When Mary Pat Seurkamp talks to prospective students about the benefits of an education at a Catholic women’s college, she speaks not only as the president of the College of Notre Dame of Maryland, the state’s only women’s undergraduate institution, but as an alumna of a Catholic women’s college. During her 13-year tenure as president, Seurkamp, who’s worked in higher education administration for 40 years, has sought to balance the College of Notre Dame’s traditional mission with the realities of the changing economy. She’s spearheaded the creation of the schools of education, arts and science and pharmacy, as well as the Accelerated College, where students can earn a degree in business or nursing in less than three years. On the eve of the new school year, Style chatted with the Roland Park resident about the power of education to transform the world— and her penchant for telling students to put down their cell phones and actually talk to each other.
> There is no other single factor, in my opinion, that has the ability to transform a society the way that education can.
> Providing greater access to education to all students— not just the traditional students— is absolutely critical to the health of our
society. Every college and university needs to be focused on how we’re going to serve the student population that now exists—and the demographics are very different than they were four years ago.
> The power of education plays out across all income levels. If we can provide personal and academic support to low-income and first-generation college students and engage them early on, they achieve at the same levels as everyone else.
> We tell students from day one that they have a responsibility to give back to society. Giving back can mean being a terrific mother, but it also can mean giving back to your neighborhood, city, state.
> This current generation of college-aged students— the millennials— are an interesting group of young people. Unlike my generation, they like authority and trust authority. And they come to us having had very scheduled lives. The challenge is to teach them how to create their own fun, their own activities, their own lives.
> The biggest thing about young people is to understand that college is a period when they can afford to be idealistic. And even though it may be frustrating at times, we shouldn’t shut that down. They have the opportunity to take reasonable risks.
> Technology is a wonderful tool and it plays a major role in the classroom. It brings the world much closer to students. But I do
worry that we become so reliant on technology that we begin to lessen our ability to relate to each other on a personal level.
> When I walk in the dining hall and see groups of students on their phones, I tell them they should be talking to each other, that it’s important for them to be having social time. They smile. They’re used to me.
> Sometimes people to say to me as the president of a women’s college, ‘Aren’t you creating an environment that just isn’t real?’
I look at my experience at a women’s college, and I see the same thing with our students today: it was the place where I really learned to trust myself, to trust my abilities and skills, and to know that I could use them and be successful and contribute.
> The question of going coed comes up with every women’s college in the country. But what’s been confirmed by research is that young women who attend women’s colleges are more highly engaged and a bit more serious about their academic goals. They tend to go into fields like math and science and go on to graduate school at a higher rate.
> It was in a Catholic college that I really had an awakening to my social responsibility, understanding that my education wasn’t just for me, but was to be of service to the community.
> Society gets changed by one person at a time, making significant contributions.
> We ask our students, ‘Whose life will you change?’ It’s about changing your life, but it’s also about changing others’ lives.