Notable Alumnae & Awards
|A mission for Africa|
Ever since serving in Swaziland, Africa in the Peace Corps, Barb Houle '85 had been on a mission to find a way to make a positive and lasting change for the people and place she had grown to love. Three decades later, an unplanned visit to a Swaziland hospital sparked an idea that would lead to the change she had always imagined. But long before that distinctive trip, the groundwork for being undaunted by new ideas and ventures was laid during her time as a Saint Ben's student.
Barb graduated from Saint Ben's with a degree in natural science and began her professional career as a biology lab supervisor at Anoka Ramsey Community College. Wanting to advance her education and explore options, Barb decided to take a psychology course. It turned out to be a great fit and with her supervisor's encouragement, Barb went back to school for a master's degree in psychology and then attended Northern Illinois University for her Ph.D.
"Sometimes life takes a different turn and that's okay," explains Barb. "I always felt that my Saint Ben's education prepared me very well for graduate school. The skills and knowledge I acquired there could be applied to any academic discipline. My career change from natural science to psychology demonstrates that well. I am now a psychology instructor at Riverland Community College in Austin, Minn."
In 2009, Barb returned to Africa for a year-long sabbatical through school. One day during the trip, Barb and her friends visited the local hospital and noticed the room, which held a number of patients on cot-like-beds, didn't offer anything for patients to do to pass the time. There were no TVs, no magazines or books, and nothing for recovering patients to look at. Barb shared this observation with her friend and colleague Lindiwe Sibisi, who lives in Swaziland, and they started Read to Recovery, a program that provides books for recovering hospital patients.
"Sometimes you have an idea and you just go with it. Read to Recovery was exactly that. In my heart, I knew I couldn't walk away," says Barb.
The program launched later that year and has since expanded to hospitals throughout Swaziland. Barb has returned several times since then, most recently in June 2014 to expand Read to Recovery to include Christian music CDs sung by the group Spiritually Motivated.
"I believe God gives everyone special talents, and it's up to us to decide how we use them to serve others. I'm grateful for what I have been blessed with and consider it a privilege to share my talents with others," says Barb.
|Answering the call|
St. John of the Cross Episcopal Church in Bristol, Ind. was founded in 1843 and has long been a testament to the power of faith and hard work in the community. It is no surprise then that newly ordained Rev. Jennifer Coe Fulton '93 fits right in as the most recent priest-in-charge. Jen has embraced every twist and turn in her career and has used her drive and incredible faith to embrace her newest position as the leader of this historic parish.
"If someone had told me ten years ago that I would one day be an Episcopal priest, I would have laughed at them," says Jen. "But when God called me, while I resisted that call for a while, I was eventually able to submit with something akin to grace. The roots of all of that began with my family, childhood church and Saint Ben's."
Jen graduated from Saint Ben's with a bachelor's degree in English and pursued a master's degree in the same field at the University of Illinois. She began her professional career teaching at an all-girls Catholic school in the south suburbs of Chicago. She then raised two daughters as a stay-at-home-mom before joining the staff at the University of Notre Dame as the student coordinator for the Nanovic Institute for European Studies. She did all this before going back to school again for a master's degree in ministry from Nashotah House Theological Seminary.
"The connections between my Saint Ben's experience and my life now as an Episcopal priest aren't obvious," explains Jen. "I wasn't a particularly faithful or faith-filled Christian. In fact, many of my friends and professors might call that an understatement! However, being at Saint Ben's helped root me in the Christian sacramental tradition in ways that I didn't see, and even actively resisted at the time. When I finally wandered into an Episcopal church years later, it was like I had wandered back home. In addition, spending those years surrounded by the monks and sisters instilled in me a sense of respect for those who devote their lives to God and the Church, and I believe that helped me respond in faithfulness to God's call to me."
In addition to her ministry work, Jen continues to work for Notre Dame in the Nanovic Institute, empowering students to conduct research, internships or service projects in Europe. She uses her own study abroad experience in Austria to inspire more students to take a leap of faith in their college years and embrace unfamiliar territory. Through both of her current positions, Jen has been able to channel her experiences at Saint Ben's into enriching the minds of others spiritually and academically.
"Work hard and faithfully, but don't let yourself think for even a minute that you are the sole determinant of your life path," advises Jen. "Our lives often take us in directions we would never have expected. Leave yourself open to life's twists and turns and to the still, small voice of God. They might lead you to a place that you didn't expect but that is very, very good."
|The age of adventure|
At the age of 84, Doris Bogut Simonett '51 decided it was time to see the world.
Last year, Doris and her 24-year-old granddaughter came across an ad for the University of Virginia's Semester at Sea program, a four-month study abroad voyage that incorporates traditional academic disciplines with the added benefit of sailing around the world. With the encouragement of their family, both grandmother and granddaughter enrolled in the corresponding Lifelong Learning program for adult travelers who have an enduring passion for learning - a description that has fit Doris perfectly since she first stepped foot on the Saint Ben's campus.
"I will never forget the day I arrived," recalls Doris. "The chapel was a majestic little jewel and the sisters were chanting a portion of the divine office. Later, I noticed the field adjoining campus where a sister was driving a tractor and farming the food we were to eat. I felt that this place was holy ground and it would nourish me both soul and body. That feeling never left me. My time at Saint Ben's guided me for the rest of my life and helped me build a foundation for my family."
|Finding the right path|
“Deciding on a career path is incredibly challenging. Some people chose a major in college, find a job in their field and remain happy and satisfied forever. The rest of us have to spend a decade (or two, or three) discerning our paths.”
These wise words from Elizabeth Deziel ’01 will undoubtedly strike a chord for many. But Liz is uniquely qualified to speak on the subject considering she is one of the banking industry’s youngest, high-ranking women executives in the Twin Cities — without ever taking a single business course at Saint Ben’s.
After earning a bachelor of arts in liberal art studies, Liz moved to the Twin Cities and led YMCA after-school programs for at-risk youth in Downtown Minneapolis. After a few years working in the non-profit sector, Liz finally had her “aha” moment and recognized that what she really craved from a job was regular intellectual and analytical challenges. It was time to take her career in a completely new direction.
In 2005, Liz entered the corporate world by landing a job with U.S. Bancorp Foundation as a community relations specialist. Within a year, she knew she had found the right fit.
At age 29, Liz became a vice president at U.S. Bank and at 31 she became managing director of The Private Client Reserve of U.S. Bank. In this role, she oversees 10 bankers and associates in the Reserve’s Twin Cities’ offices and advises clients whose net worth is at least $3 million. This impressive climb is a tribute to Liz’s hard work and dedication, but she remains thankful for the women who paved the way so her generation could compete in the business world.
“We still have a lot of work ahead of us, which is why Saint Ben’s mission to foster leadership and personal development is vital,” says Liz. “Women hold such a small number of the senior leadership roles in the business world, and many companies still have no women on their corporate board of directors. It is important to be well-rounded, poised, articulate, passionate and know how to get things done. Saint Ben's helps foster all of that, as well as a unique blend of warmth, confidence and ambition.”
While it’s not uncommon for students to change their major while in college, Liz stands as an example to young women that their first job may not be something they stick with forever. “I would encourage young women to think about what they are really good at and what satisfies them. Pick something, try it for a year or more, and learn from it. Everything you try will teach you something about yourself."
|Student club becomes a nonprofit|
At the age of 6, Danielle Liebl '14 was asked by her parents what she wanted to be when she grew up. Without missing a beat, she responded, "An orthopedic surgeon at Gillette." That's a pretty specific answer for a 6-year-old and one that would surprise most people. But Danielle, who was diagnosed with cerebral palsy when she was 5 months old, had become very familiar with doctors and their titles at a young age.
Although a formidable biology class in high school made her admit that being an orthopedic surgeon wasn't in the cards, her childhood dream wasn't lost. Danielle reevaluated what she felt called to do and realized that while she wouldn't be Dr. Liebl, she could be just as influential in helping people with intellectual and cognitive disabilities - and she credits the Special Olympics and the College of Saint Benedict for helping her do just that.
"When I joined the local Special Olympics team, my life changed dramatically," says Danielle. "They gave me the skills to be an advocate and to recognize the issues that were important to me. They helped me realize that my disability doesn't define who I am or what my limitations are. The only person who can define that for me is me."
Danielle brought that perspective with her when she started her first year at Saint Ben's. She got to work right away by hosting a Spread The Word To End The Word campaign on campus, which seeks to educate young people about the misuse of the word "retard(ed)." Danielle had been a member of the team who started the campaign at the Special Olympics World Youth Summit in Boise, Idaho.
The following fall, armed with incredible on-campus results from the campaign, she co-founded Students for the Advancement of People with DIFFERbilities (now DIFFERbilities Club) in partnership with Special Olympics Minnesota. The club provides advocacy and awareness campaigns for students, faculty and staff on how to interact with and treat people with disabilities. Under Danielle's guidance, the club quickly grew and began offering inclusive sports and mentoring opportunities.
Toward the end of her junior year, a mentor nominated Danielle for the Peace First Prize - a two-year fellowship and grant awarded to young peacemakers who demonstrate compassion, courage and collaborative change. During the six-month interview process, she was asked the question, "What do you see as the future of the club you started at your college?" To her surprise she answered, "Growing it into a nonprofit."
That answer was one of many reasons why Danielle was one of the 10 receipts of the inaugural Peace First Prize. Shortly after, it was decided that during her fellowship, she would focus on growing the club she started at Saint Ben's into a nonprofit. Soon, DIFFERbilities Experience was born.
The mission of DIFFERbilities Experience is to provide friendship and inclusion-building opportunities to high school and college students both with and without disabilities in a controlled environment. With a focus on each individual's abilities and interests in art, education and sports, students foster communities of inclusion, acceptance and mutual respect.
"Saint Ben's is a special place to me," says Danielle. "It is the place where the idea of DIFFERbilities Experience was conceived and where it was born. Because of the emphasis around community and service, my classmates were all very supportive about my dream, and they were very open and receptive about my ideas. I honestly do not believe that DIFFERbilities Experience would have existed if I had chosen a different college."
|Transforming the world|
Many Bennies describe their study abroad experience as life-changing. Jessica Slattery '02 characterizes her experience as transformative. As a foreign affairs officer at the State Department in Washington, D.C, that is a fitting reflection for someone who fights for human rights around the world and works to transform lives for the better.
Jessica credits her Saint Ben's education - and study abroad experience in Australia - to initially opening her mind to internationally-based thinking, something discussed less frequently in her small Nebraskan hometown.
"For the first time I was a global participant. I saw and felt the world and the people in it. I believe people around the world share many needs, dreams and desires. They deserve the freedom to realize their dreams and the opportunity to share in prosperity," says Jessica.
The experience left a profound impact and encouraged Jessica's wanderlust back to Australia as a CSB/SJU study abroad resident/program assistant following graduation. She began taking graduate-level courses in business and aboriginal studies and later obtained a Juris Doctor degree from the University of Saint Thomas. A few years later, armed with corporate law experience and a deeper understanding of her calling, Jessica took a personal and professional risk and went back to school for dual master's degrees in International Relations and History through the "Atlantis Program" - a transatlantic program that took her from West Virginia to Tartu, Estonia, to Warsaw, Poland.
The risk paid off and led Jessica to the State's Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, Office of International Labor Affairs, as a Presidential Management Fellow where she works to promote international labor standards and eradicate forced and child labor. One significant area of her work is in Bangladesh, where two tragic factory disasters (the Tarzeen Factory fire and the Rana Plaza building collapse) brought international attention to the garment sector in Bangladesh and the supply chain that runs to western brands and consumers. Jessica worked with a variety of stakeholders, including the companies who source garments and the government itself, to improve working conditions and establish workers' rights in Bangladesh and beyond.
"The most important aspect of my job is ensuring that the perspectives of those without power in this world are taken into account when the United States makes its foreign policy. In other words, to stand up for those that are left out or marginalized. We must continue to fight, on behalf of our common humanity, to ensure people across the world have the dignity to live with human rights and a government and a society that recognizes and respects them," explains Jessica.
From a transformative experience as a Saint Ben's student, to a career in diplomacy dedicated to transforming the world, Jessica encourages others to find their vocation. "Ask yourself: What are your gifts? What was the last thing you were doing when you totally lost track of time? Be honest and overcome the temptation to invent obstacles to your dreams or rationalize not pursing them. This is your life. Live it authentically and make contributions you can be proud of."