30 Years of McBride Tradition
In May, McBride alumnae/i will gather at Reunion to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the Katharine E. McBride Scholars Program. Named for Bryn Mawr’s fourth president, the program provides women 24 years and older access to the same rigorous education as traditional students. They take the same classes (though they can study part time), get lanterns, have SGA representation, take the swim test, and have a “class” color: purple. In short, they are 100 percent, dyed-in-the-wool Mawrters.
To help celebrate, the Bulletin is profiling five of the program’s 259 alumnae/i. They are a scant representation of this powerful cohort, each with her own story.
One Day, Patricia Connolly’s husband asked her what she would do if she were not a bank vice president. It got her thinking. A month later, he handed her a scrap of paper ripped from the New York Times—an ad for the McBride Program. She applied and was accepted into Bryn Mawr’s second class of McBrides.
“Leaving work was tough. I loved my job and worked hard for my success. Now, I was working on a liberal arts degree in history. It seemed crazy.” It was a different way of thinking. “In business, you’ve got to make your case in one paragraph. But Bryn Mawr kept prodding me to write more, plus I had to look up a lot of words because they weren’t financial terms. It took me a while to believe I could do this work.”
After Bryn Mawr, Connolly received her master’s in history and art history from the University of Pennsylvania. Shortly after graduating, she became the executive director of the Friends of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. It was her foray into the non-profit sector, where her business experience combined with liberal arts education meant she could have a real impact.
Today, as executive director of the Governance Center at Drexel University’s LeBow College of Business, Connolly leverages relationships with the Center’s Advisory Board of more than 35 directors representing nearly 200 boards, both public and private. The Center provides education, research, and best practices and encourages knowledge sharing among business leaders.
Bryn Mawr gave me the confidence—and permission—to blend my business background with the richness of a liberal arts education and use it in a new way. For me, the return on investment has been tenfold.”
A first-generation American, Belkys López thinks often of her Dominican ancestors, especially the women: “I think, if they had had this Bryn Mawr education, they would have ruled the Earth—compassionately, of course.”
No slouch herself, López majored in political science with a concentration in Africana Studies—while raising a toddler. Three-year-old Sofía went everywhere with her: the classroom, the library, campus center. “Often a traditional student would take her to a dining hall or back to the dorms to play, López says. “She loved being with the ‘big girls’ and still keeps in touch with some of them.”
López is grateful for the support. “Women shouldn’t have to choose between having children and getting an elite education,” she explains. “Bryn Mawr gets that. What makes the McBride Program special is that we are fully integrated into the institution. It’s not night school. We do the same work, meet the same expectations, and get the same opportunities typically only available to those on a linear track. I mean, I did field research in Cuba and South Africa!”
Since 2005, López has been working as an independent practitioner with the South Sudanese on the transition to independence: governance, humanitarian emergencies, transitional justice, and sexual- and gender-based violence. She has lived through bombing raids—an experience that inspired her research. “Little is known about how high rates of trauma influence violent conflict or peace processes,” she explains. “The focus remains on healing individuals, yet in conflict zones the response needs to be at broader communal and institutional levels.”
Whitney López had a difficult time with the transition from high school to college. “I went because it’s what you’re supposed to do, but I just wasn’t ready.” After only two years, López [whose pronoun is they] spent the next four working in the food service industry and cleaning houses.
After testing the waters again at community college, Lopez set about transferring to the University of Pennsylvania—until they learned about the McBride Program at a college fair.
“I was really attracted to Bryn Mawr’s smaller class sizes, which meant the chance to work directly with professors instead of teaching assistants. It seemed a more personal experience. Plus, I knew I’d really learn how to do research, and that sold me 100 percent.”
The anthropology major, who minored in Africana Studies, landed a Mellon Mays fellowship for thesis research in the College’s African collection. They did several college-wide presentations, including a workshop facilitated by Professor Alice Lesnick, and accompanied Provost Mary Osirim (then dean of the graduate school) and other students to the African Studies Conference in 2014.
“I don’t believe I would have had those kinds of opportunities at other schools. My CV grew a page and a half at Bryn Mawr.”
López wouldn’t trade the McBride experience for anything. “We McBrides watched out for one another. If the train was running late, someone would post it on Facebook; if someone forgot a book, someone else would leave it in the McBride lounge. We supported each other’s success. It was a beautiful experience, like a family.”
Apart of me regrets not going to college at 18 or 19 because I’d be further along in my career. But I’m not sure I would have appreciated it then,” says MaryAnne Lyons.
Lyons had started college but left a few weeks in after her brother died. She never got a degree. It nagged at her. So, when she saw an ad for the McBride program, she decided to attend an open house. “I fell in love with Bryn Mawr.”
Bryn Mawr didn’t disappoint. “It challenged me. I was transformed from someone who liked to read into a serious scholar.” So much so that she celebrated her 50th birthday as a Fulbright Scholar at the University of Bielefeld in Germany.
After her Fulbright year, Lyons earned her master’s in creative writing at the University of Illinois at Chicago and completed coursework toward a Ph.D.
Today, she teaches freshman composition as well as introduction to film and Native American literatures. “I use that early experience with school to inform my teaching. Many of my students are first-generation college students who struggle with the process. I know a little about that, so encourage them to stick with it.”
In addition to teaching, Lyons continues writing. “I always thought of myself as a fiction writer, but after taking Margaret Holley’s [Ph.D. ’83] poetry writing class, I learned that I’m good at poetry. That’s what Bryn Mawr did for me. It made me see myself like never before and with limitless possibilities; like there is nothing in the world I can’t do.”
In high school, Debbie Plotnick struggled with math and “totally bombed it on the SAT’s.” Bryn Mawr wasn’t an option, so she enrolled at a local university. She came close to finishing, but marriage and children put college—and her dream of becoming a lawyer—on hold.
Years later, Plotnick learned that her math impairment was an undiagnosed learning disability. She worked to overcome it and did so well that she applied to Bryn Mawr.
After one of her children was diagnosed with a serious mental health issue, she enrolled in Paul Grobstein’s class on neurobiology and behavior. “Understanding the science behind mental illness was a watershed moment,” she says. “I still wanted to be a lawyer but knew I would focus on mental health issues.”
It was Dean Rona Pietrzak who suggested social work. “You want to do what social workers do everyday,” said Pietrzak, “work to change the world.” Plotnick applied to Bryn Mawr’s Graduate School of Social Work and Social Research, and today, as vice president of Mental Health and Systems Advocacy at Mental Health America, she works with affiliates across the nation to address mental health issues.
Plotnick credits Bryn Mawr with providing her the skills to succeed in the policy field. “Bryn Mawr was the hardest and best thing I’ve ever done,” she says. I worked all the time—during violin lessons, at basketball practice, even while swimming laps. It was like having a great workout, where you’re exhausted but feel incredibly strong and able to do things you never imagined possible.”