Paying it Forward

As one of eight children, it was no small feat that Donna Bembenek ’11 received a Catholic education.

“At one point in my life, I remember my father working three jobs to support our family. Then, with a young family, my mom had a full-time job without the modern conveniences of today,” she recalls.

Bembenek says attending Messmer High School in Milwaukee allowed her the opportunity — and the support system — to take on leadership roles and explore different interests that she perhaps wouldn’t have been able to at larger high schools.

That’s one of many reasons why Bembenek views Catholic education as a gift. Not only did she and her husband, Alan, pass on that gift to their daughter and son, but Bembenek later earned her MBA from Alverno, drawn here by the innovative work of the late Sister Joel Read ’48.

Now, Bembenek’s new role as president of Catholic Memorial High School in Waukesha, Wis., allows her to pay that gift forward to more than 600 students.

“The power of Catholic education is really undeniable in the formation of a child’s life,” she says. “Students arrive here barely teenagers, and they leave adults. In that time, they’re making decisions, they’re learning to live independently, but they’re doing that in an environment that’s supporting them, guiding them and helps them when they make a mistake.”

As president, Bembenek says her chief mission is to spread the word about Catholic Memorial not only among families who might be considering the school for their children but also among new and existing partners.

“My role is to raise the profile of Catholic Memorial in the broader community and to be of service to that community,” she says. “How can we, as the community of Catholic Memorial, help our broader community grow and thrive?”

While Bembenek’s tenure as president began this summer, she’s already intimately acquainted with the school. Her children, now adults, are alumni.

“The ability for me to be in a role with a school that I know well, that I personally experienced as a parent, and then be able to tell that story to a broader community is quite an honor,” she says.

Storytelling with the goal of increasing community and customer engagement has been the common thread that has connected each phase of Bembenek’s career, which has included sales and marketing roles for a radio broadcaster and a financial services company. She spent eight years working for the YMCA of Metropolitan Milwaukee, rising to senior vice president of external relations, before making the leap, in 2014, to the YMCA of the USA as vice president of marketing communications.

“All of those skillsets come together amazingly well with my personal experience with Catholic Memorial,” she says.

As Bembenek describes Catholic Memorial’s educational philosophies, another common theme emerges. Both Catholic Memorial and Alverno, she points out, teach students “how to gain knowledge and how to apply that knowledge.” What’s more, she says both emphasize making students aware of their place in a broader world and the importance of making a difference in that world.

Bembenek credits Alverno’s MBA program for enhancing her professional growth. Of particular value was the program’s unique curriculum, which eschews traditional courses isolated by subject in favor of integrating topics like finance and leadership in order to mirror real-world business scenarios.

“What we learned in our coursework on a Saturday, we applied in our work the following week,” she says. “It wasn’t knowledge that I was gaining now, taking a test and using later. We used our knowledge immediately and applied it immediately.”

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