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The Council for Women at 10
On a chilly Thursday evening in late October, nearly 300 alumnae gathered at the W Hotel in New York City for a sold-out presentation by New York Times best-selling author Gretchen Rubin titled, “Happiness beyond the Heights.” The evening marked a high point in a year of events celebrating the 10th anniversary of the Council for Women of Boston College (CWBC). “It’s official—this is the largest-ever gathering of BC alumnae,” announced CWBC chair, founding member, and chair of the Boston College Board of Trustees Kathleen McGillycuddy NC’71, to cheers from the audience.
The CWBC was founded by the University in 2002 with a six-woman executive committee and a mission to increase the involvement of alumnae in Boston College. From providing mentors to female students and graduates to organizing volunteer service activities to sponsoring lectures and symposia on issues of importance to women, the CWBC aims to strengthen the bonds between alumnae and the University.
In an interview this winter, Mary Lou DeLong NC’71, former University secretary and senior vice president and a CWBC founder, described the impetus for starting the organization. Surveys by the University, she said, showed that alumnae wanted to be more involved in Boston College, but that “they didn’t quite know how to do so.” In 2002, with women amounting to 52 percent of undergraduates—the figure is now 53 percent—the challenge, said DeLong, was to find ways “to engage different segments of that female population.” (It is worth noting that, 44 years after women were admitted to the University’s largest school—the College of Arts and Sciences—in 1970, women account for 15 of 54 members of the Board of Trustees.)
Gretchen Rubin’s talk on the art and science of happiness, preceded by cocktails and many high-volume reunions of classmates, was a festive coda to a day of business. During an afternoon meeting attended by 70 council members from around the country, the agenda included updates from subcommittees on member recruitment and a tribute to council member Margaret Darby ’82, who died June 16, 2013. The centerpiece was the unveiling of a major new initiative—announced jointly by McGillycuddy, Arts and Sciences dean David Quigley, and Beth McDermott, an associate vice president for development. The goal, McGillycuddy told the council, is to raise $5 million over five years to fund a new, permanent program at Boston College, the CWBC Colloquium.
The colloquium McGillycuddy described would bring prominent women from all fields to the Heights for conversations about women and leadership, and “permanently influence the dialogue about women at BC.” While acknowledging that the fundraising goal was “aggressive,” McGillycuddy said, “the colloquium captures the essence of our mission, and offers . . . the kind of permanency that we’ve all sought.”
“What I find especially remarkable about the council and its activities over the last 10 years,” said Quigley in his comments, “is this insistent drive . . . to imagine the BC we want to build.” Within the Jesuit tradition, he acknowledged, “there has not been much of a place for serious, sustained discussion of women and leadership, of the possibilities for women in public and private life, and we need to take this seriously.” The CWBC Colloquium, said Quigley, will be a high-profile forum compelling the University’s attention to “where we’re not hitting the mark on issues of women’s leadership.”
The core of the CWBC is the council, 148 elected women—among them attorneys, physicians, educators, bankers, and entrepreneurs—who agree to commit time, expertise, and finances to further the involvement of alumnae and to advance the University’s overall mission. In 2006, the group added an associate level of membership, which now includes some 890 women. In return for invitations to CWBC events, associate members act as ambassadors for the organization at University events, participate in programs—as panelists, for example—and support the University with an annual gift. To attract alumnae of all ages, the CWBC offers several thematic programs. Its Journey series (subtitled “Paths to Success and Fulfillment”), for instance, annually presents four events—including “Preparing for the Journey,” for undergraduates, and “Refining the Journey,” for alumnae in mid-life—in venues from Boston to San Francisco.
On May 14, 2013, the concluding segment of the Journey series, “Refining the Journey: Aging Reimagined,” drew 167 alumnae and friends, most of them middle age or older, to the Cadigan Alumni Center. Streamed live to a CWBC group in Chicago, the four presentations, including a keynote address by Joseph F. Coughlin, director of MIT’s AgeLab, covered issues from high-tech innovations in elder care—such as implantable sensors to measure vital signs—to advice on how to have difficult conversations relating to end-of-life care. “So many things geared for older people are selling you something,” said Fran Mervyn, Ph.D.’78, who at age 75 serves as dean of students at the Massachusetts School of Professional Psychology in Newton. “This,” she said, “was very good information.”
The CWBC is “constantly tweaking” its programming, DeLong says, looking for new ways to bring alumnae together and engage them with the University. The strategy involves starting early. The council has established an advisory Board of 25 undergraduates and works with faculty and staff of the University’s four schools to develop programs such as Career Explorations, through which students visit companies where council members work. The Council on the Road initiative engages members around the country through events such as museum receptions. And the CWBC online Prayer Group provides a way for members to connect spiritually and offer mutual support. Since its founding, the CWBC has organized more than 300 events, with a total attendance of some 20,000 students and graduates.
Council member Nicole DeBlois ’99, vice president for business development at Boston Financial Data Services, was one of two speakers at a “Beginning the Journey” presentation at the Liberty Hotel in Boston on the evening of December 3, a sold-out event that drew 100 mostly GOLD (graduates of the last decade) alumnae. Subtitled “Lean on Me,” the discussion, moderated by nonprofit director, attorney, and council member Jean Kane ’83, focused on issues of women’s empowerment in the workplace raised by former Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s 2013 book, Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead. With fellow panelist and executive coach Kim Meninger ’97, MBA’08, DeBlois encouraged the attendees to be confident of their worth. “If you’re invited to a meeting, you’re meant to be there,” she said. “Don’t be shy about taking your seat.”
A former forward on the women’s ice hockey team, DeBlois co-leads the CWBC Athletics Initiatives Committee, which aims to raise the public profile of the University’s women’s athletic program. In its first 10 years, says DeBlois, the CWBC has “built a solid foundation and great programs.” But the major question is one of scale. With 80,000 alumnae, she says, the challenge is “to reach as many women as possible.”
Some of those women will be first-timers at a Journey presentation, as was associate member Meghan Lane ’06, a private banker at J.P. Morgan in Boston. Working in a male-dominated industry, Lane said, she had missed the opportunity to build “a strong coalition of women.” “When you’re hitting your stride with your career and you face big family choices,” she says, “it’s important to hear from women who’ve been able to balance it all.”
Few if any CWBC members would claim to hit that mark all the time, but there is a readiness among them to share what they have learned about education, career, family, health, faith, and life’s other challenges. That propensity is one of the major resources the council will draw on as, in the words of McGillycuddy, its members work to help alumnae “establish a lifelong relationship with the University.”
Jane Whitehead is a Boston-based writer.
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