 2017. For Harmon, at the time a senior from Jasper High School in Jasper, Indiana, that NCYC experience ended up being a pivotal part of her faith journey and college decision.

She had already heard a little about the San Damiano Scholars for Church Leadership Program at Marian University from a teacher who had daughters in the program. So, when she saw the San Damiano Scholars exhibit, as she and her friends walked around the NCYC thematic village, she stopped by to learn more.

“Right away, I felt comfortable talking to the current students. And when they told me about the Marian University College of Osteopathic Medicine, I knew there could be a bright future for me at Marian because my ultimate goal was to go to osteopathic medical school. I left NCYC that year knowing that Marian and the San Damiano Scholars Program would be the best place for me,” Harmon said.

This kind of result is exactly the reason Marian University  continues to be a program sponsor and exhibitor at NCYC, which has been hosted in Indianapolis every other year since 2011. But at such a large conference with exhibits from programs all over the country, simply standing at a booth with some brochures is not going to be good enough. 

Elizabeth Ortlepp ’16, recruiter for San Damiano Scholars, wants visitors to their exhibit to see that Marian is a Catholic university that will help students grow in the faith that the NCYC has ignited. “We will help them explore their faith at a deeper theological level while also surrounding them with a community that will love and care for them,” Ortlepp said.

But communicating all of that in brief interactions at a small exhibit booth is not that easy.

Patrick Verhiley ’07, director of Missionary Disciples Institute (MDI), knew from experience that it is difficult to convey all the merits of a program or even get a form filled out while thousands stream past booth after booth in a large, crowded exhibit hall.

“You’ve got to bring the fun. While our number one objective was to get names and contact information to help build our potential pool of applicants for both MDI and San Damiano Scholars, we also knew we needed to create a fun, dynamic, and meaningful environment. We needed to engage our visitors,” Verhiley said, “In addition to the student prospects, the adults attending NCYC—pastors, youth ministers, and teachers—are also a target audience. Building relationships with these adults is the best way to make a name for ourselves nationwide.”

Achieving this level of engagement involved months of preparation and teamwork with staff, faculty, alumni, and students to plan their attention-getting display and engaging activities. Marian’s exhibit at the 2019 NCYC in November included the purchase of multiple booth spaces and the creation of giant eight-foot high walls featuring significant campus images, thought-provoking messages, and program logos. They added some interactive games and giveaways. They staffed the exhibit with Marian staff, faculty, and former and current San Damiano Scholars. And they asked adult visitors to nominate students who would be good candidates for MDI. 

And it worked. “Everyone loved our giant walls. They played our games. And they stuck around longer to talk more with admission counselors and faculty. Our exhibit was never empty, no one was ever bored, and we went home with 1,000 completed forms,” Verhiley said.

Since then, Verhiley and Ortlepp have followed up with those contacts to continue the relationship-building and recruiting for MDI and San Damiano Scholars. Ten percent of this year’s MDI applications were a direct result of NCYC attendance, as were several new San Damiano Scholars applications. And, because of their positive experience, many more prospective high school freshmen and sophomores are now in the pipeline. 

It’s likely several will choose to continue their faith journeys at Marian University just like Harmon, a current San Damiano Scholar, majoring in biology and public health, with her eyes still on a future in osteopathic medicine.

The San Damiano Scholars for Church Leadership Program at Marian University is the only program of its kind in the country. This scholarship program combines a theological academic component with spiritual formation for those interested in the further development of their faith for service to their community, church, and profession. Learn more at

The Missionary Disciples Institute is a week-long summer camp for high school freshmen, sophomores, and juniors led by theology and philosophy faculty on the Marian University campus. The institute is designed to help high school leaders make an immediate impact in their communities and the world through their local church. Direct inquires for updated information on the 2020 MDI, currently scheduled for June 22-27, to

News Media Contact

Brad R. Wucher
Vice President of Enrollment, Marketing Communications
(317) 955-6307
Stokley Mansion, Room #1

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