On Friday, September 8, Saint Anselm College kicked off the 2023-2024 year with an academic convocation celebrating a significant milestone—more than 50 years of women’s education at the college. Following on the success of the nationally recognized nursing program, in late August of 1974, the college enrolled women to all academic programs. 

This year, Saint Anselm marks this delineating moment in its history with a series of special events and programs engaging the entire campus community and planned by a committee dedicated to commemorating the auspicious anniversary. 

“In some ways, it is hard to imagine a time when Saint Anselm was not a co-educational institution,” said College President Joseph A. Favazza at convocation, the first event of the year. “When reflecting on that decision, it is so clear to me how the presence of women on campus has only strengthened the mission of the college.”

Dr. Favazza pointed to the contributions of women in the 1950s from Ruth Bagley and Margaret Amsbury hired to lead the nursing program to those faculty hired to teach in the biology department: Barbara Stahl and Ann Sullivan. 

Beyond the faculty, women who contributed to the college’s mission include Norma Creaghe as head librarian, Isabelle Gadbois, the first female member of the advisory board, and, of course, Denise Askin, who was appointed as the first woman in administrative leadership as executive vice president in 1985.

“Each moment, each individual, a new thread woven inextricably into the fabric of our community, our history, our identity,” remarked Favazza. 

Vice President for Academic Affairs, Sheila Liotta, Ph.D., also shared college history, touching upon significant dates such as the Benedictine community’s vote to admit women in November of 1973 and the enrollment of 26 women resident and commuter students to all programs of the college in the fall of 1974. 

“We owe a debt of gratitude to those 26 pioneering young women who climbed the hill with confidence and tenacity,” said Liotta. 

In the spirit of reflection, alumna Emily Orlando ’91, a Professor of English and the E. Gerald Corrigan Chair in the Humanities and Social Sciences at Fairfield University, gave the convocation address, “Closer We Are to Fine,” speaking about her own experiences as a Saint Anselm student in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s and drawing on her expertise in women and literature.

Professor Orlando is an internationally recognized scholar on Edith Wharton, a female author, who as Orlando reminded her audience, “was not supposed to be a professional writer but on the contrary was born into a family whose women were raised to be decorative ornaments and/or society hostesses.” Having studied Wharton’s literature and life extensively, Professor Orlando is particularly poised to draw comparisons between Wharton’s success with those of women throughout the last one hundred years.

Emily Orlando giving a speech in the Koonz Theater for the convocation ceremony

In remarks full of pop culture references from Greta Gerwig’s most recent blockbuster hit, “Barbie,” to Taylor Swift’s 1989 album and pop-hit “Shake it Off” to quotes by band U2, Professor Orlando described her experiences as a Generation-x college woman citing the Indigo Girls’ “Closer to Fine” song released in 1989 as an anthem of sorts. 

Professor Orlando first called Saint Anselm College home in the fall of 1987, only 13 years after women were first admitted to all undergraduate programs. She had three tenured women professors in her time on campus including Denise Askin who taught Orlando’s “life-changing course in American Writers” and was the reason that Orlando focused her Ph.D. in American Literature.

“The curriculum at Saint Anselm lit a fire in me that has never dwindled,” said Professor Orlando. “That’s precisely what the humanities will do: promise us a life-long love of learning.”

She continued explaining the importance Saint Anselm’s liberal arts curriculum and faculty played in her life and career. “Here’s the thing: Saint Anselm taught me how to think critically and how to be humane. It introduced me to the life of the mind. The four-semesters of the humanities seminar made me comfortable with my own voice. The curriculum taught me how to represent myself well in person, on the page, and now, online.”

“What good fortune to find ourselves at a place that enables us to pursue our appetites for ‘intellectual curiosity,’ to cultivate our interests in ‘big things,’ and to be persons for others who are connected to something bigger than ourselves.” 

Professor Orlando advised students to find their own passions: “Look in your heart and find the thing you love. Then, as the poet Emily Dickinson implores, dwell in all its possibilities.”

She concluded by advocating for “faith seeking understanding,” striving for “closer to fine,” and proposing: “Might we be incorrigible in our life-loving and take a page out of Denise Askin’s book. As a tribute to the legacy of that ‘portrait of human greatness,’ let us remind ourselves, habitually, that anything good is possible. 

Professor Orlando is the author of the award-winning book, Edith Wharton and the Visual Arts. She is also co-editor of the book, Edith Wharton and Cosmopolitanism, and has published widely in a number of scholarly journals and essay collections. She is a recent president of the international Edith Wharton Society and remains an active member of the society. Professor Orlando edited The Bloomsbury Handbook to Edith Wharton, published in 2022, which features top scholars in her field from around the globe.

Convocation was also an opportunity to highlight the profound impact Denise Askin had on generations of Anselmians, in addition to Orlando. Askin passed away on Tuesday, June 6 of this year after a long struggle with ALS. In addition to her role as EVP, she was a member of the English Department and one of the first women to be granted tenure at Saint Anselm College. She served as a member of the Board of Trustees from 2009 until 2020. In 2022, she was elected as a Trustee emerita.

To honor Askin’s memory, the college announced the establishment of the Dr. Denise Askin Faculty Fellowship. Administered through the Father Peter Center for Teaching Excellence (CTE), the fellowship will provide two to three faculty a year with the support, time, and resources they need to re-envision their coursework and pedagogy with a focus on ensuring equity, inclusion, and belonging for diverse students. Education Professor Dianna Terrell, Ph.D., one of the CTE co-chairs, announced the fellowship at convocation. 

“…I am honored to reveal more evidence to illustrate Dr. Askin’s continuing ability to light the way for the academic community at Saint Anselm College in opening literal doors, and in opening minds,” said Professor Terrell. “In this way, we appreciate Dr. Denise Askin’s ability to continue to hold us to a high bar.”

The committee planning this year’s anniversary celebrations is led by Father Benet Phillips, O.S.B., ’87, director alumni relations and advancement programming, and Christine Gustafson, professor of politics and special assistant to the vice president for academic affairs. Additional events and programs will be announced in the coming months. 

View the ceremony on Youtube →