The Ultimate Gift

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By Judith Berger '98

Although uniquely different in their path to success, these eight Alverno alumnae have all found their way back to campus. They each built successful careers and have now taken time from their full lives to be active members on the College's Board of Trustees. They sat down to talk about their time at Alverno, their career and personal accomplishments and what it means to be actively involved with the College’s leadership.

Barbara Wyatt Sibley ’82, B.S. Business and Management
"My leadership roles evolved through the years. But a day doesn't go by that I don't use one or more of the eight abilities."

Barbara Wyatt Sibley is the executive director of the Milwaukee Christian Center. When she took the position in January 2011, the non-profit agency was in turmoil. "The agency needed my skill set," she shared. A skill set acquired through her Alverno education and developed from years in leadership positions in both the private and public sectors.

Wyatt Sibley, a non-traditional student at age 30, was working as an operations supervisor at AT&T when she met Ellen Gardner, an Alverno graduate. "I learned about Alverno from her and I knew that a college degree was the gatekeeper to my success," Wyatt Sibley recalled. She took her first class, "Management 101" taught by Sister Kathleen O'Brien '67, SSSF, on her lunch hours and continued with the weekend program. "My education gave me the confidence to do things," she said. "I learned who I was. It taught me to apply my skills to where I wanted to go in life."

A woman of faith, Wyatt Sibley said, "There’s a plan and you just have to trust the plan." As a member of the Board of Trustees, she’s dedicated to Alverno’s thriving future. "The college graduates more minority women than any other school in the state. Education is the key to a better life. Alverno teaches you to live your education in all aspects of your life." Wyatt Sibley has served as CEO of YWCA Greater Milwaukee and in the administration of Governor Jim Doyle. She is also a recipient of the YWCA Outstanding Volunteer Award.

Carol Mohns Meils, M.D. '75, B.S. Nursing, Biology, Psychology
The first-ever Wisconsin recipient of the prestigious Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Heart Association, Meils fondly remembers the Alverno faculty who saw her true promise.

Carol Meils was in her sophomore year at Alverno when Sister Leona Truchan, SSSF, suggested that Meils focus on Biology. "She recognized my interest in the sciences and said I had exceptional analytical skills," Meils recalled. Yes, Truchan was thinking of her student’s life beyond the scope of nursing.

Meils practiced nursing for four years before entering medical school. "Alverno opened doors for me intellectually. My interests fit the medical model. I wanted to be in the diagnostic evaluation and treatment of disease," she said. "My medical experience was entrenched in the male model. For me, Alverno was a strong model for women to be key players and to be prepared for leadership roles."

She went on to residency at Boston City Hospital where she eventually became the first female chief resident before moving on to a fellowship at Johns Hopkins. Meils practiced interventional cardiology for more than 25 years, including serving as the former chief of Cardiovascular Services at Wheaton Franciscan Healthcare - All Saints in Racine, Wis. "As an alumna and trustee, I find it so amazing that there are people in our community who are so impressed by Alverno’s curriculum, alumni and students that they generously give their time and money to the school. I think that speaks volumes about the quality of an Alverno education and what the school means to our community."

Mary Beth Pieprzyca Berkes ’75, B.S. Nursing
"Alverno not only gives you the confidence to be the only woman in the room, but also prepares women to even the odds."

Most of her career she's been the only woman in the room. For Mary Beth Berkes, managing director and operating partner at Linden LLC, that had to change. "I have a great passion for women's higher education. Alverno does it in an extraordinary way," she said. "It's important to me to see that it continues on."

Berkes, who earned her undergraduate degree in nursing, segued to business nearly 30 years ago by taking advantage of an opportunity that presented itself. "Alverno gave me the confidence to do that," she said. "I remember a faculty member telling me, 'don't let anyone tell you that you can’t do it.' That stayed with me all these years."

Even though Berkes was in the nursing program, she fondly remembers the liberal arts piece of her education. "I so loved being exposed to the music and art there. And being around those women," she said of the faculty. "They were tremendous role models — very impressive women."

Berkes works in the finance and banking side of her business and is encouraged as she now sees more women in the room. "Everything is better with diversity. Can it make things tougher? Maybe, but it’s well-worth it," she said noting that the quality of Alverno’s graduates is a rich resource for both the public and private sectors.

Ellen Gardner ’69, B.A. English
"Being on campus, I take a deep breath and have that sense again that I can be myself and be valued for it."

Ellen Gardner can still remember how she felt the first time she walked into Alverno as a high school senior. "I had a sense of relief," she remembered. As if she found the place where she belonged. "It was here that I could be myself yet challenged to be more."

Upon graduation she had no idea what she would do next. She went to work for the Wisconsin Telephone Company, as it was known back then, and entered a training program, Gardner recalled. "I was fortunate that I went from an environment where, as a woman, I was given the confidence to do anything I set my mind to, to a company that advanced women." Gardner was one of the first female CEOs in the state and retired from Ameritech as president of the company.

Her time on the board brings her back to campus often, which is something Gardner enjoys. And although she has participated on many boards, she has never been on one like Alverno's where the members are engaged and so knowledgeable about the organization, she said. "The leadership group has a real impact on the College. No other institution takes such care with its financial management and, from the president, the board, administration and faculty, it is always focused on its mission," she said of the education of its students and how they learn.

"I always assumed women could do whatever they wanted to do if they were prepared and willing to work for it," she said. "That came from my years at Alverno."

Cecelia Gore ’92, B.A. Professional Communication; ’08, MBA
"I'm proud to have the opportunity to be part of something that has been so significant in my life."

Having held several executive roles in Milwaukee, including her current role as executive director of the Brewers Community Foundation, Cecelia Gore has many experiences of which to be proud. One of the first, however, that she brings up in conversation is being part of the inaugural MBA class at Alverno. One advantage of this first-ever class, according to Gore, was that the group had an opportunity to share insight about the program, giving evidence that Alverno not only gives feedback, but expects it in return.

Gore also received an undergraduate degree from Alverno as a non-traditional-aged student. She worked full-time at the Wisconsin Gas Company when the woman to whom she reported, an Alverno graduate, recognized Gore's learning style as a good fit for the College. With every course, Gore brought what she had learned back to the workplace and the company recognized that she could do more, she recalled. "On every board and committee that I was on, my Alverno education was always relevant and had application."

After 23 years with the utility company, Gore jumped at a new opportunity with the Jane Bradley Pettit Foundation. Then in 2009, Gore was hired to head up the Brewers Community Foundation where she leads the development of the team's philanthropic efforts. This year, the foundation will share $1.5 million in grants and in-kind donations to local community organizations.

Gore's connection with Alverno has been ongoing. She served as board chair of the Alumnae Association, after which she was asked to join the board of trustees. "The Alumnae Trustees bring first-hand knowledge of an Alverno education offering a unique perspective," she said.

Judith (Judy) Kochis Drinka ’61, B.A. History and English
Having been told repeatedly there was no room for women advancing, she made an important decision: "I decided to stop asking for advice on what to do."

After earning her degree at Alverno, Drinka’s plan was to teach, but instead, she took a job in a real estate office. She was interested in graduate school where she was told to "go home and have babies" by the adviser. By that time, she was running the real estate office and working with the lawyers in the firm. Drinka found the work interesting.

When she sought advice about attending law school, a respected colleague told her, "women aren’t going to make it in law." It was about this time Drinka stopped asking for advice.

In 1975, she received her law degree from Marquette University. Today, Drinka has her own firm, practicing estate planning and real estate law.

Drinka recalled the mentoring from faculty. "I had an opportunity to be a student at the beginning of Sister Joel Read's '48, SSSF, teaching career at Alverno," she said of the woman who eventually served as the school’s president from 1968 to 2003. "She told me I could be whatever I wanted to be."

Through the years of being connected with the college, Drinka has seen an evolution. "The curriculum and leadership has changed, but the spirit of the school remains the same. It continues to focus on the individual student. And it’s a comfortable environment where students are encouraged and given opportunities to expand their interests and their boundaries."

Kathleen (Kal) Lawler ’82, B.S. Business and Management
Lawler took a job with Harley-Davidson the summer after her freshman year in college. "I thought, 'well this is it.  I’ve landed in my dream company,'" she recalled and left school. Years later, she would realize that having a degree would help her continue to advance within the company.

She credits many people for her success. In addition to being surrounded by talented people at Harley, Lawler was also greatly influenced by her family, especially her father. "My father was my role model, and he taught me the value of being inquisitive and analytical," she said. This combination is also what made her a perfect fit for Alverno.

Before attending Alverno, Lawler had spent many years moving up Harley’s management ranks. She enrolled in the weekend program and was grateful for the professional opportunities that became available after earning a degree.

"Harley always encouraged me to continue to grow as a professional," she said. As the first female vice president for Harley-Davidson, Lawler served as vice president of marketing, moved to European operations for five years and finished her career there as vice president communications in 2008.

Alverno gave Lawler confidence to do many things, including the ability to ask tough questions and to bring others into the conversation, she said. “I learned that group interaction is often the key to a better result.”

Even after her retirement, it was important to Lawler to maintain her Board position at Alverno. "I’m inspired by the nature of the culture and the caliber of the faculty. I’m proud to be a part of the College's mission, and among the people who have a deep interest in the personal development of its students."

Mari-Anne Hechmann ’91, B.A. Professional Communication
"The strength of a great education is that much of what we learn becomes more relevant through the years."

"My whole life, I have had a servant’s heart," Mari-Anne Hechmann said. "So my first semester when taking 'IN 125,' I knew Alverno was the right place for me. It was the perfect alignment of my values and validated the servant heart in me." Hechmann, who enrolled at the age of 39, remembers her graduation as the day she "felt transformed."

Hechmann is now retired from her position with Baxter, a worldwide leader in the health care industry with 80 years of medical accomplishments, where she oversaw and managed customer relations. Much of her time is now devoted to her two passions: Alverno College and Mano-a-Mano, a Hispanic resource center in Illinois where she volunteers as an ESL and citizenship teacher. Remembering the eight core abilities that continue to be relevant and important in her daily life, Hechmann refused to use the grading system that was in place at the resource center. "I thought assessing core abilities would work much better," she explained. So, in true Alverno fashion, she presented evidence to its board. The results were more than she expected. Mano-a-Mano made changes to its curriculum and had its funding increased.

Hechmann makes the more than 100-mile round trip to Alverno for meetings and events because she believes in the College's mission. "We are right-sized. In the tradition of Franciscan teaching. It is personal. It is a community focused on the success of women," she said. "Alverno develops and adapts programs for an evolving country and world. That’s its strength."