Educating women remains central to St. Catherine University — and influences the experience of all professors, staff and students, including men.
By Amy Lindgren SP'83
At St. Catherine, honoring the mission to educate women doesn't mean that the institution ignores men. On the contrary, St. Catherine is blessed with talented faculty and staff of both genders — as well as male students in the graduate and associate degree programs.
And even though collaboration is a watchword of the St. Kate's experience, no one believes that the academic standards are somehow softer. If anything, the opposite might be true — given that alumnae of women's colleges go on to earn more graduate degrees than their peers from coed schools.
The differences between St. Catherine University and coed universities are both concrete and nebulous. Visitors and newcomers to campus will often talk about "something in the air" that sets St. Kate's apart — a hard-to-define feeling of respect or acceptance for women, a strong sense of community.
But those who have been around longer know the truth: Most things that look easy or natural at St. Kate's are, in fact, the product of long practice and intentional action, whether it's a professor refining her material to incorporate women's experiences or women mentoring one another to find their voices.
Nearly four years since becoming a university, St. Catherine still contains the largest baccalaureate college for women in the country. What does the mission to educate women mean to students, faculty and staff? How do they see it lived out today?
I teach a psychology course that's geared around career exploration. I do a lot of thinking about what women need to know to become reflective leaders. I want my students to know the work world is not always a kind place for women. I want them to be prepared to see those obstacles and move around them.
We talk about many issues, including how they can advocate for higher pay, how they can show their leadership skills so they can be promoted, and how they can control their emotions so they can be taken seriously.
Sometimes I'll have students who are really shy. But they find their legs here. They find their voice here. They learn how to stand up for themselves and for others.
We still have many ways in which women are disadvantaged, especially women of color. Inequality still exists. Women still are paid less than men. Our country still hasn't had a women president. There still aren't very many women CEOs. As long as inequality exists, there's a need for women's colleges. They help to nurture women students and provide a safe place for them to hone their leadership skills.
— Jamie Peterson, assistant professor of psychology
Honoring Women's Work
I encourage women and celebrate women's accomplishments. For instance, I think it's very important that the women's choir explores compositions by women composers. I don't ignore men's work, but when I go to a women's choir festival and all the selections are by men, that triggers an alarm for me. I think it's important to promote women in their work and provide examples for other women to emulate.
I went to St. Mary's College at Notre Dame, so I also am a product of a Catholic women's college. From high school on, I assumed I would be a music teacher and, eventually, a choral director. It never occurred to me to question whether that was the right path for me because of my gender.
But 20 years ago, there weren't that many women who were college choral directors. It never occurred to me that I was helping to break a barrier. Is that because I went to St. Mary's? I don't know that it was, but it certainly didn't hurt that I was a choral leader there as a student.
— Patricia Connors, professor of music and chair, Department of Music and Theater
The Courage to Speak
When I first came to campus from Zimbabwe, I wasn't confident in my public speaking skills. It was really hard to speak in front of groups. Now I speak up all the time. I think it would be difficult for women to advance to those levels at a coed school.
For example, six women from the St. Catherine community were selected to go to different countries to do due diligence for the Opus Prize. I don't think I would have been nominated if I hadn't been active and speaking up, and my St. Kate's education gave me the confidence to do that.
I would definitely consider female-only colleges for my daughter if I had one. I think they really try to empower women.
— Leslie Muzulu SP'13
The Importance of Being Heard
I came from a community college, where I had completed my associate's degree. The first time I was on campus at St. Kate's, I felt I was home. Before, I would barely raise my hand in class and if I was called on, it would take me forever to answer. At St. Kate's, you realized that you didn't have to be right to speak up. It's OK.
I thought I would miss having that male perspective, but my female classmates at St. Kate's were so diverse. My perspective grew because of them. And I could say what I wanted to say because the classes were smaller and we were all there for the same purpose.
Now I'm doing my master's at Hamline University. I sit in the front, and I try not to blend in. I want people to know I'm there.
When I walked into my first class at Hamline, I thought, "why are there men in here?" I forgot where I was. It's taken me a little longer to feel comfortable asking questions, but St. Kate's taught me that my opinion matters — that what I have to say is important.
Sometimes I return to St. Kate's and just walk around on campus. I love being there. It was a hard day when I graduated. I was walking away from a place that really made me who I am.
— Heidi Thury SP'09, graduate student
Focus on Athletics
The athletic teams at St. Kate's are naturally the focus of the University, whereas at the coed colleges, the men's teams get most of the attention. When they talk about 'the basketball team,' they're usually talking about the men's team. If they are talking about the female players, they'll say, 'women's basketball.' There's this secondary role for the women's teams, and the female athletes know that.
But here, it's the focus of everything we do. If the women's teams do well, the whole University celebrates.
Recruiting has unique challenges at a women's college, but it also has unique advantages. A lot of high school seniors haven't considered going to a women's college. When recruting, a coach has to make sure the athletes see all the positive sides of the University so they can get through their initial hesitation. And once we get a prospective student to visit, she can see what a great atmosphere we have and talk with students who choose to come to here.
— Eric Stacey, athletic director and assistant tennis coach
Nowhere to Hide
I think we're all at St. Catherine because of the mission. We see our role as helping women develop a voice in a society that still discourages women to exercise their voices.
As students get involved in their classes, they become really intrigued by our history and excited to be part of this larger continuum of women's voices.
Consciously or unconsciously, men tend to dominate the conversation in coed classrooms. In a women-only class, there's no place to hide. Students have to speak up. And they can speak more about their experiences in the world, and relate to the material more personally.
New students don't always understand what the St. Kate's experience is like. But after a semester on campus, they start to appreciate how our culture is an advantage. Some of our greatest recruiters are the students who are already here.
— Joshua Haringa, assistant professor of communication studies
Women as Role Models
I think the women's mission has been very much reinterpreted and reinforced since about the late 1970s, and very much to the good of all. At the beginning, it was a given: The Sisters educate the women, the priests educate the men. Then when we got into the 70s, it was not a given. And that jolted people a bit. We then had to stand up and define it, and say: what does it mean? I think St. Catherine is much stronger because of that.
We had so absorbed the fact that we were capable, and we were surrounded by enormously capable professors. I remember reading the writings and research of Sister Marie Philip Haley SP'21, who happened to be my advisor, and thinking, "My gosh, she stands up with the best."
So when the first wave of the women's movement came along in 1963, we were thinking, "Well, that's not news. That's the way our world is."
— Ruth Haag Brombach SP'60, alumnae liaison
A Sense of Mission
I thought St. Kate's was only for women. So, I was excited to learn that I could get in.
When I was starting my degree program, I was the only guy in some classes. But it felt natural. The atmosphere was a lot more discussion oriented. As a staff member, I'm still struck by the strong sense of identity and mission here. If you asked students and graduates what the University stands for, everyone would have some consistency in their answers. It's just imbued in the daily experience at St. Catherine.
There's sort of an overlap between the principles of women's education and the principles of library science — that idea that everyone should have access and opportunity. This didn't really strike me until I was going through staff orientation. I thought, "yeah, that's really cool."
— Nick Steffel MLIS'12, instructional technology, Master of Library and Information Science
I work in a very special office. We deal mostly with diversity, with the students who are multicultural and international. The University is very embracing of diversity. Because I am diverse myself, it's a wonderful place to be.
The international students become Americanized — and very independent — when they're here. Some come from male-dominated cultures, and coming to St. Kate's offers them a nice respite and opportunity to grow. Here they are encouraged to be strong women. They flourish.
I am sure their own daughters will benefit from their education, and our students will probably send their kids to study abroad as well.
All this goes back to our founders, the amazing Sisters of St. Joseph. They went out all over the world and learned about different cultures, and lived in different places. Then they came back to St. Kate's and shared what they learned.
— Norah V. Hoff SP'06, associate director, International Programs and Services
A Transformative Education
At Commencement this past December, I got to see three students I had mentored, in their full graduation garb.
They were so happy and excited and ready to take on the world. I remember these young women when they came to St. Kate's, needing help to survive being college students. That's the power of a transformative education.
Our challenge is for the next generation to continue to invest in all-women universities. I'm fearful that years down the road we may not have as many women's schools as we do now. I'm really interested in how we can get our younger alums to reframe the future of these institutions. We really need to bring them into the conversation.
— Sia Vang SP'05, program coordinator, Abigail Q. McCarthy Center for Women
Where Women Lead
I went into teaching because women weren't going into computer science. They thought the field was isolating, not collaborative. When I'm teaching a class of only women, I can talk with them more frankly about what it's really like to be a woman in the sciences.
Working in a women's environment has helped soften my extremely direct engineering training. It's broadened my tool set. I can execute that style and still be myself. I will always take that from St. Kate's.
The Catholic social-teaching environment and emphasis on social justice are reinforced for me here. I've learned to ask, "who is being blocked from justice?"
— Yvonne Ng, interim executive director, National Center for STEM Elementary Education, and assistant professor of mathematical sciences
Differences and Strengths
Joanne Cavallaro notes in our book (Liberating Sanctuary: 100 years of women's education at The College of St. Catherine) that 100 years ago, liberals and conservatives came together for the formation of St. Catherine as a women's college. They didn't always agree on the reasons, but they worked together.
The world needs women's leadership, and the world benefits from a variety of educational approaches to develop women and men in social justice. I think it's good to keep women's colleges around because we have a particular set of environments and theories, and practices that work in developing women's intellectual leadership and their ability to benefit the world.
Our environment of exchange and interaction leads people to think: "What does this mean for women? How does this relate to social justice? How does this research reflect the mission of the institution?"
Our concern for women and girls doesn't separate us from concern for men and boys. The world needs a lot of different environments, and St. Kate's has a powerful one.
— Sharon Doherty, associate professor and co-chair, Department of Women's Studies