How to Grow as a Leader

There may have been a Powerpoint slide deck, but it definitely wasn’t your typical corporate presentation.

For one, the audience showed its agreement with key points not with nods or applause, but with a robust “Amen!”

For another, one of the presenters brought cookies baked in the shape of a cross, carefully frosted in brown and ivory. At the end, audience members sang an earnest blessing to the presenters, after which warm hugs were exchanged.

It wasn’t your typical corporate presentation because it was a cohort of Alverno graduate students advising the School Sisters of St. Francis. And an Alverno graduate degree is anything but typical.

“At Alverno, it really is about the learning. It’s about making yourself better. It’s not about a grade,” says Jennifer Johnson ’19. “When I stopped worrying about how I’m going to be judged and started focusing on what I was learning and how to apply my knowledge, that’s when I became better.”

Rooted in the real world

Alverno graduate programs prioritize experiential learning, are outcomes-driven and challenge students to apply what they are learning to real life. It is this approach that distinguishes an Alverno education.

“Students pursue graduate degrees to elevate their careers. At Alverno, graduate students not only learn and practice the skills that will help them advance, but they also discover a better way to learn,” says Kate Lundeen, vice president for enrollment. “Our small classes and focus on hands-on learning help students make important connections and get them ready to lead and drive change.”

In connection with Alverno’s strategic plan, the College is expanding graduate programs while maintaining the undergraduate women’s program as our heart and soul. We are now home to 10 graduate programs (including two doctoral offerings) in education, health care, business, psychology and music. Each program offers Alverno graduate students the opportunity to gain valuable experience and to make a positive impact on a workplace, organization or the broader community.

Students pursuing their master of science in nursing, for instance, practice their skills and provide care to underserved populations through service trips to rural Mississippi, and, for the first time this summer, Cuba. International travel is an essential component of the doctor of nursing practice (DNP) program, and a donor’s generosity has enabled DNP students to travel to Sweden and Ireland to observe health care practices and share their own research. DNP students have also visited Washington, D.C., to practice lobbying lawmakers on health care initiatives.

Teachers earning a master’s degree conclude their studies with a capstone research project (one graduate’s project grew into her doctoral dissertation), and master of business administration (MBA) students provide strategic planning services to real clients. For example, students in the graduating class of May 2019 spent their final semester working with the School Sisters, the order of women religious who founded the College more than 130 years ago.

Ready for impact

For the School Sisters project, five teams of students prepared a 67-page plan and gave a two-hour presentation regarding the sustainability and future growth for associates of the School Sisters. The associate relationship offers laypeople (people who aren’t ordained men or women religious) the opportunity to live Franciscan values while serving their communities, furthering the School Sisters’ mission.

Founded between 1969 and 1971, there are 156 associates of the School Sisters in the United States today. A challenge has been spreading awareness as well as maintaining a steady enrollment.

Associates are absolutely critical to sustaining religious life. As vowed membership in religious orders declines across the United States, associate membership is on the rise. Between 2000 and 2015, membership in all Catholic associate programs more than doubled, growing to nearly 56,000 from 25,000, according to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate.

“In 10 years, the number of sisters will be much smaller, but we as associates will continue to have a relationship of love with the mission and values of the School Sisters of St. Francis,” says Rosaura Solano, associate relationship coordinator and an associate herself. “Our hope is to bring their vision of a world transformed through peace, justice and love into a reality as we touch more people’s lives through the work of our associates.”

It was up to the Alverno graduate students to take a fresh look at the associate relationship. In the weeks leading up to the final presentation, the students met with School Sisters and staff members to discuss everything from plans for growth, budget, staffing needs and marketing. The recommendations included cultivating relationships to promote awareness of the associates and streamlining the process by which someone becomes an associate.

The students have the opportunity to make a real difference, as the School Sisters are working on a new strategic plan for the associates.

“I cannot tell you how supported we feel in what you said and what we’re thinking,” one of the sisters told the students after the presentation. “You gave us a road map.”

What’s more, the Alverno students gained the experience and confidence needed to advance their careers and thrive in an increasingly competitive job market.

“The confidence that I gained from case studies, moving on to actual clients and having professors who provided quality feedback — all of this helped us to grow,” says Chelsey Smith ’19. “When I started this program, I knew nothing about business. Now, I feel like I can go in and help any business!”


This article appears in the fall/winter 2019 issue of Alverno Magazine.

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