St. Kate's prepares students for life — and, often, for graduate education beyond their four-year degrees.
BY PAULINE OO | MAP BY HUGH BENNEWITZ
When Michaeleen Barnes Swanson '74 was a student at St. Catherine University, women lagged behind men nationwide — 8 percent versus 13.5 percent — in earning college degrees, according to the U.S. Census Bureau's 1970 population survey.
Men were still ahead in 2007 when Swanson's daughter, Michaela, graduated from St. Kate's. The numbers have since narrowed — and, for the first time, the genders have flipped leads. Current census figures show that women have surpassed men, 37 percent to 35 percent, when it comes to college education. Among adults 25 and older, 10.6 million women in the United States have master's degrees or higher versus 10.5 million men, and roughly 20.1 million women have bachelor's degrees compared with 18.7 million men.
These new data bode well for St. Kate's, which has committed itself for more than a century to the rigorous education of women and the values this commitment implies: collaboration, respect for diverse voices and perspectives, and challenging conventional norms while adhering to the highest academic standards.
Over the years, many St. Kate's graduates have earned advanced degrees at renowned institutions such as MIT, Stanford and Yale. That tradition dates back to the first president, Mother Antonia McHugh, who regularly freed up instructors for a term, a summer or an academic year to pursue graduate studies.
Like many St. Kate's students, Michaela Swanson '07 was encouraged by a faculty member to pursue even higher education. Associate Professor of Biology Jill Welter showed her "that I could do research, and that research is important," says Swanson, who now studies and works at the University of Alaska–Fairbanks in the nation's premiere department of arctic science and climate change. "Her passion and energy for ecology inspired me to go to grad school."
"I have some broad interests, but they are all generally related to health and physiology," says Goulet, who is now in a Ph.D. program at West Virginia University, one of the leading clinical psychology doctorate programs in the United States.
Goulet, from Benson, Minnesota, is the first member of her immediate family to go to college and the first in her extended family to enter graduate school.
St. Kate's gave her the Presidential Scholarship, a $16,000 annual award for four years, when she applied to the University. As an undergraduate, the soft-spoken Goulet garnered multiple honors, including Top 10 graduating senior, Phi Beta Kappa inductee, co-recipient of a nearly $37,000 3M-funded grant, and invitations to present her work at national scientific meetings.
She was a general psychology lab instructor, a writing tutor and a teaching assistant in the Department of Psychology. In her last two years at St. Kate's, she collaborated with Associate Dean and former psychology department chair Lynda Szymanski on four research projects.
"I knew that I wanted to study psychology, and I had heard some good things from a friend about the professors at St. Kate's," she says. "I went on an admissions tour and really fell in love with not only the campus but the type of education students can receive."
One of St. Kate's strengths, adds Goulet, is its liberal arts focus. "A lot of peers in my graduate program didn't come from liberal arts institutions," she explains. "I think that when you do have that background in liberal arts — where you take a lot more classes outside your main focus — you have a stronger foundation. You have more points of view."
West Virginia (WV) gave Goulet a full scholarship to earn her Ph.D. "I don't think I would be here if not for Lynda," says Goulet of her research mentor, a WV alum. "The professors at St. Kate's are more than willing to do research projects with you or write letters of recommendation. Lynda did a lot for me — and she also helped identify graduate programs that would best fit my interests."
Goulet plans to teach, and do research and clinical work on the side. "I want to work primarily with students who are interested in how to conduct research studies," she says. "Because that's how I got my start."
Dreamer and designer
She is closer to her ambition now, thanks in part to her mother, an English teacher who brought home a St. Kate's catalog she had found in her school principal's office. That catalog came with a folder of St. Kate's scholarship information and details about an international award that paid for one lucky Pole to study at the University.
"I had to apply for it and see if I could get into St. Kate's," says Nowak. "It was my chance to go abroad — to do more than what I could do in Poland."
Poland was not yet part of the European Union. "It was a country that had been free of communism for years, but there were still people with a communist mentality," Nowak explains. "We're still so much behind any western European country."
At St. Kate's, Nowak studied studio art with an emphasis in graphic design. She won several awards for her creativity, including the Peter Lupori Scholarship for Studio Art Majors and the Friends of the Gallery Award. She was active on Ariston, the student arts and literary magazine. She was a math tutor at the O'Neill Center and helped students in the art computer lab.
"Marta was definitely a stand-out student," says Pat Olson, associate professor of art and art history, of her former graphic design assistant.
Today, Nowak is at Harvard's Graduate School of Design in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in the nation's top-ranked Master of Architecture program. "One thing that drives me to work hard is the environment at Harvard," she says. "It's super intensive here. People are ambitious and intelligent, and they work hard day and night, nonstop."
In her first year at Harvard, Nowak won a community service award that took her to Kenya for 10 weeks. She conducted research on climate-change mitigation for the United Nations agency UN-Habitat.
Nowak retains many fond memories of the art faculty at her alma mater. "My professors were not just teachers, they were great friends," she says. "They were always there to help me and always very understanding. Pat Olson, especially, always believed in me — even when I didn't believe in myself."
"Alaska is environmentally way different than Minnesota," says Swanson, who grew up in Minneapolis and Lakeville, and majored in biology and environmental science at St. Kate's. "It's also way colder and way darker here. The dark is something you have to keep on top of so you don't get stuck alone outside."
During her undergraduate years at St. Kate's, Swanson was inducted into Phi Beta Kappa and Beta Beta Beta, the biology honors society. She was an Antonian Honors Scholar. She led the Student Senate Environmental Issues Task Force that spearheaded the green roof on Fontbonne Hall. She also co-chaired the Minnesota Public Interest Group chapter and was an orientation leader.
"There were a lot of opportunities to really make a difference," Swanson says. "I am a more interesting person because of my time at St. Kate's. I am also a better communicator because of my liberal arts background. Being able to articulate well is important because I do all this nerdy science, and I have to be able to explain my work to other people."
Swanson's writing skills landed her two $10,000 grants to support her graduate research from the UAF Center for Global Change and Arctic System Research. Last fall she co-authored another successful proposal —this one to start a bicycle loaner program on campus — also worth $10,000.
Swanson had never traveled to Alaska prior to graduate school, but she was game to go anywhere that would boost her knowledge of ecosystem nutrient cycling — how nutrients like carbon and nitrogen move from one organism to another.
"Getting into graduate school is a pretty competitive process," she says. "When you apply, you don't so much choose the school. You choose an advisor. It really depends on what research you're interested in and who has funding for you."
For her, that person was UAF Professor Roger Ruess and his National Science Foundation–funded project on the effects of microbial symbiosis on alder tree ecology. The focus of Swanson's thesis — alder fungal access of soil nutrients — has evolved while spending time at Bonanza Creek Long-Term Ecological Research Site, 20 miles from Fairbanks and accessible only by boat.
"Michaela is a wonderful role model for other women interested in environmental science," says Welter, the biology professor who served as her mentor and research advisor at St. Kate's. "She has really combined her love of the outdoors and her commitment to the environment, to strong science."
"On TV, America looked like this amazing place," Mupfudze says. "That's probably why I wanted to come here." An advisor from the center helped her "navigate the system" and narrow down the list of potential colleges and universities.
Mupfudze was working as a community educator for the HIV/AIDS Resource Center in Harare — the capital city of Zimbabwe and her hometown — and had a strong interest in issues related to women and children. "I think whenever you have an economic recession, like in my country, women are affected disproportionally," she says. "Women bear the brunt of taking care of the kids and family."
St. Kate's focus on women won Mupfudze over. She enrolled in the University's foods and nutrition science program, and today, she is on her way to a Ph.D. in human nutrition at the Department of International Health in Johns Hopkins University's Bloomberg School of Public Health.
Mupfudze has no family in the United States, but she wouldn't trade any of her American experiences. The critical-thinking and communication skills she learned at St. Kate's continue to serve her today. "An English literature class in my sophomore year called 'Women and Power' really affected my personal life," she says. "We looked at the challenges women face in a world that isn't always so friendly to women — and being the best we can be in spite of that.
"A lot of the classes at St. Kate's challenge norms, and you learn to just go for it," Mupfudze says.
In May 2007, she won a Public Leadership Education Network (PLEN) scholarship from St. Kate's Abigail Center for Women. The $1,000 award allowed her to attend the five-day PLEN Women & International Policy Seminar in Washington, D.C., where Mupfudze fell in love with the East Coast.
After earning her bachelor's degree, she spent a year as a community health worker for the Minnesota Department of Health's Women, Infants and Children program — and applied to Johns Hopkins in Baltimore, Maryland, the nation's top-ranked school for public health. Mupfudze is a research assistant in the Johns Hopkins Center of Immunization Research.
Her thesis project centers on public programs for maternal and infant health. "I'm hoping to do my research in the rural areas of Zimbabwe," she says. "I want to empower women and help them take better care of their children and themselves within the healthcare system."
Pauline Oo is a writer and editor in the Office of Marketing and Communications at St. Catherine University.
Where did the Katies go?