Sr. Sheila Affirms the Vitality of Girls' Schools

If you ask Sr. Sheila O'Neill, ASCJ, Ph.D., '71, president of Sacred Heart Academy, why girls'-only education remains a vital force in 2018, she is likely to share this anecdote: "I love when our graduates who are in college come back and tell us that they can pick out classmates who also went to girls' high schools," she says. "They say that those young women are the ones always raising their hands in class."

Of course, with nearly three decades of experience as an educator of adolescent girls (22 years at the Academy's sister school, Cor Jesu Academy in St. Louis, Missouri, and nine here at Sacred Heart), Sr. Sheila has a lot more to say on the topic. But, even with all those years of experience, she will happily acknowledge that there is always more to learn. This past June, she spent three days in Washington, D.C. gleaning insights from and exchanging ideas with leaders in girls' education from all over the world who came together at the Global Forum on Girls' Education II. The conference was sponsored by the National Coalition of Girls' Schools (NCGS).

During those three days, Sr. Sheila attended workshops and was inspired by keynote speakers including tennis star and feminist activist Billie Jean King, and Iranian-American author Azar Nafisi, who wrote the ground-breaking and best-selling Reading Lolita in Tehran. And, throughout the conference, she says, "I had two reactions. I found validation for what we are doing well here at Sacred Heart, and I was inspired and challenged to bring fresh ideas to our campus."

Among the ideas Sr. Sheila brought back are possibilities for enhancing Sacred Heart's already strong service program, and creating additional opportunities to develop students' leadership skills. She is thinking about an all-school service day — something in place at many other schools — and about how to expand on activities like Clelia’s Cucina, where students pack sandwiches on campus for soup kitchens. One challenge she notes is that there are more restrictions now on 16 year olds' obtaining drivers' licenses, meaning that "students can't as readily load up a car full of kids and drive somewhere to service opportunities. How do we enrich our service opportunities within that reality?"

"I also know that we can do more to develop our students' leadership skills," she says. She is thinking for instance, about how to make more innovative use of existing organizations like Student Council and Peer Connection. She also cites the opportunities offered by Charism Connection, a program now in its fourth year, in which about a dozen students from Sacred Heart and Cor Jesu come together for four days of immersion in the life and work of Blessed Clelia Merloni, founder in 1884 of the congregation of the Apostles of the Sacred Heart of Jesus.The goal: to bring back her message of compassion, service, and resilience to the rest of the campus. "Mother Clelia was a powerful and independent woman, especially for her time," Sr. Sheila says. "Her life's purpose was to see where the need was, and go there. As part of our emphasis on leadership, how can we make Mother Clelia even more present as a living role model in our students' lives?"

Sr. Sheila is also working on expanding a summer internship program for rising seniors to do focused, serious work under the guidance of Sacred Heart alumnae. She is reaching out to alumnae across the professional spectrum — in medicine, teaching, engineering, business, science, law, the arts — with the intention of enlisting a large pool of mentors who can guide students in exploring career paths. Continuing to build the endowment is another priority so that any young woman who can succeed at the Academy has the opportunity to do so.

Sr. Sheila also came home from Washington with a renewed commitment to the benefits of a girls' school education. "I left that conference thinking, we need to say more about the benefits of our being a single sex school," she says.

The young women at Sacred Heart have plenty of regular interactions with boys, Sr. Sheila notes, including those at their brother school, Notre Dame of West Haven. But what they experience at the Academy, she says, is a place where the consistent message is that they are loved for who they are, and that they can do and be whatever they want and work for.

"Our students are accustomed to being the club presidents, the star athletes, the respected artists and scientists, the award-winning scholars," Sr. Sheila says, "and to seeing what their peers can achieve in and outside the classroom." Each student, she says, comes to the Academy with her own unique gifts. "Our role," she continues, "is to help them discover and realize those gifts, develop their self-confidence, and support them in a culture that still often places a higher value on the accomplishments of men and boys." She cites another story about a recent graduate who told her, "When I first got here, I could have described in detail what everyone's shoes looked like because I spent all my time looking down." By the time she graduated, the young woman was a campus leader with a wide circle of friends. "Stories like this abound among our alumnae," Sr. Sheila notes.

Maybe, Sr. Sheila says, the day will come when we live in a world that truly and fully values the lives and gifts of women. "But we are certainly not there yet," she says. "So we offer an environment that lifts up girls and women every day. We don't always talk about it, but it's embedded in everything we do."
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