Back to the Future
February 9, 2021
Dear Saint Mary’s Friends,
When I wrote in January, I was looking back and looking forward. I have to admit that I’m still having a “back to the future” moment as I write this letter.
There is plenty of campus activity that attaches to this theme, but let me say right at the start of this message that I am reversing my decision—communicated to the Class of 2020 last week—to cancel the 2020 Commencement, which had been postponed to this May. While it can’t happen this spring because of ongoing pandemic uncertainties, it will not be cancelled, but rather postponed again to a later date.
As you know, I am a new president, and I have not yet experienced a Saint Mary’s Commencement celebration. I have learned a lot in the past several days about the extraordinary disappointment of our graduates as they contemplate missing the time-held traditions that go with this culminating event. I want the Class of 2020 to share this experience with fellow alumnae and with each other! So, it’s “back to the future,” and stay tuned for a date when we can celebrate safely. And, in case you are wondering, because we expect this year’s graduating class is to complete their semester on campus—in the “bubble” we have created—we continue to plan for an in-person event for Commencement 2021, albeit with safety modifications.
It’s finally February and we are so excited that students are back to campus! With our revised spring academic calendar, classes started last Monday, the first day of the month. After a quiet 10 weeks, it’s exhilarating to hear laughter and chatter in the hallways and to see people bundled in bright winter jackets traversing the campus. Yesterday evening, two students were frolicking around a snowman they had masked in front of Le Mans, and I stopped to take their picture. A pandemic can’t stop us from having some winter fun—and we’re looking forward to more!
Indeed, when I sent out a recent message about ice skating, snowshoeing and a winter wonderland under construction, I received many emails from alumnae who were excited by the news. Not only were they happy for current students, but they also reminisced about the winter scenes of their own days on campus: pre-Christmas caroling, ice skating on Lake Marian in the deep of winter, building snow figures around the campus. I know it warmed their hearts to imagine the scene in 2021: blue lights strung in the trees, a 100-foot “crystal palace” (well, really a tent with clear walls) as a safe social space, a synthetic ice rink, fire pits, and cider and hot chocolate galore all on a transformed Library Green. Clearly, the spirit of Saint Mary’s past is living right alongside the spirit of Saint Mary’s present. And we are taking lots of steps to ensure the spirit of Saint Mary’s future.
For starters, we required students to provide proof of a negative COVID-19 test result before they could move back to campus and begin classes. All the health and safety guidelines from last semester (Check up/Mask up/Back up/Wash up) remain in place for Spring, and we have also maintained our testing protocols. We continue to monitor our campus cases as well as our county and state numbers; if you are interested in reviewing our COVID numbers, you can connect to our new and improved dashboard, updated daily at noon.
We are once again offering in-person, hybrid, and fully online classes, and while we are working hard to keep students on campus for the full semester, we did create two reading days (one in February and one in March) to give students and faculty a small break from their academic work—there will be no Spring Break. We will also have Good Friday off and will celebrate Easter on campus.
One difficult decision we had to make since I last wrote was to cancel the Fall sports season that had been postponed to Spring. Although COVID-19 cases are coming down nationally, they are still three times higher than they were when we postponed the season in the Fall. Given that Spring sports were cancelled in 2020, we are trying to make sure that Spring athletes won’t lose a second season of competition. By de-densifying the use of campus athletic facilities and eliminating travel and contests for Fall sports, we continue our conservative approach to the safety of our campus. We also believe this gives Spring sports the best shot at going forward.
And finally, we are beginning the implementation of our strategic plan on campus. So, I find myself doing some new things. It’s been exciting to put on a hard hat (Saint Mary’s blue, no less) to review our construction project in Regina Hall! The Regina project is a strategic commitment to how we will prepare future health professionals at the College. Saint Mary’s is sponsored by the Sisters of the Holy Cross, and while we rightly celebrate their pioneering work in the field of education, health care has also been a primary focus of their mission.
It is a well-documented story that in 1861 Mother M. Angela Gillespie and six Sisters heeded the call of the Indiana governor and—with no formal nursing education—began caring for wounded Civil War soldiers. They cared for fallen soldiers from both sides, starting in Cairo, IL before moving on to Paducah, KY. They were the first nurses to serve the Navy on the USS Red Rover, a hospital ship housed on the Mississippi River. Remarkably, over 40% of 160 U.S. Sisters of the Holy Cross had served as nurses by the time the war ended. (Behind Regina Hall, in the Sisters’ cemetery, the nurses are honored with both the traditional flat stone used by the Congregation and with a standing stone indicating their compassionate service.) The 1860s marked the beginning of the Sisters’ distinguished healthcare ministry: they built 19 hospitals in the U.S. and expanded their commitments internationally in Bangladesh, Uganda, and elsewhere. So, with the Regina Hall renovations, we really are talking about “back to the future” for our Saint Mary’s nursing program!
Regina Hall was originally constructed in 1964 as a formation center for the Sisters. Saint Mary’s leased the building as a residence hall in 1969, and later purchased it in 1994. In this pandemic year, the South tower has been used as our quarantine and isolation space—aptly named for Mother Angela, one of the original CSC nurses. And when we announced that the center section of Regina Hall would be renovated to house a new Center for Integrative Health Education—with a $1 million grant from the Lilly Endowment and a substantial College investment—the Sisters fully supported us in this future-facing decision. Even those who had fond memories of their time in the building observed that we must continue to meet the needs of the world and applauded our decision to reimagine the space. The images below are several renderings of the new space. Soon, we will have a full “fly-through” of the building to share with you!
Obviously, we have been busy! But we also mean business. In the 1985 movie Back to the Future, George McFly tells his son Marty, “If you put your mind to it, you can accomplish anything.” Well, we’re putting a lot of good minds to the rewarding task of preserving the heart and soul of Saint Mary’s while also positioning the College for the future. Please keep us in your prayers as we advance this work.
Katie Conboy, Ph.D.
P.S. Visit donorchallenge.saintmarys.edu and join me for the excitement of our donor challenge on February 25!