What a complete pleasure it has been—even in the difficult times we are living through—to begin my role as the 14th President of Saint Mary’s! In my earliest days at the College, I mobilized a versatile team to take on the head-over-heels effort to reopen the campus for the Fall semester—a once simple expectation that, this year, required extraordinary preparations. So now, a few months into the role and several weeks into the semester, I welcome this occasion to reflect on the opportunity of joining a strong institution and the responsibility of continuing a tremendous legacy.
Since arriving on campus, I have engaged in hundreds of conversations that have helped me begin to understand the singular and distinctive qualities of Saint Mary’s and the impact the College has made on generations of women. I have asked everyone: as we look to the future, what should we revere and what should we revise? And the answers have remarkable consistency. We should always be a Catholic College for women, firmly planted in the liberal arts tradition. We should also emulate the Sisters of the Holy Cross in evolving to meet the needs of the times. Many people I spoke with offered specific areas of need that we are positioned to address—from building and modeling a culture of belonging and mattering, to establishing a national reputation for advancing women across the life-cycle, to ensuring we fulfill our goal to be a just and equitable community.
Students and alumnae tell remarkable stories of what happened to them at Saint Mary’s: they found their voices; they ignited their passions; they expanded their faith horizons; they soared in ways they never could have imagined. My own shorthand for this has become: They discovered their gifts and how to give them to the world.
That phrase turned me toward the question of what I have to give to Saint Mary’s. Well, recently I revisited a 2015 interview from my favorite podcast, On Being: host Krista Tippett speaking with Mary Oliver, the award-winning New England poet so beloved (and now missed) by readers across multiple generations. Oliver made me reflect—as she has so often over the years—on the virtue of paying attention, of bringing one’s whole self into whatever the day offers. “To pay attention,” she writes, “this is our endless / and proper work.”
And it dawned on me that the “gift” I could give to the College was just that: to pay attention. To learn the histories. To bring my whole focus to interactions with others and to this sanctuary we call a campus. To look with open eyes, to listen with open ears, to embrace our shared challenges with an open mind and an open heart. “Attention,” Oliver writes elsewhere, “is the beginning of devotion.” And I realize my devotion to Saint Mary’s has been born out of my attention. I imagine myself the scholar in Oliver’s poem “Mindful”:
Oh, good scholar,
I say to myself,
how can you help
but grow wise
with such teachings
the untrimmable light
of the world,
the ocean’s shine,
the prayers that are made
out of grass?
I hope to grow wiser every day.
Katie Conboy, PhD