October 2, 2020
Dear Saint Mary’s Friends,
There’s a serious moment in the 1991 comedy Hear My Song when Ned Beatty — who plays the real-life Irish tenor Josef Locke — sings one of Locke’s classic songs, “Count Your Blessings.” It is a favorite movie moment for me, and I began playing Locke’s recording of the tune right after the prayer at our family’s Thanksgiving meal each year. It became a tradition. I know we haven’t even reached Halloween yet, much less Thanksgiving, but I find myself humming “Count Your Blessings” quite a lot these days.
Indeed, as we pass the midpoint of the semester, I’d like to bring attention to the many important initiatives in which we have invested our time this fall — and to give credit to the amazing folks who have made them happen. It’s hard to believe we are eight weeks in — with just seven to go! Students have taken midterms; they are “over the hump,” and finals will end on November 20. I believe we are managing to create a great deal of normalcy, in spite of our unusual circumstances. When we started this semester, many of us thought we would probably have to transition to fully online learning at some point. The fact that we are still here all together is a testimony to the remarkable efforts of students, faculty, and staff. I’m full of gratitude.
COVID-19: VPs Mona Bowe (Enrollment Management) and Shari Rodriguez (College Relations) have taken over our COVID-19 efforts and are doing a remarkable job coordinating an incredibly complex situation. They are leading two highly committed teams: the COVID-19 Operations Team and the Daily Response Team. After several weeks of testing only symptomatic students using the PCR test, we began a program of screening testing over three weeks ago using the rapid antigen test. We started by screening student athletes and coaches, as required by the NCAA for team practices. In addition, last week we added our first randomly selected students for screening. We screened 65 people and had no positive results! We will continue screening testing of students every week and begin with employees next week.
In addition to the testing activity, we have also taken steps to protect the campus during the coming flu season. Last Sunday, we held a “Flu Fest” on the athletic fields, where students could receive their flu shots, pick up special snacks (like apple cider and deconstructed caramel apples), and participate in games and giveaways (like make your own aromatic hand sanitizer). Over 600 students came out to get protected against influenza. Student nurses gave most of the shots, including the first one — to me! On October 16, our faculty and staff will have their own Flu Fest as we work to keep our campus healthy.
As a supplement to our Health and Counseling Center services for students, we have also added SMC Care — a 24/7 telehealth option that students can use for medical or counseling services — and which offers a wide selection of providers from diverse backgrounds.
We have also updated and improved our daily dashboard to include a 7-day moving average of positive tests and the weekly results of our screening testing. I hope you have a chance to look at the COVID-19 dashboard — it is really quite impressive for a small college to provide this level of information. Kudos to the Marketing and Communications team for this work. And finally, we announced the schedule for our Spring semester, with a later-than-usual start date of February 3 — roughly mirroring the Spring schedule at Notre Dame. We hope that a late start and a compressed schedule will give us the best opportunity for keeping everyone safe.
Enrollment Update: We were very pleased with our enrollment results in this unusual year when colleges and universities experienced uncertainty about whether or not students would choose to return to a physical campus. Saint Mary’s has 392 first-year students hailing from 29 states and two countries. 22 first-years have a legacy connection! Our total enrollment (undergraduate and graduate) is 1,557. Our Enrollment Management staff have a lot to be proud of, but they are right back in the hard work of recruiting next year’s class!
Christian Culture Lecture: I hope many of you were able to access the CCL interview with Tara Westover on September 16. This event was a prime example of how COVID-19 has offered some silver linings and interesting learnings. Rather than plan an in-person event for an audience of 1,300 — as has been our past practice — we were able to put the lecture online and it went viral! We had over 43,000 registrations from people on six continents, and as of last week, we know that over 32,000 actually viewed the event! Our own students joined this enormous crowd with a wonderful “watch party” on the Library Green, complete with a big screen TV and free blankets for the first 100 student attendees. What an introduction of Saint Mary’s to the wider world! We need to think about what this will mean for the future. So much creativity was unleashed by our Humanistic Studies Department, our Development Office, and our Office of Campus and Community Events!
Alice in Wonderland: This weekend, students will present the Fall play: Alice in Wonderland. The entire production is outdoors — around Lake Marian — with a moving cast and audience, and the performance ends with a croquet game on the island! There is great excitement about this, and I can’t think of a better play for the times we are in! The experience on campus is sometimes an otherworldly, dream-like experience, with everything both familiar and unfamiliar — and we might all wish we could wake up from it, as Alice gets to!
Women’s Right to Vote: I know you are all aware that we are celebrating the centenary of the 19th Amendment this year. Several offices on campus — the Center for Academic Innovation, the Office of Inclusion and Equity, and the Office of Civic and Social Engagement — have been hard at work on an initiative we are calling 100@100: a challenge to get 100% of our eligible student voters to vote in this 100th anniversary year of women’s right to vote. We have excellent programming that acknowledges the complexities surrounding that amendment — how suffrage didn’t actually give all women the right to vote in 1920. We have encouraged students to understand the victory and the struggle — and to be a force in ongoing efforts for voting rights. I announced this initiative at the Women’s College Coalition’s President’s meeting last week, and this week I have issued a formal challenge to all 35 other women’s college presidents to join us in this effort.
Strategic Planning: Finally, I want to note how proud I am of the entire College community for engaging so deeply in the strategic planning process. This is a time when we might say we can’t think beyond next week. But the community has been incredibly supportive and participative. Students, faculty, and staff have attended almost 40 meetings to discuss strengths, challenges, big ideas, and emerging themes. We continue to meet to discuss the draft plan. We had over 1,000 responses to two surveys of faculty, staff, students, and alumnae — yielding both qualitative and quantitative data for the process! The overarching message from the surveys and the meetings is that we are on the right track. I will send more details about the plan as it becomes finalized later this fall.
As I indicated earlier, health and safety have been a singular focus for us here, and I very much hope this letter finds you safe and healthy as well. It is hard to imagine a more complex and challenging time to be accomplishing our mission at Saint Mary’s, but I am surrounded by a team that rises to the challenge every day. I couldn’t be more proud! Every day, I count my blessings, and high among them is that I am here — in the right place, trying to do the right things. Thank you, each of you, for your support.
Katie Conboy, PhD