August 14, 2020

New $15 million hall shows growth of SMWC and impact of male students

Dottie King, president of Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College, hopes there will be all-time record enrollment in 2020-21. (Submitted photo)

Dottie King, president of Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College, hopes there will be all-time record enrollment in 2020-21. (Submitted photo)

By John Shaughnessy

Dottie King became emotional as she drove through the tree-lined campus of Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College on a June morning earlier this year.

As the president of the college, King knew she would soon become part of a defining day in the history of the school that was founded by St. Mother Theodore Guérin near Terre Haute in 1840.

On that June morning, the college broke ground on a $15 million residence and dining hall, the first residence hall to be built in 100 years on the campus in the community of St. Mary-of-the-Woods.

The building reflects the continuing growth of enrollment at the college in the past five years, a growth related to the historically all-women school admitting male students for the first time in 2015.

In her remarks at the groundbreaking ceremony, King smiled and noted, “Saint Mother Theodore Guérin settled on what is now campus, and while much has changed, you can look around and see that 180 years later there are still a lot of trees. And yet, God has done something special here, and he has continued to bless us.”

For King, much of that blessing is connected to the continuing influence and presence of the Sisters of Providence on campus.

There’s also the blessing of anticipating an all-time record enrollment at the college as it prepares to start the school year on August 18.

In an interview with The Criterion, King discussed all these blessings, as well as the challenges of starting the school year with in-class instruction and on-campus residence during this time of the coronavirus pandemic.

Here is an edited version of the exchange with King, who has been president of the college since 2011.

Q. The college recently broke ground on the first residence hall to be built on campus since 1920. What does that say to you about the present health and the future of Saint Mary-of-the-Woods?

A. “Our college has been blessed with five consecutive years of growth in the residential campus program. After years of declining enrollment and many attempts to turn that trend around, I certainly don’t take the growth for granted. Having a need for the first new residence hall in nearly 100 years is both significant and symbolic.”

Q. In 2015, Saint Mary’s accepted men at the college for the first time in its history. There were six men in the college in 2015, and 96 in 2019. Talk about the impact that having men as students has had on the college, in terms of living there and attending classes there.

A. “The greatest impact of having men on our campus is greater interest and enrollment of women. The men have quickly become part of our culture and are a great addition to our student body. They participate fully in our well-honored traditions.

“The coeducation decision came with expected emotion, especially from our alums. Love for ‘The Woods,’ however, made the transition smooth for us. We have added a men’s varsity athletic team every year beginning in 2016. We are currently recruiting for men’s basketball for fall 2021.”

Q. Enrollment has also increased because of the college adding a major in nursing. What led the college to add that program, and what impact has it had on the school?

A. “Saint Mary-of-the-Woods added nursing programs through the generosity of a grant received from the Eli Lilly Education Foundation. We hired Marcia Miller as director of nursing in January 2014. She led us through the process of adding an online completion program for a baccalaureate degree in nursing, addition of the full BSN residential program, accreditation and now addition of a Master of Science degree in nursing. After year three, nursing is the largest enrolled program at the college. It has also provided the foundation for us to add other health-related programs such as paramedical science and kinesiology.”

Q. There’s hope for an all-time enrollment record this year. How many students are you expecting?

A. “We are hopeful of enrolling 550 total campus students this fall. While COVID-19 has had an impact on recruitment, we are aggressively pursuing this goal. We will continue to promote the worth of an education that is accompanied by faith and values, and we will seek to meet the evolving needs of our students and our world.”

Q. Colleges will be facing tremendous challenges this school year because of concerns about the coronavirus crisis. As the president of the Board of Independent Colleges of Indiana, will this be a year when colleges, particularly small private colleges, struggle to stay alive financially?

A. “I am the immediate past chair of the Board and serving in that role has given me knowledge and insight to the vulnerability that many small, private colleges experience. The challenges presented by COVID-19 exacerbate those. At the same time, small private schools are nimble and have a lot of experience in navigating challenge.”

Q. What are the approaches that Saint Mary-of-the-Woods will be taking in response to the concerns and challenges that the coronavirus poses once again for this school year?

A. “We have monitored national and state health reports and guidelines. Knowing that our plan will continue to evolve with the most recent news, we have formed a comprehensive plan for reopening. We are considering the health and safety of our students, faculty and staff. We are addressing class sizes and sizes of classrooms, food service protocols, arrangements of student residential rooms, extracurricular activities and how and when students gather.”

Q. How did the college’s experience with online education in the spring semester work for students, and has it led to any fine-tuning if the coronavirus cancels in-class sessions again?

A. “Saint Mary-of-the-Woods has been delivering education at a distance since 1973, and the program has grown and changed with emerging technology. We were as prepared as any school could have been to move to remote learning. Many of our faculty have much experience with online teaching/learning, and they became a resource for those who don’t. The departments that don’t have online programs became exceptionally creative in remote delivery. Our faculty learned from their experience and are part of our plans for the possibility of returning to remote instruction this fall.”

Q. The college has announced plans to keep 2021-22 tuition rates the same as its 2020-21 rate for undergraduate students. What is the tuition for 2020-21? Talk about the motivation for that decision.

A. “The sticker-price for tuition is just shy of $30,000 and yet the generosity of our alumni and the college itself provides scholarships to make our education very affordable. We give away nearly $9 million annually in tuition assistance. We want to give our families some additional peace of mind during these challenging days. Knowing tuition is not increasing, and we are guaranteeing that tuition for all four years, will hopefully provide peace.”

Q. Talk about the impact that the Sisters of Providence have on Saint Mary-of-the-Woods, and how that influence still guides the college.

A. “The impact of the Sisters of Providence is difficult to quantify. The values that we hold dear, our commitment to our students, our quest to innovate, the determination to create education that is relevant to our world and so many other of our character traits come from the Sisters. They not only founded the Academy that became our College, but they sustained it through years of sacrifice and commitment to education.

“During our challenges, they not only pray for us, but also find ways to help us. They are our greatest cheerleaders in times of celebration. Always a forward-looking group, they quickly recognize value in new ideas and unexplored pathways. Their DNA is foundational to who we have been, are, and will become.” †

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