President McGuire, Trinity Featured on WAMU

President McGuire, Trinity Featured on WAMU

Photo of Students

Trinity Students, August 2019

WAMU-FM aired a feature on President Pat McGuire and Trinity Washington University that highlights an unwavering commitment to making higher education accessible and providing “support and services for students who in many cases wouldn’t otherwise attend college — older students, immigrants, single mothers, those struggling financially.” The story notes Trinity’s partnerships with D.C. Public Schools, including a new early college program with Coolidge Senior High School that began this fall, and its commitment to enrolling Dreamers. The WAMU feature chronicles President McGuire’s dynamic, game-changing leadership of Trinity and in the public realm, noting that “she isn’t shy about sharing her progressive views. She talks about ‘gun violence and political selfishness’ and the ‘unjust and unfair war’ against undocumented people.” President McGuire also talks about the value of the women’s college experience at Trinity:  “For young women, that is such a transformative experience where they realize they can be very powerful intellectual actors. And that changes their lives immensely.”

Listen to the audio.


A longer version of the story, below, is posted on the WAMU site.

The Evolving Legacy Of A Women’s College: Trinity’s Pat McGuire

Kavitha Cardoza, WAMU-FM, September 5, 2019

Trinity Washington University President Patricia (Pat) McGuire reads every incoming freshman’s essay. Stories about struggling as a teen mom, losing a parent, being undocumented. “They reflect on their trauma as a way to inspire their college years: ‘I want to change the history of my family. I don’t want to be another statistic.’ ”

She recently welcomed this year’s class with a rousing speech. “You are now truly Trinity women! We love it!”

Trinity fills what McGuire sees as a vital role, a women’s college that welcomes all students, and provides support and services for students who in many cases wouldn’t otherwise attend college — older students, immigrants, single mothers, those struggling financially.

Founded in 1897, Trinity once had a very different mission, focused on educating young women from private Catholic schools. Well-known Trinity alumnae include House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, class of ‘62 and former Director of U.S. Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius, class of ’70, and current adviser to the Trump administration Kellyanne Conway, class of ‘89.

But that was a different era. As more universities opened their doors to women and Title IX offered more opportunities, the white, wealthy, suburban young women from Catholic girls schools were choosing to go elsewhere.

Trinity was in trouble. Enrollment had plummeted from 900 to just 300 full-time students. They’d gone through six presidents in eight years. And costs were mounting as the school’s supply of free teachers — nuns — began to shrink.

When McGuire took over as president of Trinity in 1989, she was given one directive: “Fix it or close it.”

“The trustees knew they needed a game changer, and who could be a better game changer than somebody who didn’t know what she was doing,” McGuire jokes.

She was a lawyer by training, and while she didn’t have executive experience, she did have bold ideas. Trinity needed students, so McGuire challenged her admissions team to recruit from an entirely different student pool: local public schools. She also launched a nursing program, now one of the most popular tracks at Trinity.

Pushback Over Mission

Opening Trinity’s doors to all students meant admitting students who hadn’t typically applied to college. “They were not as well prepared academically, and they were not only low-income students, but they were students of different races and ethnicities, predominantly African American,” says McGuire.

Shifting the school’s mission caused a stir among alumnae, and some complained that “standards were falling.” Alumna Peggy O’Brien, class of ’69, remembers the standoff between McGuire and the alumnae in the late 90’s. “The group wrote to alums and said, ‘Don’t send money to the college anymore, send money to the alumnae association. And we will keep it in escrow and give it to the college when we feel the college is doing right.’ And so people began to do that.”

There was even a petition to remove McGuire at one point. But the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur, the order that founded Trinity, supported McGuire. And O’Brien says alumnae eventually realized the controversy had gone on too long and was hurting the college. It took time, but many came around to support the new focus. O’Brien says, “At reunions, we asked students to come and speak about what they were studying and what they wanted to do with their lives. And of course, once alums saw them and heard them, they fell in love with these students. That was one of the most important pieces in building that bridge.”

Outspoken And Unapologetic

McGuire is controversially political for a college president, and she isn’t shy about sharing her progressive views. She talks about “gun violence and political selfishness” and the “unjust and unfair war” against undocumented people. This has at times riled and alienated conservative alums. Some complain that while well-known liberal alumna like Pelosi are celebrated with honorary degrees, those on the right like Conway are passed over.

But McGuire is unapologetic. “I think it’s just too bad that too many of my brother and sister presidents, are shy, or unwilling for whatever reason, to speak out about the critical issues of the day. There’s a suspicion that among private colleges, at least they’re afraid of alienating donors, or alums. Well, I’ve had alums be angry at me, but we talk about it and we have a learned dialogue. But nevertheless, every president should have a point where either they’re able to speak out about issues or they should walk away from the job.”

Supporting Students in Tough Circumstances

Trinity’s 2,000 students are now overwhelmingly women of color, non-Catholic, very low income and often the first in their families to go to college. Ten percent are “Dreamers,” immigrants who entered the country as children without legal documents. Some attend over the objections of family members who see college as a luxury that delays entering the job market.

Trinity’s story isn’t one of unbroken success, however. Just 37 percent of students graduate after six years, and that rate has been falling recently. Trinity and D.C. Public Schools have been working to prepare students earlier–starting in middle school–and adding early college programs at places like Coolidge High School.

Trinity students face a number of non academic challenges, including poverty, lack of childcare, and domestic violence. McGuire talks about a student who didn’t realize there was no free lunch served at college; another didn’t understand why they had to start paying for Metro cards.

But helping students address those challenges has been one of Trinity’s strengths. Erin Bibo, who oversees college and career programs at D.C. Public Schools, says, “Students are getting an excellent education but they also support their students with children with finding excellent childcare options, they have very strong mental health support services, they are also very attuned to students’ financial aid pressures.”

Another big challenge is students arriving unprepared for the academic work. About a third of new students aim to enroll in the popular nursing program.

“Unfortunately, many students get here and discover that nursing requires chemistry and Calculus and statistics, and levels of analytical math and science they were never exposed to and can’t do. They stop coming to class and they get discouraged. And that’s a big factor that drives students out,” says McGuire.

The Future of Trinity

There used to be 300 all-women’s colleges in the U.S in the 1960s; now there are only about 35. But McGuire still sees a vital role for schools like Trinity. ”It’s why we remain a women’s college in many ways at Trinity: it may be the first time a young woman from the city has ever been told she can be very successful, especially in the hard subjects that you can do the math, you can do that science experiment, you can win a prize for your poem or you can be on stage and people will cheer for you. For young women, that is such a transformative experience where they realize they can be very powerful intellectual actors. And that changes their lives immensely.”

At three decades in the job, McGuire has lasted five times longer than the average university president. Given her dedication and strong leadership style, many see Pat McGuire and Trinity Washington University as virtually indistinguishable. That makes some worry privately about what it means for the future of Trinity when she inevitably steps down.

McGuire dismisses those questions and concerns. And at the moment, she shows no signs of stepping or even slowing down. Trinity just completed construction on a brand-new $32 million academic center. And McGuire is gearing up for a multimillion-dollar capital campaign to celebrate Trinity’s upcoming 125th anniversary.

Virtually everyone who knows Pat McGuire comments on her energy, so it was somewhat surprising to learn she goes on vacation every year alone to the Adirondacks for two weeks. Just her, a camera and a kayak. “I find it’s absolutely necessary to think and reflect. And I also think it builds confidence. Because once you’re confident in yourself you can do anything.”

View and listen to this story at WAMU-FM.

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