Saint Mary’s changes excused absence policy for March for Life attendees
Stephanie Snyder | Tuesday, October 24, 2017
A policy change that took effect on Sep. 27 now allows College students who attend the March for Life, a peaceful demonstration that takes place in Washington D.C. in protest of the legalization of abortion in the Roe v. Wade case, to have excused absences.
Approval for the policy change was due to a Saint Mary’s senior, Katherine Dunn, religious studies major and president of Belles for Life, and her proposal.
In the past, Susan Vanek, associate dean for advising and director of first year studies at Saint Mary’s, has sent out an email to faculty asking them not to penalize students for missing class for the March for Life, Dunn said. However, this has not stopped students from being penalized.
“Students have experienced penalties through judgment by professors, attendance markdowns or other sly penalties, especially STEM majors,” Dunn said. “Therefore, we found that it’s necessary to officially excuse absences for the trip.”
Jana Zuniga, a studio art major in the class of 2016, along with other passionate students, formed a petition in the 2015–2016 school year in order to try to get the policy changed. This is a method that many other students have tried in the past, Zuniga said. The reason Zuniga wanted to try again, she said, was because of her friends who have not had the ability to attend the march.
“I had some friends who were nursing majors and they always talked about wanting to be able to go,” Zuniga said. “They wouldn’t be able to go because they would be penalized academically because of their clinical schedules.”
She clarified that this is not only an issue for nursing majors, but all students who have classes that have attendance expectations.
“I thought that the policy should be changed because it could be a very simple but public display of Saint Mary’s advocating for such a huge issue of injustice in our society,” Zuniga said. “Saint Mary’s of all colleges should be encouraging their students to take a stand on this particular issue.”
Notre Dame Right to Life president, Sarah Drumm, who is a senior computer science major, said she has always been confused by Saint Mary’s policy because of how supportive Notre Dame is.
“The University, for as long as I can remember, has been incredibly willing to work with us to support the March for Life,” Drumm said. “Even with the large number of students that go, they provide excused absences for all of the Notre Dame students.”
Notre Dame provides excused absence request forms for students to fill out and turn in to the Office of Community Standards. According to Drumm, the office sets up specific times students can come to make the process even smoother. Drumm describes it as a “painless process.”
“We always tell students at the March for Life information meeting that attending won’t be an issue academically, except if they go to Saint Mary’s,” she said. “I’ve never had a clear understanding of their policy or why they do what they do. That always felt a little unsettling to me.”
This policy has been a frustrating topic of discussion among students for years, Dunn said. She feels the College, as a Catholic institution, should support students standing up for their Catholic beliefs.
“I felt like I was always fighting administration,” she said. “In the past, we know Notre Dame students were granted excused absences and it’s an important enough event that we thought we should get excused absences as well.”
Dunn said there was word of another petition going around both last school year and this school year, but she did not want to take that approach due to the failure of past petitions.
“I’ve witnessed petitions go through to try to get excused absences, but none of those have ever worked,” Dunn said. “I knew we needed to approach this a different way.”
Instead, Dunn put together a proposal for why she thought Saint Mary’s has an obligation to permit excused absences for students to attend the March for Life.
Dunn began by bringing her proposal to Vanek who, according to Dunn, thanked her for bringing the proposal early in the school year, which was something students in the past had not done. Previously, Dunn said, students would present petitions closer to when they would go to the March for Life in January.
Vanek then passed her proposal on to the Academic Standards Committee. According to the Saint Mary’s website, the committee meets to determine education policies and regulations. It consists of the dean of faculty, the senior academic advisor, the associate dean for advising, the vice president for enrollment management, the vice president for student affairs, six faculty members and two students.
Dunn’s proposal ended up being a three page document filled with reasons for why students should be able to have excused absences.
“I wrote it on behalf of all pro-life Saint Mary’s students and alumnae,” she said. “They provide monetary support for us, and it wouldn’t be possible without them.”
One of the main points Dunn touched on was the fact that the College is focusing on the core value of justice this year.
Saint Mary’s has four core values: learning, community, faith and justice. Each school year, Saint Mary’s focuses on a different core value so that students are able to have a significant experience with each one, Dunn said.
“We advocate social action and practice principles of justice and compassion,” Dunn said. “The value of justice challenges us to reaffirm our commitment to overcome prejudice and change systems that oppress. Justice also challenges the College to continue to develop programs which affirm human dignity in the workplace. It invites us to make an active commitment to diversity.”
Dunn said there is no better way for Saint Mary’s to support this core value than to outwardly support students who want to participate in an event centered on social justice.
Last year, over 100 students from Saint Mary’s attended the March for Life with approximately 600 Notre Dame students; that is 7 percent of the College attending the march without excused absences. President Jan Cervelli attended the march as well, which is something the Saint Mary’s president has not done in the past.
“I extended another invitation for her this year as well,” Dunn said. “We loved having the support of our president with us on the March.”
This year, Belles for Life is working more with Notre Dame Right to Life in an effort to bring a record number to students on the March.
“The fact that absences will be excused on [Jan. 19] is a huge factor in getting more women to go on the trip,” Dunn said. “We want to bring a record number of students to the March in D.C., and we think we can do it.”
Dunn announced the policy change at a Belles for Life meeting the day she found out. She said the member’s reactions were priceless.
“Everyone was ecstatic and surprised,” she said. “I honestly didn’t think it was going to happen. Mother Mary is watching out for us — I don’t know why was I worried.”
Zuniga said she was filled with pride for her alma mater when Dunn told her the news.
“I was extremely proud of Katherine because I read her proposal and thought it was exceptional,” she said. “It was so well stated and articulate and I was very proud of seeing a change that took a lot of years of fighting for to actually happened. I am very excited and relieved for students.”
Attending the March for Life is what inspired Zuniga to be a pro-life activist. Her passion has led her to her current job as a counselor at First Way, a pregnancy support center in Arizona.
“I made the decision to become a more serious pro-life advocate after attending the March for Life my first year with Notre Dame,” Zuniga said. “That trip is what propelled me to what turned into 4 years of fighting for the pro-life movement and growing my passion.”
Drumm said Notre Dame students have been given a sense of comfort knowing they are able to have excused absences.
“It definitely makes things a lot easier for students to be able to work with professors and for professor to be OK with students missing class,” Drumm said. “I’ve never heard anyone say I couldn’t go on the March because my professor couldn’t work with me.”
Dunn said she hopes that from now on, Saint Mary’s students will be filled with the same sense of comfort when they make the decision to attend the March for Life.
Zuniga said she hopes all Saint Mary’s students who want to attend do attend the March this year.
“I know Saint Mary’s already has a great presence for how small our school is,” Zuniga said. “I hope more students can participate and witness how many Americans unite together on this day for an issue that people are refusing to give up on.”