Building Opportunity for Pre-College Girls

Dear Saint Mary’s Friends,

Recently, I was clicking around on the Greater Good website at the University of California, Berkeley. I’ve always liked the site, and particularly their online publication, Greater Good Magazine: Science-Based Insights for a Meaningful Life. Recent articles included “Inspiring Humble Curiosity in Kids,” “How to Focus Under Pressure,” and “How a Sense of Awe Can Inspire Us to Confront Threats to Humanity.” I mean, who doesn’t like an organization with a vision “to provide research-based tools and training to shift our culture toward a kinder and more compassionate society”?

Through a process I could never retrace, my website clicks landed me on a book review from 2019. The opening lines were arresting: “In recent years, there have been alarming reports of increased anxiety among young people. Trends like the growing influence of social media, increased competition to get into college, and changing sexual norms put tremendous pressures on our kids. But many of these pressures are exacerbated for girls—especially girls of color…  Girls face headwinds that boys don’t, including a narrow standard of beauty, prejudice around their abilities, and pressures to be sexual before they are ready.”

My thoughts immediately turned to why it is so important that our strategic plan, Revere and Revise, continues to focus on developing confident young women who are prepared to explore their interests, to develop their skills, to stay curious about and open to their peers and others in their community, and to set their own personal boundaries. Our plan also states our intention to make an impact even earlier than the undergraduate years and to have a positive influence on the lives of pre-college girls. I’m thrilled to announce that a major new grant of $1 million from Lilly Endowment will help us to launch this part of the plan!

Summer Camps at Saint Mary'sMany of you may know that for over 40 years, Saint Mary’s has provided summer camp experiences for youth: fine arts, science, forensics, athletics, and more. Some of these are day-camps and some involve a week or more of overnight experience on our beautiful campus. In the past several years, we have received grant funding to support two new pre-college programs: “Embody Summer Theology Institute”—focused on theological reflection led by SMC faculty and opportunities for engagement with the South Bend community through service—and “Dialogue and Democracy Academic Institute,” also led by our own faculty and focused on the building blocks for democratic participation and constructive dialogue, such as active listening and respect for those with different views.

The recent Lilly Endowment grant will help us to reorganize, modernize, and expand our summer offerings in order to reach more students and to highlight five areas of particular distinction at Saint Mary’s: Creative Arts, STEM, Health Sciences, Entrepreneurship & Innovation, and Spirituality & Community Impact. We know that our faculty are interested in developing some of these offerings and that physical expansion on campus—like the new Center for Integrated Healthcare Education and the new innovation space in Haggar Center—can support these efforts.

Over the decades, more than 20,000 girls have participated in SMC summer youth programs, and these programs have also provided important leadership opportunities for our undergraduate students, who serve as mentors to participants. We have great momentum, and we hope to more than double the number of students who attend these programs—to extend their reach, to remove barriers to access for under-resourced and first-generation students, and to leverage community partnerships that add value to Saint Mary’s and to the program experience. This will also expand the summer leadership roles for our SMC students in a virtuous circle of opportunity!

And yes, our summer programs will continue to focus on girls. We are the only women’s college in Indiana and one of only 31 in the United States: I truly believe we can—and must—have an impact on the trends I mentioned at the start of this letter. There is ample evidence that girls and young women achieve more in single-sex environments where, free from pressures to conform to gender roles and stereotypes, they can focus intensely on academic and personal achievement. Saint Mary’s can prepare younger girls for college by encouraging them to speak up, innovate, enjoy success (and learn from setbacks)—and by giving them access to role models and mentors who share their experiences. We have learned from our two pre-college programs that many participants apply to Saint Mary’s and choose to attend.

But even if they don’t end up at Saint Mary’s, we can help to counteract an alarming trend in college-going rates for students—especially in our own state. Indiana ranks last among Midwest states for post-secondary attainment: only 59% of high school graduates attended college last year, and the number has been going down steadily, with the pandemic only exacerbating student challenges to continuing their education. We need to get young people onto campuses and to help them recognize that they can belong there. 

With the support of Lilly Endowment, our Saint Mary’s efforts will not only influence the greater good—a kinder and more compassionate society—but also the common good. In other words, we can continue our long history, informed by the Catholic intellectual tradition, of inspiring a collective participation in developing educational opportunities that encourage people to reach their fulfillment. If the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church tells us that “the common good [is] the good of all people and of the whole person,” it goes without saying that promoting human flourishing for girls and women benefits our entire community.

Warm regards,

Katie Conboy, Ph.D.


More Communications from President Conboy