Our College

Asking Questions, Finding Answers

The tradition of innovative programs at Alverno College has positively altered lives and dramatically changed outcomes, but how do these programs get their start? At Alverno, they often begin with a tough question and end with a change leader who has the courage to push for answers. It is these pioneering questions – coupled with their subsequent answers – that give Alverno the power and strength to endure.

Enjoy the first of a two-part series that explores how six Alverno programs got their start. Although each is unique, all began on the shoulders of those who started important dialogues. In addition, each program has enjoyed strong allies who have helped refine the programs to meet changing times and experience continued growth.

Internship Program

For the longest time, it was primarily education and nursing students who were provided opportunities to experience real-world application of their learning. Soon, Sister Celestine Schall ‘48 asked, “Why were there no opportunities for students in the liberal arts disciplines to practice in a professional setting?” It was a question that would redefine Alverno’s real-world learning experience.

“Learning for learning’s sake is important but there needs to be a connection to your life,” Schall said. “Our students want jobs when they graduate. That’s why you go to college.” That mindset made sense and in 1971, Alverno College established the Off-Campus Experiential Learning program.

Schall, who served as the first director, collaborated with members of the American Society for Training and Development, including James Hyland, Paul Pagenkopf, Robert Reiter and Jude Werra, to design Alverno’s internship program model. When launched, seven students were selected to participate in the nascent program, while five local businesses agreed to participate as internship sites.

In 2002, Susan Leister was named director of the Internship Program. Today, the program has 1,906 sites in its database with 3,583 mentors connected to those sites. This past academic year, 176 students completed internships – now a graduation requirement for weekday students. In addition, the program has expanded to include national and international opportunities.

“The experience gives them confidence. They can put theory into practice in an environment we haven’t set up for them,” Leister said. “For some, it’s the start of a resume and a good networking opportunity.”

Erica Garver  ’10, participated in two internships while attending Alverno, including one at Rockwell Automation in the external communication department. “I was on a team that put together the communication materials for the company’s annual convention.”

Alverno’s internship program is structured to integrate classroom and workplace learning. “My employers saw that too,” she said. “They were impressed by the questions I asked, my ability to see different perspectives and to hit deadlines.”

The internship experience came full circle in September 2011, when she was hired as a full-time employee in the global community relations department at Rockwell.

Alverno Athletics

Long before Title IX was a glimmer in the eyes of lawmakers, Suzanne Felan ‘62, an Alverno College graduate with a minor in physical education, asked, “What about the girls?”

At St. Rita’s Parish in West Allis, there were plenty of athletic activities for the boys, but none for the girls. “I don’t know where I got the courage,” she said, remembering her encounter with the parish priest. She explained to him that there was money and attention being spent on the boys, but “Why aren’t there any athletics for the girls? Their parents contribute to the parish, too.”

That bold question took an interesting turn and, at the age of 19, she became coach and athletic director for the parish. She worked with the Archdiocese to reach as many girls as she could, coaching hundreds of elementary and high school girls from 1958 to 1964, and organizing sports banquets and giving out awards just like the boys’ teams.

While attending Alverno, Felan played volleyball, field hockey and basketball. She was coached by Sister Mary Margaret Martin who was head of the physical education department. Felan remembers Sister Margaret coaching a whole host of sports in her full-on habit. “She was a go-getter, compassionate and good listener,” Felan remembered.

Felan graduated from Alverno in 1962 with a degree in elementary education, went on to earn her master’s degree at Cardinal Stritch University and did postgraduate work at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. She taught in the West Allis School District, at an Indian reservation in South Dakota, at Ethan Allen School for Boys and was a school administrator.

While Alverno has always had strong support for physical education, it wasn’t until 2000 that the school entered into NCAA Division III athletics. Today, there are 80 student athletes participating in six sports in the Northern Athletics Conference. “We had our best seasons in all sports in the last five years. We’ve made a lot strides,” said Brad Duckworth, athletic director. “We want to present the best opportunities for women to come, learn and compete.”

While organized athletics promotes the school, fosters loyalty and increases revenue, “It also has a strong tradition of boosting enrollment,” he shared. “What we do in athletics is modeled after the classroom learning here at Alverno.”

School of Business

The School of Business also started with a question, of sorts. “Joel asked me if I’d come and start the program,” Sister Kathleen O’Brien ‘67 said of the former president, Sister Joel Read, of Alverno. That was 1975. O’Brien, who served as its first dean, is currently the senior vice president for academic affairs.

At the time, “We had students with econ minors who considered themselves business students. They were requesting it,” she said of the business program. “It comes out of our mission to serve women in this way.” By fall of 1976, the School of Business welcomed seven students.

In 1977, Weekend College, the first in Milwaukee, was instituted. Business was one of three bachelor degree programs offered and in that first year, enrollment exceeded 200 students. That was also the year Bill McEachern joined the business school’s faculty in 1977. He taught accounting and finance and joked, “When I joined the business school faculty, it doubled in size.”

Alverno had tapped into a market of working women who didn’t just want jobs; they wanted careers and needed degrees. The number of women enrolled in the School of Business continued to increase throughout the 1980s. “Business is a good venue for women,” O’Brien said. “They have strong insight. We see women come in and go on to lead and contribute to businesses in all sectors.”

In 2006, the School of Business began a master’s program for both women and men. “We thought about offering a master’s degree in business for a number of years,” he shared. “It couldn’t be a typical graduate program,” McEachern said. “So the question was: How do we make it innovative and different – truly an Alverno MBA?”

In order to make it truly unique, alumni and faculty went out into the business community to understand the needs of managing businesses and, from there, determined what worked and what could be innovated. “Our liberal arts educated business students can think, do and exercise their knowledge effectively in the workplace. We hear that all the time from employers,” he said.

One employer example is Sargento Foods in Plymouth, Wis. The company values education, which is why it supports Jane Gapinski ‘83 ‘09, director of marketing for the food ingredient division, when she invites the College to talk to employees about its MBA program.

Gapinski knows the benefits of an Alverno MBA firsthand, having earned one in 2009. “I love the integrated approach. Class builds upon class. It’s hands-on learning. It’s reflective.” She also encouraged coworkers Brenda Bell and Sue Gilbertson to enroll in the MBA program.

“In a global approach there is intersection and application,” Gapinski said, acknowledging the master’s curriculum prepared her to recognize and react to changing structures.

School of Education

Alverno is now known for its education curriculum, but that wasn’t always the case. The College saw a change in the way teachers taught and the way students learned, so in 1984, Sister Mary Diez ‘67 – now dean of the program – was asked to revitalize the School of Education.

“We wanted our students to determine who they were as a teacher; to understand psychologies and motivations and to diagnose; to take what they’ve learned from theory to practice,” Diez said.

In just five years, the School of Education’s enrollment went from 75 to nearly 400 students. And while the program is still highly regarded and earns many accolades, it’s also preparing for a change in leadership. Diez still oversees the program as dean, but in 2013, Nancy Athanasiou ‘90 and Desiree Pointer Mace will start their turn at leading the program.

Nancy Athanasiou is associate dean of undergraduate programs. Her focus is to develop the curriculum that will train quality educators. It’s conceptual learning with clinical experience that makes an Alverno teacher ready to teach. The faculty observes students during field experiences, she said. “It’s a way to monitor their growth. Our students self-assess and keep logs, which helps them when planning and preparing for the classroom.”

It also keeps the faculty current. “We see new trends and curriculums being used. This helps us stay ahead of today’s educational challenges,” shared Athanasiou. And while teachers are feeling the impact of the economic downturn, “A great teacher will always be in demand,” she said.

In addition to undergraduate offerings, Alverno launched a Master of Art in Education (MAE) in 1996. The charter class welcomed 30 students and – every semester since then – master’s candidates demonstrate key abilities such as conceptualization, communication across diverse media and integrative interaction.

“What distinguishes Alverno’s graduate programs is the serious and methodical process in bringing theory and method to coursework and having a deep connection to real-world application,” said Desiree Pointer Mace, associate dean for graduate programs.

One needs only to look to Milwaukee-area Carmen High School of Science and Technology to witness the effectiveness of Alverno’s teaching theories. Dr. Patricia Hoben ‘04, head of the charter high school, earned her teaching certificate at Alverno before entering the College’s Alternative Licensure Program for Administrators. She also used Alverno’s ability-based model as the school’s foundation. “We collaborated for three years with Alverno’s faculty to map outcomes; and adopted and adapted those outcomes on an adolescent level.”

JoAnn McGrath School of Nursing

The School of Nursing, the College’s largest academic program, started in 1930 as Sacred Heart Diploma School. Founded by Sister Christopher Maguire who served as director until her death in 1940, the program has continuously changed to meet the pressing needs of the times.

In its earliest days, it was the training ground for the Sacred Heart Sanitarium. After World War II, the school opened up enrollment to lay women. Soon thereafter, in 1946, the school affiliated itself with Alverno College and began offering a bachelor’s of science degree in nursing. Today, the program offers advanced degrees, along with the industry’s most cutting-edge technology to properly prepare students for situations they’ll encounter in the health care field.

Professor Peg Rauschenberger ‘85, associate dean of the School of Nursing, has seen tremendous change since she was an Alverno nursing student. After graduation, she worked in various settings and continued to earn advanced degrees. The perspective of a long lens gave her an appreciation of her education.

“Alverno nurses are different,” she said. “They’re problem solvers and critical thinkers, but it wasn’t until I went out and had a career that I realized what an advantage I had because of it. It influenced my decision to come back here to teach.”

One of the ways the program has kept up-to-date with new technology is the addition of high-fidelity simulation suites. “The simulators allow students to succeed and to fail. We capture procedures, so they can assess their performance. It doesn’t take the place of developing therapeutic relationships or interacting with patients, but it gives them a frame of reference.”

The nursing program has also remained current with advanced degree offerings. In 2005, it launched a Master’s of Science in Nursing with two distinct tracks and in fall 2011, the family nurse practitioner program was added to meet an anticipated shortage of primary care providers.

Today, the nursing program is home to almost 1,000 nursing students, all of whom are impacted by the abilities-based learning that’s been integrated into the nursing curriculum.

One such alumna is Mary Stull ‘79, vice president and COO of Elmhurst Memorial Healthcare in Illinois.

For Stull, the abilities-based curriculum was the “cream on top of an excellent nursing program,” she explained. “The end result: I had an undergraduate degree that could take me anywhere. Alverno’s curriculum turns a student into a well-formed professional.”

Stull went on to earn a master’s in psychiatric mental health care at the University of Illinois, but was in the program for just one year before her admittance into the doctoral program for nursing services administrative research. “The level of work and the intensity of the program at Alverno was outstanding preparation to be able to bypass the master’s program.”

Alverno Assessments

“What is it about your discipline that our students cannot leave without mastering?” asked Sister Joel Read ‘48 of the faculty in 1967. That one question would set forth a tidal wave of change relating to teaching, learning and measuring outcomes.

While we all know the eventual answer to the question was the innovative abilities-based curriculum, it actually took five years to answer and act upon that initial seminal question. As Read wrote in a letter to Joseph Moss of AT&T, “With most things human, it took a bit longer to complete.”

In 1972, incoming freshmen were introduced to the ability-based curriculum and assessment structure known as the Competence-based Learning program.

Alverno reached out to Moss because AT&T was beginning to use assessments to evaluate prospective managerial candidates. Knowing that, Alverno researched and adapted the structure to evaluate student learning.

“When Alverno began the curriculum, no other institution in the world, including government and business, had used what we now call performance assessment,” said Sister Georgine Loacker ‘47, one of the chief architects of the assessment model. “This is the kind of assessment that government is calling for and giving grants for today.

“Learning is not knowing. It’s doing what you know,” she said. “We wanted to be accountable to students and help them in their development. Assessment is a results-oriented approach to education and student learning.”

As students changed, so did the curriculum and assessment strategies. “We have to adapt to a changing market. We always want to remain relevant. There has always been continuous improvement,” said Kelly Talley, director of the assessment center. “Assessment is authentic learning. We are all learning, if we weren’t we wouldn’t be faithful to the educational process.”

“External assessors are an important piece of this,” Loacker said. “They are able to give each student insight into their development. Students can gauge progress against real-world measures.”

One of the College’s longest-serving external assessors, Angeline Jodie, graduated from Alverno in 1964 and, in 1974, became the first lay-assessor. Although she never actually experienced the assessment process from the student’s perspective, she understands the power of the program.

“Assessments provide opportunity for students to interface with business and teaching professionals. It’s tremendous preparation to be confident in a group setting with people of various ages and in different stages of life, and assess your ability to do research, discuss and be collaborative.”

Jodie earned her undergraduate degree in medical technology at Alverno and went on to earn a master’s degree at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Her career was in the health care field, but she never strayed too far from the College. Jodie is a former president of the alumni association.

How would life have been different had she had the opportunity to be on the other side of the process? “I had an excellent education; but being an assessor, I can see I would have developed an awareness of business and professional interaction.”

This article first appeared in the Fall 2012 issue of Alverno Magazine. Part 2, scheduled to appear in the Spring 2013 issue of the magazine, will focus exclusively on the School of Arts & Sciences, highlighting key influencers from several programs within the School.