50 Years Later, St. Ambrose Alumnae Are Making a Difference


More than 16,000 women have earned college degrees under the oaks since April 4, 1968, when the Board of Trustees voted to make St. Ambrose a co-educational institution.

Over the past 50 years, more than 1,000 alumnae have gone on to become teachers, 800-plus have become nurses and another 800 have entered the field of accounting. Close to 700 women, meanwhile, have earned undergraduate business degrees, 400 graduated with degrees in biology and nearly 300 earned degrees in economics.

Since St. Ambrose added graduate programs in 1987, more than 1,500 women have earned their doctoral or master's degrees in business administration and 500-plus gained Master of Social Work degrees. Other health-related graduate programs have awarded more than 1,200 degrees to women in or entering the fields of physical and occupational therapy, speech-language pathology and physician assistant practice.

The 1968 decision did not open the doors to the first alumnae in St. Ambrose history. St. Ambrose degrees were conferred to more than 500 women by various means over the first 86 years of the school's existence. Yet, it wasn't until the fall of 1968, when 166 women enrolled as commuter students, that St. Ambrose offered a true co-educational experience.

The past half-century has brought significant change to the make-up of our student and alumni populations. Women comprise better than 55 percent of all St. Ambrose graduates since 1968, and more than 59 percent of students enrolled this year are female.

Included among our alumnae are numerous lawyers and judges; school principals and a college president; foundation chairs and nonprofit leaders; CEOs and entrepreneurs; medical doctors and hospital presidents; biologists and chemists; engineers and inventors; an Olympic medalist and several college athletics coaches.

Above all, these women are Ambrosians, informed by a university-wide commitment to diversity in all its forms, gender included.

"I am extremely proud of St. Ambrose's mission to be a diverse and inclusive place where all are welcomed and made to feel a part of the university," said Angela Lindsay '94 MBA, an associate vice president of sales for Nationwide Insurance in Atlanta and one of 10 females-five of whom are alumnae-currently serving on the university's Board of Trustees.

50 Years of Women at Ambrose

16,000 have earned degrees since 1968

The past half-century has brought significant change to the make-up of our student and alumni populations. Women comprise better than 55 percent of all St. Ambrose graduates since 1968, and more than 59 percent of students enrolled this year are female.

Lindsay earned her undergraduate degree at Jackson State University, a historically black college that she said gave her a sense of empowerment and pride. She felt fully prepared for the working world after experiencing St. Ambrose MBA classes that included a diverse cross-section of gender, ethnicity and experience.

"St. Ambrose believes in preparing students for a real world that may look different from what they are used to," Lindsay said.

Where gender is concerned, men and women who learn together are prepared for a world which looks very much like the one in which they will work, said Julie (Hughes) Link '07. She came to St. Ambrose after attending an all-girls high school in Chicago, and while it wasn't a culture shock, it was a new learning experience.

"You're kind of in the real world," she said of SAU classrooms. "Being in that environment helped pave my thought process. 'Hey, we're equal.' Certainly, it gave me a wider perspective."

Link earned her Bachelor of Science in Nursing degree at St. Ambrose and went on to add a Doctor of Nursing Practice degree and an MBA elsewhere. She currently is a health adviser for Press Gainey Associates.

Her sister Maureen Hughes '01 also attended an all-girls high school. She went straight to law school after earning an SAU degree in teacher education and is an Assistant State's Attorney in a Cook County (Illinois) office that has more female prosecutors than males.

Hughes said that the transition from an all-girls high school to co-educational college classes at SAU wasn't difficult for her.

Thanks to St. Ambrose, she said, the transition to law school at Western Michigan University was easier still.

"I'm not saying it was easy, but I felt like I was prepared for it," she said. "Because I was successful at St. Ambrose and because of the support of professors, staff and fellow students, male and female, I felt like 'Yes. I can do this.'"

For most alumnae, discussing the impact of gender-diverse classrooms seems superfluous. It is what they have always known. "I guess it's hard for me to think about it any other way-it just seems like the educational setting would always be co-educational," said Lori Sundberg '03 DBA.

In August, Sundberg will become the first female president in the history of Kirkwood Community College, a system with more than 14,000 students spread across 10 campuses in central Iowa. "What we know from research is that diversity really enhances the experience," she said. "It works that way in organizations, and it works that way in classrooms."

That was certainly the enhanced experience Celeste (Raya) Canfield '15 gained in pursuit of her Bachelor of Science in Teacher Education degree, as well as from practicing alongside men as a track and field athlete.

"It's one of those things where you have two perspectives, and I think bringing those two together really helped create not only what St. Ambrose is today but essentially what we want our communities and our world to be," said Canfield, who is an English as a Second Language teacher in Rochelle, Illinois. "It's not you or me. It's us. And we have that balance at  St. Ambrose. I never thought one gender was superior. I felt it was very balanced and we had respect for one another."

In athletics, Canfield's track and field experience was unique in that the women frequently practiced with the men and routinely competed at the same venues. "Our coaches were adamant that ‘It's not the women's team or the men's team. We're SAU track,"' she said.

As women's basketball players, Kim Clarke '91 and Jenny (DeSmet) Putnam '01 often traveled with the men's team and competed in doubleheaders before the same crowds.

"There was great cohesion and support between the men's and women's teams," said Putnam, now an assistant women's basketball coach at the University of Missouri, where her former SAU coach, Robin (Becker) Pingeton '92, is head coach.

Putnam said she and Pingeton often marvel at the close bonds their SAU experiences created, something they say the Division I atmosphere can't replicate.

"That tightknit St. Ambrose experience provides that closeness and allows you to improve your communication and relationship skills," Putnam said.

Clarke is a three-time U.S. Olympian in women's handball who sandwiched her SAU career between the 1988 and 1992 Summer Games. Now a manager of reporting and data analysis for RIA in Atlanta, Clarke also played softball at SAU and felt that female athletics were a priority here.

"St. Ambrose was a place to play and learn as an equal," she said. "I didn't feel like the women's basketball team was slighted at all."

Chicago-area social worker Miracle Leach '14, '16 MSW learned about herself through the diversity she experienced in the classroom and on the SAU campus.

"Ambrose really gave me the opportunity to get to know myself and be around people who were accepting of me while I was going through that process," she said. "I grew up in public schools, but my schoolmates were African-American. I didn't experience different cultures until I got to St. Ambrose. I learned how to view things from other perspectives, which is a necessary thing in any profession."

Likewise, Rachel Bahl '05 leaned on the shared perspectives small St. Ambrose classes provided as she followed in the engineering footsteps of her grandfather who owned 13 patents at Deere and Co.

Bahl said she never felt like a gender pioneer until physics professor Tom Yang, PhD, pointed out she was a true rarity as a left-handed female engineering student. "He was just trying to motivate me," she said.

It worked. Today, Bahl is a project manager in the vehicle design studio and a rising leader in the engineering division of Ford Motor Co.

Margaret Gustafson '99 MBA is among the many St. Ambrose alumnae who have risen to the top of their professions. She served as president and CEO at two Illinois hospitals before recently taking time off to look after family.

"I had no immediate plans for career advancement," she said of her decision to enroll in the H.L. McLaughlin MBA program. "I wanted to prepare for an opportunity that might present itself. Given these hopes, it was important to find the right academic partner with an excellent reputation, professional faculty and a cutting-edge curriculum. SAU was a terrific choice for me."

Likewise, Sundberg said her St. Ambrose doctorate "has made all the difference in the world for my career." When she moves on to the presidency at Kirkwood, Sundberg will pack a shard of glass given to her by a friend when she assumed her first post as a college's first woman president, at Carl Sandburg College in Galesburg, Illinois, in 2006.

"It's to remind me that I have broken that glass ceiling - twice now," she said, before adding, "Here we are in 2018, and we would think that women in leadership would be routine, but, in fact, it's not. Only a third of junior college presidents are women and it's less than that at four-year institutions.

"These are difficult conversations to have," she said of challenges yet to overcome, "but I think we have to have them."

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