How Saint Mary's College Became My Greatest Adventure
I was asked to speak as a young alumna at Meet Me at the Avenue, an annual event hosted by Saint Mary's College Office of Admissions for accepted high school seniors and their family members. I decided to share my speech here. For more info about Saint Mary's College of Notre Dame, IN, click here.
Good morning, everyone! My name is Alyssa and I graduated five years ago with the class of 2013. I’m from Valparaiso, Indiana and I currently live in Oxford, Mississippi. I am so excited to be here today because this event brings back a lot of memories for me.
Meet Me at the Avenue was where I met my roommates for the very first time and it was also the weekend that I decided that Saint Mary’s College was going to be my home for the next four years.
I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I had a feeling it was going to be a great adventure. I was not disappointed. In just four short years, Saint Mary’s College helped me trail-blaze my own path as I found a career that I loved and set off on a journey around the world.
When I was a first-year student at Saint Mary’s, I didn’t even know my career existed. I’m a development officer, which means I raise money for critical causes. I build relationships with donors and I connect them with opportunities so that they can make a difference in the world, whether it’s bringing clean water to developing countries or establishing a scholarship for inner-city students. I love what I do, and I owe it to the leadership opportunities at Saint Mary’s that I even discovered this career path.
A few weeks after orientation, I was wandering through the Activities Fair. I stopped by a table where the girls were wearing bright pink t-shirts and they were passing around a sign-up sheet. I needed friends, and they were giving out free candy, so I joined the student organization, Saint Mary’s College Dance Marathon.
Dance Marathon is a year-long effort to raise funds and awareness for Riley Hospital for Children in Indianapolis. I had never heard of Dance Marathon or Riley Hospital, but I quickly embraced my new committee position of hanging up flyers in bathroom stalls.
Three years later, I was Vice President of Fundraising for Saint Mary’s Dance Marathon. We set a lofty goal of raising $100,000 for the kids at Riley Hospital. You will find that Saint Mary’s women are very goal-driven, and this was no exception. We set individual fundraising goals, an online fundraising goal, and a letter-writing goal. And when we blew past each one, we kept going. By this point, I understood that any organization can have a great mission, but you need the money to make things happen.
We raised $104,000 that year. Shortly after our Dance Marathon wrapped up, I earned a summer internship at Riley Children’s Foundation in Indianapolis. I jumped at the opportunity, but I didn’t have a place to stay in Indy. So, the Director of Alumnae Relations at Saint Mary’s emailed all the alumnae in the city asking if anyone had a spare bedroom for the summer. Donna, a 1971 alumna, and her husband, Ben, welcomed me into their home that summer and I continue to be very close to them.
As an intern, I mail-merged letters, cold-called donors, and planned an employee-giving campaign, all while navigating life in an office cubicle, with weekly staff meetings, and a boss to report to. I was eventually offered a full-time fundraising position at Riley Children’s Foundation, where I managed the fundraising strategies of 25 high school and university Dance Marathon programs across Indiana. I was officially in the business of saving and changing lives for the kids at Riley Hospital.
It was my dream job. And while it all started because I put my name down on a piece of paper, it was Saint Mary’s College that emboldened me to become a leader.
Being a leader at Saint Mary’s is the norm. It’s not the exception, and it’s easy to see why: because you see other women being leaders, too, at all levels. That is a powerful thing. My classmates were applying for research patents, creating art exhibits, winning national business competitions, and writing their own screenplays.
My senior year, I had the honor of serving on the Saint Mary’s College Board of Trustees as the full-voting Student Trustee. The Board of Trustees is the governing body of the College; it is responsible for selecting the President and it approves the College’s major policies. Only 8 percent of private institutions have a full-voting Student Trustee and it is just one example of the many incredible leadership roles that Saint Mary's expects of its students.
We were also very fortunate, as students, to be surrounded by amazing female role models – from the President of the College, to the Vice Presidents in administration, to the passionate alumnae who served as mentors, and to the faculty members who published research while always keeping an open-door policy. It was incredible to be surrounded by women doing incredible things every day and to know that you were expected to be incredible, too.
And that was outside of the classroom. Inside the classroom, we were encouraged to speak up, to think critically, to challenge biases, to challenge each other. We honed our ability to make connections and to seek solutions in classes with 20 students, not 200. And our learning experiences were not limited by the fact that we were in a single-sex environment. In fact, I would happily argue that our learning experiences were far more enhanced and far more fulfilling because we were in a single-sex environment. We had the uncommon opportunity to find our voices at an all-women’s college, free from inhibition or judgement.
By the time I entered the “real world,” my voice was loud and clear and confident. My Saint Mary’s education prepared me to share my ideas in meetings, present proposals to CEOs, and to advocate for myself when it came to a promotion or a pay raise. Because at Saint Mary’s, I always had a seat at the table as a female, and as a young professional, I have not been willing to give that seat up.
And then, after three years with Riley Children’s Foundation, I quit my job to travel the world. I also credit that decision to my Saint Mary’s education, and that decision was rooted in my sophomore year.
My sophomore year, I studied abroad for a semester in Sevilla, Spain. More than half of Saint Mary’s students study abroad, so this wasn’t a surprising decision.
But while I was abroad, we had a spring break. We all started making spring break plans. Some of my friends planned on going to Germany, some wanted to go France, and others wanted to stay in Spain. Well, I really wanted to go Switzerland. And I just couldn’t convince any of my classmates to go somewhere really cold and really expensive for ten days. So, I decided that I would go alone.
I packed my backpack, booked a train ticket, and squeezed granola bars into spare pockets. And for ten days, I traveled alone for the first time through Switzerland and Italy. I stuck to a budget, took local transport, and stayed in hostels. I was half-terrified the entire time, and so were my parents, but I did it, and I loved it.
That experience was the catalyst for everything to come. As nervous as I was, it was my Saint Mary’s education that fostered my curiosity of the world and encouraged me to discover it as a young woman, even if it meant going alone.
After I graduated, I continued to travel while working for Riley Children’s Foundation and earning my master’s degree in Nonprofit Management. I backpacked alone around Nicaragua, Thailand, and Belize. And yet I knew that that there had to be a bigger adventure on the horizon.
So, I decided to apply for an Australian work visa, which would allow me to live and work in Australia for one year. I was granted the visa. And in the span of five months, I turned down a promotion, moved out of my apartment, sold all of my stuff, saved all of my money, and quit my job. I left Chicago with a one-way ticket to Australia in October 2016, five years after I had studied abroad in Spain.
It was the best decision I ever made, right next to my decision to attend Saint Mary’s College. I volunteered on a sailboat for a month, scuba dived the Great Barrier Reef, worked in a hostel, and backpacked the east coast of Australia.
Then, I flew to the Philippines to travel across Southeast Asia. I took a train through Myanmar, confronted history in Vietnam, rescued a whale shark in Thailand, and prayed with Buddhists in Indonesia.
And incredibly, the skills I found myself using as I navigated the streets of Saigon and connected with locals in Manila were the same skills I had honed at Saint Mary’s, 9,000 miles away: keeping an open mind, a willingness to learn and to listen, the ability to compromise, being flexible as plans changed, using critical thinking to solve problems, and above all, having the courage to pursue anything with passion.
After backpacking 10 countries in 10 months, I came home last August. After an epic job search across the country, and with help from an extensive Saint Mary's alumnae network, I accepted a fundraising position in Oxford, Mississippi three months after I returned home. I had never been to the South before; it was clearly time for another adventure.
My Saint Mary’s education provided me with the skills to land a job I loved at one of the best nonprofits in Indiana and then it gave me the confidence to take a big risk in pursuit of my dream to travel. It is for these reasons, and many more, that I have always felt that my investment in Saint Mary’s has been invaluable, because Saint Mary’s has invested so much in me.
I didn’t know all of this when I was sitting in this auditorium as a high school senior with my parents. I had no idea what the next four years would hold, much less what my career would look like or what passions I would pursue. And I know that you may share that same uncertainty, right now.
But I can assure you that as a Saint Mary’s woman, a great adventure is ahead of you. I can assure you that of all places to promise discovery, Saint Mary’s is the one that will deliver. And of all places to build fearless female leaders, Saint Mary’s has led the way for 174 years.
Regardless of the path that you choose for yourself, I can assure that Saint Mary’s will help you trail-blaze it with confidence and passion, just as it did for me. Thank you.