President Conboy discusses achievements, College’s future as inauguration weekend approaches
Saint Mary’s President Katie Conboy will officially be inaugurated into her post at the College on Saturday afternoon. The Observer spoke to Conboy about this historic day, her reflections on the first year and a half of her tenure and her hopes moving forward.
Conboy expresses pride in inauguration week plans, College’s accomplishments
Discussing the schedule events leading up to her installment, Conboy spoke of her feelings about engaging the Saint Mary’s community in the celebration.
“It’s really an exciting week and of course, it’s kind of odd to be installed as president 17 months and nine days after you actually begin as president,” she said. “But I think the installation and all of the festivities around an inauguration are really about the community, not about the person — so it’s about bringing all of us together,” she said.
Conboy noted she was inspired by Saint Mary’s traditions when she and her team created the schedule of events.
“There are Saint Mary’s traditions, and some of those Saint Mary’s traditions are being honored as a part of the way that we do things here, and then there’s little insertions of things that are in the spirit of me or in the spirit of our students, which I really like because I want students to feel engaged and excited about the week as well,” she said.
Speaking on the College’s strategic plan that was introduced in early 2021, Conboy also emphasized the importance of meeting initiatives stated in the plan during inauguration week.
“The goals we have in the plan are kind of guiding the special events of the week,” she said.
Conboy noted that she included Jacqueline Woodson’s visit to Saint Mary’s for the Christian Culture Lecture in her inauguration festivities because Woodson represents her goals for the College.
“We had a wonderful speaker, Jacqueline Woodson,” Conboy said. “We would always have the Christian Culture Lecture because it’s just part of our history, but finding a way to bring someone who represented some of the spirit of where I want Saint Mary’s to go with thinking about diversity, thinking about access to reading, to literature. Jacqueline Woodson challenged us to think about those kinds of things.”
In relation to the strategic plan, Conboy spoke on the importance of belonging and building community.
“The word that I used in that address to the community was ‘belonging,’” she said. “I talked about my own desire to belong when I came to Saint Mary’s and that it wasn’t just about my belonging. It was about every person who was under the Saint Mary’s roof.”
She also spoke about the opening of the Office for Student Equity and the LGBTQ+ Center on Thursday evening as concrete examples of accomplishments within the strategic plan.
“Those two [initiatives] were expressions of the strategic plan, but also we’re already moving forward with them and [now] we can cut the ribbon and show our guests that we aren’t just talking about this,” she said. “We’re walking with it.”
Conboy also expressed pride in the renovation of Regina Hall to include the new Center for Integrated Healthcare Education.
“It’s so exciting to see what has happened in Regina, to see how that space that no one could have imagined be transformed in the way that it’s been transformed,” she said.
In addition, Conboy praised the work of student leaders in planning two events to begin and conclude inauguration week. The first of these events, a lip sync battle, was held Sunday evening.
“The whole week is bookended by two fabulous student events and we had the first one [Sunday] night,” she said. “What an amazing evening for our talented students who got up and choreographed and lip synced to such a diverse number of songs that represented the creativity we have in our student body. It was a riot to see some of our administrators, including yours truly, to get up and support the students and make their own statements through the songs they chose,” she said.
Conboy considers challenges of pandemic during her term
Conboy remarked on how much had changed since her first interview with The Observer in August 2020. She noted her initial goal was getting students back on campus, which is not something that she expected to do in her first 100 days as president.
“It’s an unusual thing for a leader to say, that they’d just like to open the doors, but that actually felt like it was a huge goal for us — to open the doors and ensure that our students would be back on campus and that we could have the best possible year, even though we were in the worst possible conditions with the pandemic,” she said.
Conboy noted that this academic year is different because decisions on COVID-19 protocols do not have to be constantly considered.
“Last year seems so remote now to think that we were just trying to figure out how to keep everyone safe, but how to be together at the same time,” she said. “Fast forward a little more than a year and the kinds of decisions we’re having to make around COVID — it’s not what we’re talking about every single day. That was the topic of conversation every day, multiple times a day: just urgent decisions that needed to be made or proactive decisions that needed to be made.”
Acknowledging the progress Saint Mary’s has made as a community, Conboy elaborated on the lifting of COVID restriction this year.
“Saint Mary’s feels with so few cases of COVID that we’re able to lift the visitor restrictions for students, and I want to continue how we can normalize the experiences you’re having while keeping everyone else safe on campus,” she said. “I thought we did a pretty good job last year of balancing attention to the immediate and planning for the future, but it’s great to feel the balance of those two things shift where we’re really more in the planning mode and less in the urgency mode.”
Thinking about the future of the College
Despite the number of successes achieved by her administration thus far, Conboy is keeping her eyes fixed toward the future.
“I think Saint Mary’s is an amazing community, but even amazing communities can always improve,” she said. “I think when we pay attention to how students are engaged and involved with each other, we can build a stronger fabric for what Saint Mary’s can be.”
Expanding on ways the campus can continue to improve, Conboy spoke on creating more spaces like the LGTBQ+ center to foster a sense of belonging and community.
“One of the areas I really want us to think about now that we have opened our Center for Student Equity and we’ve opened our office for LGBTQ+ students is how we talk to each other,” she said. “How we come together in those spaces and in all the other spaces that we have on campus.”
Conboy noted the importance of these spaces, also emphasizing the significance of taking care of one another and being compassionate.
“Really taking the time to not only build spaces that are symbolic and do work to bring students together but to see that kind of care for each other, that kind of empathy and compassion for each other extend out into all our interactions because we want to model that as what Saint Mary’s means in the world,” she said.
As the only women’s college in Indiana and one of 34 women’s colleges in the country, Saint Mary’s College finds itself in a unique position for progress, Conboy noted.
“Saint Mary’s is in a really strong position, but we should use that strong position to strengthen what we’ve always done well: that is the undergraduate education we give to women and the graduate education that we invite all genders into,” she said.
However, Conboy acknowledged the need for improvement and the importance of continued growth, even after students leave campus.
“What we really want to do is to ensure that [Saint Mary’s students] are career ready, job ready, industry ready when they jump into the workforce again and that they credit Saint Mary’s for giving them those opportunities,” she said.
In an effort to serve Saint Mary’s students across all walks of life, Conboy spoke of the plentiful resources available to all students.
“That makerspace is going to be there for our Saint Mary’s undergraduate and graduate students, where they can use 3D printers and laser cutters and all kinds of other equipment to test out their own entrepreneurial ideas,” she said. “But it’s also a space where we can welcome women entrepreneurs in from the community so that they can use that equipment, they can get the expertise of our faculty members and they can frankly share their experiences with our students so that we all educate each other in what’s a larger and broader community, breaking down the walls between a Saint Mary’s collegiate community and our larger community efforts.”
Conboy also emphasized the importance of research, and the impact it can have on skill-building.
“Research is really important because it’s not something that’s really elitist where it’s just a few people who are learning how to write an article in a journal that will be read by only a handful of people,” she said. “It’s about students getting the skills employers actually say that are most important when they are going to hire someone who is a college graduate.”
Wanting to add a research component to the College’s existing writing proficiency program, Conboy addressed the importance of being experienced in research after graduation.
“We know we graduate students who are great writers,” she said.
“The ‘W’ is one of the signatures of a Saint Mary’s experience,” Conboy said, referring to the College’s writing proficiency requirement. “I’d like an ‘R’ to join that ‘W’ so that every Saint Mary’s student has a research experience that she can speak to as she interviews with an employer, interviews with a graduate school program. I think it’s something critical to preparing the next generation of students.”
‘Take care, SMC’: Conboy’s powerful performance at student-planned lip sync battle
Noting her excitement in joining students at the opening event of inauguration week — a lip sync battle — Conboy explained why she tries to engage with students as much as she can.
“Participating in something as an equal with students is something really important for a president to do,” she said. “Just to step out of the office and to step into a space where I’m just like every other performer up on that stage.”
Conboy performed the song “Respect” by Aretha Franklin and was accompanied by several members of her cabinet. Conboy noted she had a deeper meaning behind choosing the song, especially after the negative comments about Saint Mary’s students on Yik Yak.
“Of course I chose the song in part because last week was a tough week and Saint Mary’s students felt some disrespect from what I hope was only a handful of counterparts somewhere in the tri-campus community,” she said.
“Once all of those conversations happened last week, actually the thing I should do is choose an iconic song — choose a song that’s about women looking for respect for the work that they do and a song that’s become a feminist anthem.”
During her performance, Conboy took off her jacket to reveal a Saint Mary’s shirt and donned a Saint Mary’s baseball cap, which she noted was a sign of her solidarity with students.
“To take that and use it as a moment where I could signal to Saint Mary’s students that ‘R-E-S-P-E-C-T’ means something to me: It’s ‘Take care, SMC’,” she said.
Comparing the stature of the song to persisting establishments like Saint Mary’s, Conboy concluded by expressing her commitment to the College and its students.
“We’re talking this week about an enduring institution where I’m just walking one stretch of the journey with Saint Mary’s. Saint Mary’s existed long before I arrived, and it will here long after I’m not,” she said. “But I want to walk that path and I want to walk it with students.”