Our College

Mary Beth Berkes ’75

Your Alverno experience starts first as a student, what initially attracted you to the College?

Initially, my plan was to go to law school, but after spending a week working at a law firm, I realized that wasn’t for me. So the change of plans presented a bit of a scramble, but ultimately that’s what brought me to Alverno. From the start, the people at Alverno were great by helping me through enrollment and finding financial aid. It felt like a welcoming environment where I would be able to succeed and, once I was here, I was hooked.

With the change of plans, did you immediately know what you wanted to do?

I was always inclined to the sciences in high school and being somewhat practical, I thought what better way to apply the sciences than a career in nursing.

As you settled in as a student, do you recall any pleasant surprises?

It’s probably not a surprise for people who attend Alverno, but it might be surprising to others. It’s the Alverno network. There are an amazing group of women who are alums of Alverno. They are outstanding in every way and the experience of an all-women’s higher education promotes lifelong relationships. My best friend, still today, was my chemistry lab partner. Those lifelong relationships are all part of the educational experience.

In addition, I remember the intelligence and wit and the eye-to-eye that the faculty, especially the School Sisters, had with us. They would tell us, “don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t do it. It’s just a matter of grabbing every opportunity that is available to you, along with the hard work to get there.” I apply that lesson to my life, still today. It gave me the confidence to know that I can do it and an inner strength grew out of that.

How have you remained involved with Alverno since your graduation?

At first, I started like many other graduates, I’m sure. I went to reunions and certainly made a point to see an Alverno Presents performance or take advantage of a special speaker program. Then I was asked to serve on the Alumnae Board and eventually joined the Board of Trustees in 2005 where I served on the finance committee.

You’re the first alumna Board Chair, what unique benefits does your Alverno experience bring to the chairperson role?

Any alumna has the unique perspective of the context of the institution, the student and the community, so we have a history with the school and an understanding of Alverno’s strengths and weaknesses. I think most alumnae have a vision for Alverno and a deep desire to ensure the school prospers, maintains a high ranking among its peers and continues to grow stronger for the long term.

You’re committed to having more women represented in the board room, why is this important to you and why is this important to the workplace?

Corporate governance is one of the places men and women can have an incredible impact on the future of a company or an institution. It’s an extremely important role from a fiduciary standpoint, but also in terms of strategy for future growth. Women are a great asset in these endeavors. Just look at the stock performance of companies with women in board roles compared to those without women. Studies show that even through the economic downturn these past few years, companies with women board members’ stocks have outperformed those companies without women board members over the last six years by 26 percent.

So it’s important to me as a woman and as an advocate for a strong U.S. economy: We have to get to the point where having a critical mass of women on boards is no longer the exception but the norm.

Where is the greatest opportunity to continue this upward trend?

We need to see an increase in women entrepreneurship and this is why Alverno is perfectly poised to be the spark plug in this regard. For me personally, I’d love to see more women-led businesses that are successful and hire people with good wages and strong futures, and I believe it is women who will help lead the economic turnaround.

In the corporate setting, the greatest opportunity for women is to steer careers toward profit and loss management. As more women move out of support or corporate overhead roles, they can prove their ability to manage a business and grow businesses. And that’s better for business and better for the economy. The same concept can be applied to a nonprofit setting. Women who choose these paths do remarkable work without many resources, so the more they grow the organization and create new opportunities to support the mission, the better it becomes for the entire community.

With a degree in nursing and a successful career in business, you are the epitome of the impact of a liberal arts education, why is a well-rounded education so important?

There’s nothing like a liberal arts education and, now more than ever, it’s important to be able to communicate effectively. It’s a distinction in this world to understand the context in which you’re operating and the impact on the world and the environment around you. All of that comes from a liberal arts education: understanding history, experiments that have worked or not, good analytic skills and an understanding of the world in which we live. Then applying that to one’s own world no matter what you end up doing whether you’re in science, nursing, teaching, IT, business or the arts. An Alverno education ensures you have the ability to effectively apply and perform in a way that reflects that knowledge.

Drawing from your own experience as a successful businessperson, what are some of the unique benefits of a higher education institution – both in terms of environment and curriculum – geared exclusively to women?

I am totally biased. There’s no better place for a woman to be successful than in an all-women’s setting, especially at the collegiate level where women are preparing to launch into the world. It gives you the freedom to learn in your own way, find your voice and express your point of view with confidence, but without the added pressure of being popular or cute, or not being too smart. In other words, it takes the pressure off of being smart, which isn’t to say it stops you from having a great social life, either!

As an alumna, what final words would you like to share with your peers?

I would encourage everyone to find a way to get involved with Alverno because our future depends on our alumnae. And it’s easy because there are so many opportunities to get involved and have an impact on the future of our students and the school. Uniquely at Alverno, this is important because there is never a shortage of need, or of great opportunities to make a difference. We have a lot of strong women who have graduated and can now serve as role models, assessors, mentors and champions of our students. We also have incredibly generous alumnae who provide financial support for students who otherwise wouldn’t be able to attend, or assist with building new classrooms. Being part in whatever way they can makes such a huge difference in everyone’s lives at Alverno. It’s also a great way to reconnect with friends and stay close to a great academic institution.