At Saint Mary’s, we have been talking a lot lately about empowerment—about how we can expand the ways the College contributes to the economic and social advancement of girls and women. Highlighted as one of the four commitments of our strategic plan, this work is central to our future. It also contributes to the greater good of our global society.
Our strategic plan has a horizon of 2030. That is also the timeline for the United Nations Sustainable Development Agenda—17 ambitious goals in which “gender equality” is included with objectives such as “no poverty,” “zero hunger,” and “clean water and sanitation.” It is hard to imagine how these ends can be achieved in less than a decade, but we all know nothing will change without targets that inspire drive and determination. If half the world’s population is female, then half our human potential dwells in girls and women. And education is clearly a key factor in developing and realizing that potential.
Handing each member of the Class of 2021 a diploma, I thought about the diverse skills and talents of this group. I thought about the resilience of our students and about the complex world they are entering. I thought about the education they have pursued and the ways they have grown beyond even their own expectations. Their confidence has been incubated in a context where they never had to question whether they were taken seriously, and they leave us fully fledged—ready to test their wings in the world beyond the end of The Avenue. This is the empowerment Saint Mary’s has accomplished since its founding.
Although our reunion was virtual again this year, it still offered convincing evidence of how faithfully graduates return to the College each year, like birds of a feather, to reunite with friends, classmates, faculty, staff, and the Sisters of the Holy Cross. I’m reminded of the closing line of a poem I love: “At end of day, we all come home to roost.” Every Saint Mary’s alumna I have met tells her own story about how her college experience shaped the trajectory of her life and about what draws her back to SMC like a homing instinct. And I’m struck by how these graduates become mentors and door-openers for the next generation. So much of women’s empowerment is about women themselves—women who create and preserve powerful professional and personal networks and use them to lift up others.
As we (hopefully) turn a corner with COVID-19 and look back at a tremendously successful and collaborative year of navigating crisis, Saint Mary’s can find some lessons for meeting the future needs of girls and women. The pandemic disproportionately affected women: worldwide they represented nearly 70 percent of the frontline health workers dealing with the virus; they left work at higher rates than men to assume childcare and eldercare responsibilities; and lockdown circumstances placed many at higher risk of domestic violence. Saint Mary’s can take a lead in addressing the post-pandemic needs of girls and women by offering a variety of leadership programs for pre-college girls, by creating non-degree and stackable credentials for women who need new skills to enter or return to the workforce, and by judiciously adding graduate programs in fields that will advance women in their established careers—and will also educate men who take seriously their own responsibility to advance women.
Together, let’s continue to imagine how Saint Mary’s College can give wings to the dreams of girls and women and expand the horizons before them.