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Males adapt to SMC campus life

Nicole Zook | Friday, September 2, 2005

“Hi, I’m Tony Sylvester, and I go to Saint Mary’s.”

While this statement may be a joke for Notre Dame senior history major Tony Sylvester and his friends, it also rings true when Sylvester enters his education classroom – and sits at a desk in the middle of 25 women.

Sylvester, who is a social studies secondary education student at the College, is one of a handful of male students who comprise part of the small faction of men at the all-women’s school. These men face the challenge of being a minority among the school’s students, faculty and staff.

Big Man on Campus

Of course, there are challenges presented to men in an all-female environment outside the classroom. Professors on campus find they have a hard time in the small men’s locker room or even finding a men’s bathroom – of which most buildings only have one. There are challenges for men that are specifically tailored to an all-women’s school.

Sodexho General Manager Barry Bowles, the man in charge of dining services at the College, sees the Saint Mary’s women who eat in the Noble Family Dining Hall more often than even their professors do and notices all the quirks and habits that come with 1,500 females.

“Yes, it was a culture shock,” he said. “But I think we deal with those challenges extremely well.”

Bowles, who worked at Notre Dame for nine years before coming to Saint Mary’s, said the differences between a mixed-gender population and an all-female crowd are evident.

“[Saint Mary’s students’] menu taste and portion sizes are extremely different,” he said. “[Dining is] based on the same concepts [as on co-ed campuses], but here we’ll put a smaller sized portion on a smaller sized plate. It’s not a self-serve.”

Bowles said he enjoys the unique challenge Saint Mary’s offers him and especially likes the opportunity to mingle with students on a day-to-day basis.

“It’s really a nice place to work,” he said. “Most importantly, I think the students really appreciate what we do.”

Perhaps the biggest challenge for males on the Saint Mary’s campus is simply fitting in, a problem Notre Dame Law student Tim Keegan encounters on a daily basis.

Keegan is married to Opus Hall director Katie Keegan, making him the sole male to actually live on the Saint Mary’s campus in a building with more than 70 women.

“I suppose the funniest or most awkward incidents have been times in which I have gotten ‘looks’ from students’ parents who are visiting when they see that I have a key and ID card to get into the building,” Keegan said. “I always try to be quick to explain, ‘I live here, my wife is the building director.’

Keegan said even Notre Dame is sometimes confused by his status as a Saint Mary’s resident.

“I have also had an incident in which Notre Dame Financial Aid called me to inform me that the address I had given them for my place of residence could not possibly be correct,” he said.

While Keegan said he is not uncomfortable with his living situation, he attempts to ensure Opus’ female residents are comfortable with a man in the building.

“As far as the women in the building, I just try to keep to myself so as not to make any of them uncomfortable by having a man walking around,” Keegan said. “Since our apartment is right near the entrance of the building, I pretty much just go in and out of the apartment and try to lie low.”

Other males at the College are not lucky enough to “lie low” in the residence halls. Patrick Nagorski, a Notre Dame senior, has been visiting them on a regular basis since 2003, when he began dating Saint Mary’s senior Charlotte Orzel. Nagorski said visiting the all-female residence halls at the College is quite an experience.

“It wasn’t really a shock to be around all the girls,” he said. “But the first few times I walked over to SMC it felt like I was entering another world. It was weird and pretty cool at the same time.”

Nagorski said in the two years he has been with his girlfriend, he has learned a lot about the campus culture and the Saint Mary’s women.

“I’ve really grown to like and love Saint Mary’s,” he said. “The SMC girls are just great.”

One problem Nagorski and Orzel may encounter is that of parietals, which at Saint Mary’s require men to be out of the residence halls by midnight Sunday through Thursday and 2 a.m. on weekends. It is a running joke on the campus that males have the same visiting hours as students’ pets – which, like men, must be escorted in the halls at all times. Only in the on-campus apartment housing of Opus Hall are men permitted to remain in a student’s room after hours.

Changing Times

The rules and regulations regarding male visitation at Saint Mary’s were not always so strict. In fact, they were much harsher.

Executive Assistant to the President and 1972 graduate Susan Dampeer said during her time as a student at Saint Mary’s, parietals only allowed men in the dorms until 10 p.m. on weekdays and midnight on Friday and Saturday nights. Before those regulations were set in place, male visitation hours were even shorter than that, she said.

“They loosened it up right when we got here,” Dampeer said.

However, Dampeer also said in the days when McCandless Hall was relatively new the residents liked the short visitation hours – especially because it allowed them to walk freely in the hallways with such attire as “pajamas and hair curlers.”

“All the seniors used to live in McCandless, believe it or not,” she said. “Every year I was here we used to vote on guys in the dorms – visitation – and we voted it down every year. We overwhelmingly voted it down.”

Dampeer said the students back then appreciated the times when men were not allowed to be in the residence halls and the distinction between men and women on campus.

“We liked that. We liked that separation,” she said. “It’s just a totally different culture now.”

Perhaps the reason the women enjoyed the male-free dorm atmosphere at night was the higher number of men enrolled in classes on campus compared to the present, when relatively few males take Saint Mary’s courses.

In Dampeer’s day, men from Notre Dame – which at the time was an all-male school – were more likely to cross the street to take classes at Saint Mary’s, she said. Both Dampeer and current College president Carol Mooney, also a 1972 graduate, are married to Notre Dame graduates who took humanistic studies and education courses in the all-female environment.

“There was a lot of going back and forth for classes between the schools,” Dampeer said.

While he did not attend classes at Saint Mary’s as an undergraduate student at an all-male school, Kevin McDonnell now teaches them as a philosophy professor at the College. McDonnell, like Dampeer, believes the culture has changed since he was in college, when “there was nothing unusual about single-sex education.”

“In the mid-1960s there were 300 women’s colleges and at least as many men’s colleges,” he said. “I dated women from several women’s schools and respected them and their education.”

While the American public’s outlook on single-sex colleges had changed by the time McDonnell was hired as faculty at the College a few years later, he viewed Saint Mary’s not as outdated in a quickly dwindling field of all-women’s colleges but as an opportunity to educate students in a different kind of environment at a special institution.

“By the time I came to Saint Mary’s, soon after the merger negotiations with Notre Dame had broken down, almost every school was rushing to go co-ed,” McDonnell said. “Saint Mary’s offered a wonderful opportunity to take part in rebuilding a great school and to preserve a diverse kind of institution. While there were certainly differences between single-sex male and single-sex female schools, there was also a great similarity in that no one was putting on a show for what I will call extracurricular benefits.

“Students could be quite frank in class,” she continued. “In contrast to the co-ed college in which I had been teaching, the atmosphere was freer. Also, women participated in class – if the women didn’t, who would?”

While McDonnell said Saint Mary’s has changed “a great deal” in the almost 30 years since he began teaching at the College, he thinks the benefits of the all-female environment remain the same.

“I believe that women’s colleges are more important than ever,” he said. “Not only for thinking about specific matters, but also for insuring the continuation of genuine diversity in higher education.”