Every year, a student from my alma mater calls our house, I suspect as a requirement for her work-study aid package, to ask for a donation during the school’s annual fund drive. I’m a Katie, which means I graduated from what was the College of St. Catherine (now St. Catherine University), an all-women’s college established by the Sisters of St. Joseph in St. Paul, Minnesota, in 1905.
I love St. Kate’s. I love the old-world character of the place, from the haunting and austere chapel that feels so weighted with humanity, you’d think Christ himself prayed there; to the modern student union and performing arts center, which, despite their fresher architecture, somehow stream 13th century European light through the windows. I love that one of the college’s first presidents, Sister Antonia McHugh, foiled St. Paul’s plans to run a road through campus by ramrodding the construction of a massive building at the precise juncture the city wanted better traffic flow. I love how all the nun presidents, including the one in office now, Sister Andrea Lee, accept no salary, that the money they would be paid cycles back into scholarships and upgrades to the campus. I love the intellectual curiosity the school fosters, and I love how it births, year after year, an ecumenical and activist student body that seems, at first glance, oppositional to its traditional Catholic roots.
Less than half of the undergrad population at St. Kate’s was and is Catholic (as in Roman), but by the time everyone leaves, I like to think they/we all end up catholic (as in universal). I have vivid memories of a sheik’s daughter being dropped off each day via limo, space being made in a common area for a Buddhist shrine, and the regular appearance of sari-clad students, whose brilliant silks were an ocular shock next to us soberly dressed American girls. It was heady stuff for a bunch of nervous, semi-adults embarking on a journey to separate their understanding of “self” from home and hearth. Any prejudices we had were quickly challenged by the need to study together, or share meals or laundry soap, or to lend out supplies when a pencil broke or book got left behind.
Few of the faculty are nuns any longer – I was taught by only five when I was there – but the nuns deserve 100 percent of the credit for continuing to enlarge the world both on and off St. Kate’s campus. They educated themselves to the limits of their own abilities in order to teach, and they taught everyone. Their goal was not to evangelize or convert. It was the St. Joe Sisters who loved what educated women could and would do, who manifested moral and educational values so appealing, girls from all over the Midwest – not to mention France and India and England and Brazil – flocked to learn from them. It was their high hopes for all of society that drove and still drives a thoughtful liberal arts curriculum, one that has turned out thousands upon thousands of smart, engaged women who went on to become doctors, lawyers, teachers, nurses, and social workers – they even produce, I’m told, the occasional paranormal romance novelist…
That aside, show me a Katie, and I’ll show you someone interested and interesting, someone with a refined understanding of who she is and what she needs to do, and who has the discipline to act on that understanding.
A different student calls me each year, but she always asks the question, “Do you have any advice for me as a freshman starting out here?” The marketer in me knows this is meant to play on my loyalty so that, hopefully, I’ll contribute, but I still bite. Katie alumnae do care about St. Kate’s, and the school is smart to have us start a conversation with future alums.
I used to try to give them a “big” answer, something that touches on the soul-edifying influence a St. Kate’s education will have later, when they’re working women, mothers, wives, or artists; but my callers aren’t interested in sermons, and I don’t blame them. When you’re just starting out, you shouldn’t be asked to figure out your beginning AND how you’ll feel about it in thirty years. Instead, I praise them for getting themselves there in the first place, and I tell them to eat well, get enough sleep, and go to class. I don’t have to say what I really hope for them, because if they make it through, it’ll happen. But I think it. I think how this person I’m talking with is learning, at this very moment, to be someone the sisters envisioned when they built that school, and how lucky she is, and how lucky I was to have gone there.