BELIZE CITY — It took four tries and 40 years, but a Jesuit-founded school in Belize will soon be a four-year university.

St. John’s College was founded in 1887 as an all-boys school serving Belize and neighboring countries. It added a coed community college in 1952. Today it has 700 boys in the high school and 1,200 students at the two-year community college.

School authorities first attempted to gain approval as a four-year school in 1981, the year Belize gained independence from Great Britain. The government rejected the plan. The government did the same thing in 1989 and 2014. The positive response finally came last October, and the school is putting together a program to award its first bachelor’s degrees in 2024.

“This was a 40-year struggle and not something we decided in one day. We went through a very rigorous process for this to happen,” said Mirtha Alice Peralta, SJC president and the first woman to run the school.

While SJC has a stellar past — 66% of members of Parliament are graduates — it is now crafting what the future will look like, working with Jesuit universities in the United States on courses and content, and making sure that the financing structures in place locally continue to apply.

“Becoming a four-year school is going to continue SJC’s legacy and take it up a notch, because you have a lot of kids who cannot go abroad to get a four-year education, and now they can get high-quality Catholic education right here at home. It could be a game changer,” said Father Brian Christopher, superior of the Jesuit community in Belize.

Peralta said the new university has several components in place that will make it successful.

SJC is a member of the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities. It is the only member outside of the United States, admitted because Belize is part of the Jesuits’ U.S. central and southern province. Membership has opened doors, including an agreement inked late last year with Rockhurst University in Kansas City that lets SJC students complete doctoral studies in education and a partnership with Ohio’s John Carroll University for students to complete degrees in finance or marketing.

“We are blessed to be part of the Jesuit network, which puts SJC on the global radar,” said Peralta, who envisions her students at universities in the United States and students from U.S. Jesuit colleges spending a semester or more in Belize.

The school has decided to use a hybrid model for now, with students enrolling in the community college and then applying again for the final two years. Peralta said the two-plus-two approach is practical, because the Belize government covers part of the cost of students and pays part of the salaries of teachers in the community college. This would be lost if it simply transitioned overnight to a four-year program.

“We want to provide students with a quality, Jesuit education that is affordable, so if we go to four years immediately we will not be living out our mission to make education accessible,” said Peralta.

The first bachelor’s degrees will be granted in a handful of programs, with two in the sciences, two in social sciences, two in business and one in computer science. Last year, SJC opened a satellite campus in the south of the country for the community college and is considering how it fits into the new structure. The focus could be on nursing or other careers where professionals are currently in short supply.

Peralta said the goal is not to lose focus on the mission.

“We want to journey with the youth, showing them a spiritual pathway through education,” she said.