When the leadership of Professional Dimensions searched for two women prominent in the leadership of southeastern Wisconsin for their 31st annual Sacagawea Award, School Sister of St. Francis Sr. Kathleen O’Brien, was a clear choice.
The award, named after Sacagawea – the bilingual Shoshone woman who accompanied a Lewis and Clark expedition in 1805-06 from the northern plains through the Rocky Mountains to the Pacific Ocean and back, epitomizes achievements of Milwaukee area women who have made significant career accomplishments and who were trailblazers. Recipients were also chosen for their commitment to community, support for the advancement of women, and embodiment of the trailblazing spirit of Sacagawea.
Helped institute Weekend College
Senior vice president for academic affairs at Alverno College, Sr. Kathleen, has made it her mission to champion the education of women in her 36 years serving at the school. An award-wining and internationally recognized leader in ability-based learning and assessment, she helped institute the Weekend College, one of the first in the country.
In her 50 years as a School Sister of St. Francis, Sr. Kathleen, a 1967 graduate of Alverno College, has published articles and books, and presented at international conferences.
A champion in the development and advocacy of innovative programming, Sr. Kathleen helped found the Alverno College Business School as well as the Research Center for Women and Girls whose “Status of Girls’ report is replicated throughout the country. She often sought as a consultant.
‘Go-to leader’ at Alverno
“It was really a no brainer to see Sr. Kathleen nominated for this award,” said Joann Anton, special assistant to Herb Kohl, and chair of the nominating committee. “She is the go-to leader, was the interim president at Alverno, and served as president of numerous boards and prominent positions that have a focus on young women. She is really leading the charge for women and girls, and found her niche or calling at Alverno.”
Professional Dimensions promotes women
Professional Dimensions is a Milwaukee membership organization formed in 1978 that promotes the professional and personal growth of women through its four tenets: leadership, diversity, community and networking.
A committee of 14 chose the award winners, and most had never met Sr. Kathleen, but after reviewing her accomplishments, could not wait to meet her.
“She is very approachable, and probably one of the sharpest, funniest and accomplished people I know,” said Anton. “She is just so affable and perhaps, because she is a nun, sees the goodness in the world and always seems to look for it. She is a great combination of smart, clever, funny and so empathetic, just a well-rounded human being who knows that her place on this earth is to be a champion for young women. She embodies it professionally and personally.”
From ‘God to Google’ event is covered
During the March 13 awards dinner at the Pfister Hotel, guests were surprised to learn that Sr. Kathleen once mentored this year’s other Sacagawea Award winner, Tina Chang, chairman and CEO of SysLogic, (an information system consulting firm).
“Here they were standing shoulder to shoulder and one had been mentored by the other,” said Anton. “One of them stated that from God to Google, they had the event covered. That was a funny way to describe having the award categories covered. People felt so good when they left the banquet after seeing their grace and acceptance and how the community embraced them.”
As president of Alverno College, Mary Meehan considers Sr. Kathleen the perfect choice for the Sacagawea Award, a wonderful woman and great model of the School Sisters of St. Francis’ charism.
“She lives in an old white house on our campus with a group of School Sisters. What I first noticed when I came to Alverno is how much fun they all have together, and what an amazing and living example of community life they give to all who know them,” she said. “Kathleen is a born storyteller and has an extremely warm and engaging style. You immediately feel at home in her presence. She has her doctorate in management, but began her academic career studying history and math. She really is a Renaissance woman.”
As a leader, Sr. Kathleen cares about the growth of others, is supportive but can push when it benefits another person, explained Meehan. While she doesn’t take credit for accomplishments, Sr. Kathleen seems to have propensity for taking responsibility for mistakes, even if she had nothing to do with the error.
Lives her faith daily
St. Francis of Assisi once said, “Preach the Gospel at all times. If necessary, use words.” Sr. Kathleen seems to exemplify this teaching, and while she lives her faith, she rarely discusses it.
“I can tell you, that when we are asked to offer a prayer on a moment’s notice, hers are incredible,” said Meehan. “I firmly believe that what we pray about is a true mirror into our souls, and what you know from her prayers is that Kathleen is a woman of dedication, joy, and peace.”
In addition to her aforementioned credentials, Sr. Kathleen has taken her commitment to women into the broader community as chair of the Girl Scouts of America board. Meehan is often in the community when a young professional will approach her to let her know that Sr. Kathleen was her mentor.
“These are not always Alverno alumnae who approach me,” said Meehan. “Kathleen is a master teacher and even when not in a classroom, she is teaching. She is passionate about helping all women succeed in life. She is one of the few people I know who lives with women, works with women, and whose entire life is devoted to serving women. There would be much less joy at Alverno without Kathleen.”
A member of Our Lady of Lourdes Parish, Sr. Kathleen said she enjoys being considered a trailblazer in the Sacagawea tradition.
“She was not the formal leader of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, but helped point the way when necessary, assisted with bridging the gap between the Native American tribes they encountered, and generally helped remove obstacles that helped the mission succeed,” she said.
Women have ‘catching up’ to do
Despite her dedication and devotion to helping women succeed in what was once a man’s world, Sr. Kathleen believes there is much room for improvement.
“When we take a more historical view, women were not allowed into colleges and universities until the last 150 years, and often were not admitted to prestigious institutions in the U.S. until the 1970s,” she said. “Now, of course, there are more women than men in most higher education, yet we have a lot of catching up to do.”
Though she is grateful for the award, Sr. Kathleen’s reasons for helping women achieve run deep into her soul, and they often draw her into a deeper relationship with God.
“When you see how students change and grow as a result of their learning, I see the face of God shine through,” she said.