Many women feel the need to try and be all things to all people. In the case of ND Women Connect, that works.
Formally launched in May 2009, ND Women Connect links Notre Dame alumnae together through local chapters springing up all across the country — offering mentoring, professional networking, service project opportunities, mom/toddler groups, book clubs — everything, really, from workshops to wine tastings.
It’s designed to reach, support and inspire Notre Dame women — all Notre Dame women — whether they’re in the boardroom or the courtroom or the family room or the classroom.
“ND women define success not just by how many rungs they can climb up the corporate ladder but also how they realize their own potential and love their families and friends well. ND Women Connect is the result,” says Mary Murphy ’81, a former Notre Dame Alumni Association board member involved in the genesis of the group.
“The great thing about ND Women Connect is that it’s completely organic. A chapter can do whatever its members want to do,” she says.
Murphy found support from other Notre Dame women as she decided to put family in front of a career. These same ND women were equally supportive of her move back into the workforce as her children got older.
“My sense is that ND women share the same gifts — intellect and drive, no matter what the profession — and the same sense of responsibility to family and community. With an underpinning of Catholic faith, we’re all trying to be that ‘force for good’ that Father Sorin spoke of way back when,” she adds.
The expectations ND women have for themselves, however, can sometimes result in a sense of isolation.
“I’m 43 years old. I have two degrees from Notre Dame and am a stay-at-home mother of three children,” says Maraya Steadman’89, ’90MBA. “When I decided to stay at home, there were no accessible mentors. No professional women who were smart and educated and had ‘been there done that’ that I could talk to. Nobody to ask about what to say at parties when you got the dreaded question, ‘So, what do you do?’ No one to provide leadership and say ‘It’s okay to be at home with your kids.’”
Steadman contacted her Chicago chapter of ND Women Connect seeking a mentor or program specifically for the group she affectionately calls “the stay-at-home crowd.” Though the response she received was warm and affirmative, the fledging Chicago chapter hadn’t yet established any programs for at-home women. That is changing.
“They had evidently been wondering how to access the stay-at-home crowd,” Steadman says of the Chicago group. “I have all sorts of ideas, and I’m excited about being a part of the effort because I want people to know NDWC is for all of us. No lines. No sides, no ‘who are you now?’ or who you used to be, no titles, no labels. We are women. We are ND.”
Jeanine Sterling ’76 leads the Detroit chapter of ND Women Connect. She became a member of the Detroit ND Club board of directors in 2005 and, along with four other women directors also new to the board, questioned why so few women participated in club events.
“I believe this was the first time there were so many women directors, and it gave us a critical mass to get things moving,” she says. “After we had spent a year learning the ropes and attending club functions, it was pretty clear that female participation was pathetically low. So, of course, our next question was ‘How do we change this?’”
First on the agenda was to question female club members. “Their feedback has fueled everything we’ve done since 2007,” Sterling says. “Instead of presuming what our fellow grads wanted, we had it in black and white, straight from the source.”
Social and spiritual links came first, with happy hours and a playgroup network for moms topping the list, followed by spiritual retreats then professional networking.
So began Metro Detroit’s chapter of ND Women Connect, which now reaches some 500 women.
“Our effort steadily evolved year after year. We’ve grown from a slapped-together happy hour with 15 attendees to an annual summer social that averages more than 40 women and includes our local female ND students,” Sterling says.
With a nod to women’s ability to multitask, they’ve started the ND Moms and Babies Playgroup Network, hosted a successful Co-education Celebration Brunch, organized Lenten retreats, partnered with a nonprofit agency for their community service cause, and will soon be kicking off their Email Mentors Program, offering their local female ND students a list of Detroit area alumnae from various professions who are available to speak with them.
Members of ND Women Connect of Washington, D.C., have chosen to focus on service for women and children in need, reflecting what Notre Dame fosters in all its graduates — using one’s gifts for others.
Led by Karen McCartan DeSantis ’86J.D., the group helps at-risk children at an inner-city Catholic school (already a Notre Dame partner through the ACE Program), and enlists volunteers to support and staff a women’s homeless shelter.
“Many of us hope to see ND Women Connect increasingly support ongoing Notre Dame enterprises across the country and around the world,” DeSantis says. “If strategically developed, ND Women Connect service efforts could be significant forces for good that both support the mission of Notre Dame and capture and channel the energy of countless Notre Dame women working together.”
Susan Guibert is an assistant director in the Notre Dame office of public relations. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.