That women now make up the majority of the St. Francis College student body – 62% as of fall 2020 – is a testament to the extraordinary path they have forged over the past 50-plus years.
St. Francis College became a fully coeducational institution 90 years after its founding, admitting its first female students – other than religious students, who had been enrolling since 1953 – in 1969. That first class of women was just 13 students.
Since 1986, most St. Francis College graduates have been women.
The early female students were quick to excel and establish their identity at the College, which included making their mark on sports. Women's basketball debuted in 1973. Just one year after the passage of Title IX, it was a formative time in women's intercollegiate athletics. Forty-two years later, the Terriers won the Northeast Conference Tournament and secured a bid to the NCAA Tournament. Women's sports continue to grow, with soccer the latest addition. The women's team debuted in fall 2019.
SFC's athletic director, Irma Garcia '80, was not only a trailblazer for the College, but also for the nation, as the first Latinx woman to lead a Division I athletic program.
"I think sometimes we fail to realize that the opportunity we have is because there was someone who was a trailblazer before us," said Miguel Martinez-Saenz, Ph.D., president of St. Francis College. "We've got to remember and celebrate those trailblazers who have created conditions for the young people today."
Among alumnae trailblazers is Barbara G. Koster '76, senior vice president and chief information officer of Prudential, a Fortune 500 company. Koster earned her bachelor's degree in business administration and an associate degree in computer technology at St. Francis College and, in 2012, received an honorary doctorate of humane letters from the College.
"Women today have a chance to look at other women who have traveled the path," said President Martinez-Saenz. "I always find it fascinating to hear about Barbara's experience being in classes where she was the only woman. There's an interesting dynamic. Who did she look up to? The educators were mainly Franciscan brothers. Now, there's a vibrancy and, for me, that's important."
Koster came to St. Francis College thanks to winning a two-year scholarship to study in the newly launched systems analysis and design program at the NYC Catholic School Science Fair. Brother George Larkin, OSF, helped her get a work-study scholarship for books and fees. She worked in the financial aid office. Ultimately, the two-year scholarship turned into a four-year scholarship.
"Since we were the early classes of women being admitted into the College, one could say it was fun, but a huge challenge for me, who chose to be in technology and business," Koster recalled. "There were many times I was the only female in my classes. The professors were kind, but also really tough on me to get me ready for the business world I was entering. Dr. Willis and Professor Petrucelli pushed me beyond the limits I thought I had, supported me the entire time and ensured I was skilled and ready to succeed."
Brother George listened to Koster on her toughest days, and the career office gave her leads to find her first job. She met a lifelong friend in philosophy class, a woman who became a teacher working with autistic children.
"The professors and friends I made have lasted a lifetime," said Koster. "I counted on and called on them often to help during my 42-year career."
Koster said words like teamwork, collaboration and communication are common parlance in the business world, but those are real concepts she learned and practiced at St. Francis College.
Developing the next generation of leaders continues to be cornerstone of SFC's commitment to its women students. In 2017, a group of alumnae established the Women's Leadership Network (WLN) to encourage and support the development of leadership skills in students and graduates. WLN provides opportunities to collaborate and network with accomplished women professionals, many of whom attended the College.
"We really wanted to do more, to give guidance and mentorship to the women who are currently at the College and also to recent graduates," said Dyanne Rosado '95, Global Director of Talent and Culture Design at Nasdaq, during WLN's kickoff event.
President Martinez-Saenz said in the not-too-distant future, the College may install its first female president.
"That's a natural occurrence happening in Catholic colleges across the country," he said. "In terms of the administration, we're going to continue to see that. [The Division of] Academic Affairs is all female. We celebrate Irma Garcia's leading role in intercollegiate athletics every chance we get." Women make up 55% of St. Francis College's full-time faculty.
"For me, it's a given that women have to be in leadership roles across the campus because it empowers the next generation of women to see themselves in leadership roles on college campuses, at other organizations, in the business world and beyond."