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Message from the President: Women at St. Norbert

April 20, 2010

To our alumni friends:

The first year that women could enroll as full-time students at St. Norbert College was 1952. Several dozen did, but in the spring of 1956 there were all of five women left in that first graduating class.

This May, St. Norbert will graduate 266 women. In fact, women now outnumber men on campus by nearly three to two, as they do at most colleges these days.

You might say things have changed.

A few days ago, three of those "pioneering" women got together to reminisce about the earliest days of the SNC co-ed experience. It was part of our annual Killeen Chair series, an event entitled "We Were the Change."

Catherine Jacobs was in that first graduating class. Jeanne Pischke graduated the following year, in ’57. Arvilla Rank, who lost her hearing when she was just eight years old but still managed to be a standout SNC accounting student, was in the class of 1958. It was an evening of laughs, poignancy and not a little consciousness-raising. As the speakers pointed out, the battle for equal rights and full acceptance in the workplace is by no means over.

Catherine, who went on to a career as a schoolteacher, remembered there were just "two places of refuge" for that first class of women. One was an informal lounge in a nearby house the college owned. The other was the lone female bathroom in Boyle Hall that Catherine describes as "wall to wall women" between classes, and blue from the ubiquitous cigarette smoke.

Norbertines constituted the bulk of the faculty. One or two of the priests were clearly not keen on teaching co-eds, she said, but most of them apparently didn’t mind. And some became valuable mentors.

"I believe I had a strong effect on my students for 34 years," she said, "because of the values instilled in me at St. Norbert College."

Jeanne, too, became a teacher, then principal of a Catholic school. She remembered how in the early ‘50s there were two distinct types of male students on campus - the standard variety, just out of high school, and those somewhat older men who had come back from the service. "The vets had wonderful parties - WONDERFUL parties," she said, to gales of laughter. "But the difference (between the older and younger men) was that the vets did their studies first!"

Like Catherine, she spoke of how a handful of faculty influenced her profoundly, and how the presence of the Norbertines strengthened her faith. She also said being surrounded by men ensured that the women became comfortable working with men, which proved important in their professional lives.

Arvilla’s story was almost too amazing to believe. Not only was she one of a handful of women on campus, but she literally couldn’t hear anything - and this in a world where there was little accommodation made for those with disabilities. Yet she bore that burden lightly then, as she would her entire life. In fact, she drew one of the biggest laughs of the evening when she said that while she went to all her classes, it was precisely because she couldn’t hear the lectures that "I was maybe the only student who actually READ the textbooks!"

Clearly a determined lady, Arvilla wasn’t intimidated by her hardship, nor by the presence of men. What scared her most, she said, was just being in college. She compensated by working that much harder. She went on to excel at accounting, parlaying that into a career and eventually moving into advocacy for the hearing impaired, work she carries on to this day.

Today at St. Norbert, women not only make up the majority of our students, but they are college trustees, vice presidents, department heads, and key faculty and staff. Maybe it was a man’s world once, and perhaps in too many ways it still is. But as I say, the times are definitely changing - and these three resilient women ARE part of the change.