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Saint Mary’s founds Office for Student Equity using gift totaling $7 million

| Friday, March 12, 2021

Using funds from the recently established Office for Student Equity, 65 Saint Mary’s seniors will be able to wear full regalia to their graduation ceremony — an opportunity made possible by a “transformational gift” from the Wilson Sheehan Foundation.

The new office will assist first-generation and under-resourced students, following an outright investment from the foundation of $3 million, as well as the commitment of an additional $2 million if the College can match that amount within the next three years. This will endow the office with a total of $7 million, covering its operations in perpetuity.

In addition to programming and counseling, the office will provide laptops, winter clothing, food over academic breaks, medical and travel funds, tickets to Notre Dame football games, funding for field trips and academic conferences, clothing and supplies for interviews and internships and other resources.

These “wraparound services” are intended to fill any gaps between financial aid and the full Saint Mary’s experience, as understood through its traditional markers: the recognizable class ring, attendance at Notre Dame football games and opportunities for internships and study abroad semesters.

“There’s so many things that could fall into this category that are important for Saint Mary’s students,” College President Katie Conboy said. “And we just want to be sure that everyone who comes here feels like the whole experience is open to them.”

As of 2021, 29% of students at Saint Mary’s are first-generation college students and 26% are eligible to receive Pell grants, federal aid awarded to students from low-income households. These students will be most benefitted by the resources and programming provided by the office, Conboy said.

Director of inclusion and equity Redgina Hill will oversee the office with an associate director — yet to be named — and collaborate with the offices of financial aid, student affairs and multicultural student services.

The office will remove significant economic and social barriers to students, Hill said, while also improving retention among historically underrepresented and under-resourced communities.

“This is the work of being responsible stewards of this huge gift that was given to us; to do the work of justice and compassion, to help those who are on the margins feel more welcome at Saint Mary’s and feel a sense of belonging,” she said. “To me, this is the true work of justice and the true work of equity.”

At the opening of this year, Conboy released a five-part strategic plan, outlining her vision for the College into the year 2030. The creation of the Office for Student Equity was highly prioritized in this plan, Conboy said, and answers an immediate, growing need.

“I love this story because it’s just a story of continuity at Saint Mary’s,” Conboy said, explaining the origins of the new office. “Interim President Nancy Nekvasil had recognized this as something that she was very committed to … to have wraparound services for students who were experiencing a gap between what they could afford and what they hoped to be able to accomplish in their Saint Mary’s experience.”

Building off of relationships established by previous administrations, Conboy approached the Wilson Sheehan Foundation with plans for the office and requested the $7 million sum. Lorraine Sheehan Wilson (’85) and her husband Chris Wilson (Notre Dame ’85) recognized the need for such a resource, and promised $3 million outright.

“Just being at school isn’t enough; you need to be able to get the full experience,” Sheehan Wilson said. “I think if you address those wraparound needs … that student is going to persist and be way more likely to complete their college education and in a timely manner.”

From the initial gift of $3 million from the Wilson Sheehan Foundation, $600,000 is intended for immediate use over the next three years.

“It mattered to them that we could start doing this work right now, this semester,” Conboy said.

With $2.4 million currently placed in the endowment, Sheehan Wilson invited the College to fundraise $2 million to accompany a future matched amount. This challenge has since been named “All In,” and the College has already received a contribution of $377,000 toward this goal.

“We want to be sure this is something that other Saint Mary’s graduates are saying, ‘We’re in with this mission,’” Conboy said. “We’re really focused on trying to get this to happen as quickly as possible, so that the endowment grows and serves as many students as possible.”

This office is one step towards further advancing women socially and economically — a key tenet of the Saint Mary’s mission, Conboy said.

“I really believe that this is just so important in terms of creating the kind of community that we want to have that is inclusive, where every person feels a sense of belonging and mattering,” Conboy said. “That matters to me. And so I’m grateful that the work began before I arrived here, but also that I was able to bring that into the strategic plan, and that the Wilson Sheehan Foundation was willing to commit to us as well.”

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About Maeve Filbin

Maeve is a senior studying political science and economics at Saint Mary's, as well as Journalism, Ethics and Democracy at Notre Dame. She serves as an Assistant Managing Editor of The Observer, and thinks everyone should support student journalism.

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