Alverno College’s president combines compassion, pragmatism and fierce advocacy for all-women education.
Sister Andrea Lee had just returned to the house she shared with other nuns in her order, Immaculate Heart of Mary. She heard sirens. A glance out the window showed Marygrove College, where she was an administrator, lit up with flashing police lights.
This wasn’t totally out of the ordinary. The school sits in the middle of Detroit. This was 1995. Crime was always a fact of life. Another nun and physics professor, Sister John Clement Hungerman, had been shot dead after being robbed in 1983.
A call to campus police got Lee up to speed about the night’s commotion: A dance troupe from Haiti with nine orphan boys, performing at Marygrove that night, had attracted police attention. On a U.S. tour, some of the boys told their host families in Detroit of abuse by the troupe’s director. The families reported what they heard. Police were called.
Lee made her way to the auditorium and found a messy scene after the performance. The boys knew little English, making interviews by the police and assembled social workers difficult. After several hours, the authorities came to a decision: the nuns would house the boys in unused dormitory space while the situation played out in the courts.
Thus began a cascade of events culminating with Lee, then 45 years old, a fast-rising college administrator with a Ph.D. from Penn State, an accomplished liturgical musician and composer, and a nun since joining the convent at 18, adding a new title to her resume: mom.
Now, two decades later, Lee serves as president of Alverno College on the South Side. The women’s college enrolls many immigrants, most of them Latino, from the neighborhoods nearby. She is reminded daily of the anxiety and dread felt by these students in a time of heightened immigration hysteria, tightened borders and ICE raids. In responding to these concerns, and working to create a campus environment where the most vulnerable students can feel safe and supported, she often reflects on the legal and emotional gantlets she navigated on behalf of her immigrant son.
“I’m the mother of a kid who, I had to do a lot of work with immigration to get him here in the country and get him to stay here,” she says. “So I somewhat understand what they’re going through after having that experience with him.”
During Lee’s undergraduate years in the late 1960s, more than 200 women’s colleges existed in the U.S. When she took over as president at the College of St. Catherine (now St. Catherine University) in St. Paul, Minnesota, in 1998, that number had shrunk to about 80. Now, she presides over Alverno, one of just 37 women’s colleges standing in 2019. (Amazingly, another of the 37, Mount Mary University, also resides in the City of Milwaukee.)
Many forces explain that erosion, from the shrinkage of Catholic institutions that once supported single-sex schools to changing cultural norms. Just 2 percent of college-eligible women in the U.S. will even consider a women’s college, according to research by the Women’s College Coalition.
Lee has devoted her life to colleges that enroll women, many of them racial minorities and the first in their families to go to college. Her path to Alverno started in the early 1980s at Marygrove, where she held a variety of teaching and administrative roles, including interim president. In 1998, St. Catherine recruited her to be its president, a job she held for 18 years. From 2012 to 2015, she also served on Alverno’s board of directors. When she heard that former president Mary Meehan was transitioning out of the job, it coincided with Lee moving on from the job at St. Catherine. She resigned from Alverno’s board, applied for the president job and took over in 2016.
Her commitment to women’s colleges arose not because of any aversion to men – she grew up with five brothers, with whom she remains close – but because she’s seen the transformations in young women who may have gotten lost at other colleges but are able to find their voice and thrive in the relative comfort of small class sizes and nurturing campus environment.
“She’s very high energy. … She didn’t expect any more of us than she expected of herself, but she expected a lot of herself.”
— COLLEEN HEGRANES
“I really felt like, at Alverno, they make you know what you’re worth,” she says. “Even though my classroom was just women, I still had that confidence in the outside world.”
Pa Ying Lee graduated last December and was chosen to address her classmates as commencement speaker – quite a turn of events for someone who entered the school with little idea what she was getting into. “I kind of took a leap, and it turned out to be the best decision of my life,” she says.
Ever a pragmatist, Sister Andrea Lee points to the shrinking roster of women’s colleges and sees all the more reason to resist the path of many, who’ve merged with other colleges and become co-educational at all levels, and instead push for additions around the edges to keep the core undergraduate experience vibrant, and all female. The school enrolls about 1,900 students in total, 1,300 of them in the all-female undergraduate ranks.
“You can really approach this in one of two major ways. One is that we’re going to put every resource that we have into the women’s college. And just try to strengthen things that way and build them,” she says. “Or, we could acknowledge that it’s a threatened species but it’s a precious jewel and say, what can we build around it to strengthen and support it? And so that’s the strategy that we’ve adopted here.”
That philosophy is behind Alverno’s aggressive push into building more degree programs for nontraditional students, expanding its graduate offerings and putting more classes online. All the changes bring in more revenue and, in a shift, allow the school to admit men, although even the graduate programs that do admit men remain overwhelmingly female.
In December, the school awarded the first two Ph.D.s in its 131-year history, both in nursing practice. It plans to start enrolling students in a brand-new physician assistant program next January, responding to the growing need for medical professionals of all kinds. New graduate programs in school psychology and social work are also underway.
Lee’s start-of-semester speech to Alverno’s faculty in January hit two main chords: celebration over what’s been accomplished already, and a call-to-arms going forward.
“Challenges for institutions like ours are at our door,” she said. “Absolutely banging on the door.” She called competitors in the sprawling higher education market – both traditional and for-profit startups – “the biggest, meanest, hungriest crocodile of all … ready to strike and take advantage of any sign of weakness.”
To keep those crocs at bay, Lee ticked off a long list of ways the school needs to improve, from jazzing up its online presence to speeding its ability to offer new programs to bolstering its graduation rates to doing an intense look at low-enrollment majors – she noted that two-thirds of students cluster in just seven areas. A new fundraising campaign is needed. So is a new donor-funded human cadaver lab. So is a full reworking of the school’s weekend college for adult students. “Status quo emerges as a reckless option,” she said, “a disastrous default in a world such as ours.”
The speech bore the hallmarks of Lee’s tell-it-like-it-is style. Her start-of-semester speeches became must-see events at past stops, where faculty came to call them “Sister Andrea Productions” that entertained while also delivering blunt messages about the school’s identity and the commitment she expected of all who worked for it.
“We’d call it the ‘love it or leave it’ speech,” says Colleen Hegranes, who served as provost and reported to Lee at St. Catherine. “At the end of each section, she’d say, ‘The train is ready to leave the station. If you’d like to find another institution, go ahead.’”
At St. Catherine, Lee gained a reputation not just for boldly addressing challenges but actually delivering solutions. St. Catherine is the nation’s largest women’s college but was in a bit of a slump when Lee took over. During her 18-year tenure, the school became a university, and enrollment ballooned from about 3,000 to a touch over 5,000, bolstered by a raft of new graduate degree offerings, mostly in the health sciences. The school brought in more than a quarter-billion dollars in fundraising. One offshoot: a building boom that refreshed the august campus, including new dormitories, a library, a student center and laboratories.
“She’s very high energy,” says Hegranes. “I’d joke that it was exhausting to work for her and exhilarating to work for her. She didn’t expect any more of us than she expected of herself, but she expected a lot of herself.”
The boys from Haiti, hardened too young by being orphans and being under the thumb of a dictatorial dance troupe director, reacted to their unexpected stay in Detroit with fear and bewilderment.
“We didn’t really know they were nuns,” says Lahens (pronounced “Lions”) Lee-St. Fleur, who at 10½ years old was one of the youngest boys. Two of the boys’ accidental housemates, Sister Andrea and Sister Elizabeth, dressed in regular clothes. Only one, Sister Amata, wore the habit and veil commonly associated with pop-culture portrayals of nuns.
“I was afraid,” says Lee-St. Fleur. “Are these people going to give us away to someone else? My head was spinning.”
One of their first nights there, he lay in bed, awake. He couldn’t sleep. A cat nudged its way into his room and jumped onto his bed. He picked up the black cat and walked it down the hallway to Sister Andrea’s room.
“Hey lady, here’s your cat,” he remembers telling her. She thanked him, and said the cat’s name is Tuxedo.
He started crying. Lee stayed with him most of the night, rubbing his back and telling him everything would be all right. He didn’t know then that she’d end up being his mother. But he couldn’t have been more appreciative.
“That was such a great interaction,” he says. “Living in an orphanage, never knowing my birth mom, to have someone just talk to me and listen to me was new. She could see in my face and my body – ‘He is really, really sad, and I will take the time to spend with him.’”
A physical exam while he was in the U.S. found that Lahens had a heart condition. With treatment, it could be managed. But doctors warned that a permanent return to Haiti likely would be a death sentence. Alas, two weeks after arriving in Detroit, they had to go back. A judge could find no evidence of abuse occurring in Michigan and ordered the boys’ passports returned to the director for the trip home.
Lee sent them off on Christmas Eve 1995 with a heavy heart. She fell for Lahens’ engaging personality and feared for his health. She huddled with the other nuns, who supported her plans to work to get him back for medical care. About three months later, she pulled enough strings to get him a medical visa, and he was back with them. She became his foster mother in 1996. In 2000, she legally adopted him.
The medical literature does not overflow with case studies of a Haitian orphan preteen boy, with no English, being raised in a foreign country by three Ph.D. nuns. Add in a significant transition – mother and son moved from Detroit to St. Paul soon after his arrival for Lee’s new job as president at St. Catherine – and it’s anyone’s guess how things might have gone.
The arrangement, perhaps because it was just unusual enough, worked out great. Lee put her son in school right away, the first time for him, and drilled him on the basics of language and grammar until he had some comfort with it.
“We were on his case all the time,” she says with a smile, “and he wanted to learn.”
Beyond the rigor and academic focus in his new life, Lahens got to know his mom outside her work. He saw her jam out to Bruce Springsteen, her beloved fellow Jersey Shore product, with a healthy dose of classical and opera thrown in. He saw her glued to the television every Thursday night to watch her favorites: “The West Wing” and “ER.” Every spring, they went camping for a weekend with her colleagues and their kids from Marygrove College, spreading out over five or six sites on the shore of Lake Huron.
Their feuds didn’t last, but did happen. She banned the worst of his rap music, with its misogyny and glorification of violence, and cut his Nintendo time so he could focus on school. He hounded her to stop being such a workaholic – he remembers how she’d drop home after a day at the office, grab dinner, then return to work late into the night. “I always tried to tell her, ‘You work too much, there’s no need for you to be constantly in your office,’” he says.
Perhaps nodding to that advice from her son, Lee traveled in 1998 from her old job in Detroit to the new job in Minnesota by bicycle. For nine days, she cycled about 50 miles a day, crossing Lake Michigan by ferry from Ludington to Manitowoc. She was solo, accompanied only by her journal, her prayer book and Deep Water Passage, an autobiographical book written by a woman who kayaked alone around the perimeter of Lake Superior.
“I had been at Marygrove for 19 years, and I knew I couldn’t just stop working on Friday and fly to Minnesota and start working on Monday,” she says. “I needed a break, and I knew this was the only way I was going to get it. It was kind of like a retreat.”
Her son succeeded in high school, graduated from college and now works as a recruiter for a network of charter schools in the Twin Cities that serve mostly low-income and minority kids. He and his mom text daily to swap ideas and stories, since they’re both in the practice of educating hard-to-reach students. He’s married to a woman he met in high school who’s a native Minnesotan, and they’ve given Lee two grandsons so far.
She credits this success story to buy-in on both sides. She connected him early with mentors – she grew up as the oldest child, with five younger brothers scattered around the country who were happy to take on the role for their new nephew.
“Living in a house with three nuns, as a boy, when certain things come up, how are you going to talk to them about it?” he asks rhetorically. “One of her brothers, I could always go to him, even with my limited English. Vice versa, she could always go to men she knew so she could help me.”
More vexing was navigating the legal thicket surrounding Lahens’ immigration status. When he was 12, and seemingly settled, they got word that his visa would soon expire, with serious consequences, if not renewed quickly, which for legal reasons can’t be done in the U.S. For them, it meant a road trip to Canada on short notice to reapply.
In Toronto, she dressed in “the best nun clothes I had,” and dressed Lahens in a suit, and waited in a long, snaking line for their appointment. She held the reams of paperwork in neatly arranged color folders. “It was very scary,” he says.
After anxiously waiting, they got to their appointment. Lahens got the go-ahead to return to the U.S., and stay. It was a major relief. And another example of a blessed life her son feels he has had. “In some ways, it’s a miracle,” he says, “having the right person, the right circle around you. For me and for her, it turned out, you could say, to be the perfect marriage.”
Christina (Hamaleinen) Megal came to Alverno from Bay View High School in the late 1980s. She majored in biology and chemistry and describes herself as painfully shy in high school, which made one of Alverno’s admissions requirements especially brutal. She had to film herself giving a two-minute speech and submit the VHS tape along with her application. In a first-year speech class, all students had to watch their high school selves on those tapes, and critique not what they did wrong, but everything they did right, based on criteria established in the class.
It serves as one example of the rigor, and commitment to a broad-based education, that Megal came to love about the school. Now a nurse practitioner at the Medical College of Wisconsin, she speaks at conferences related to her field, calmly addressing crowds in the hundreds. “I credit that transformation to the experience at Alverno,” she says.
After her first bachelor’s degree, she returned for an undergraduate nursing degree. Then she came back for a master’s in nursing. Then she taught some classes at Alverno as an adjunct. Then, in 2017, when the school opened its first doctorate program, she returned for it. Megal worked full-time and took a full load to speed her way to the Ph.D.
Six months into the doctorate program, her husband, Corey, had a recurrence of leukemia. It added caretaking to her already full schedule, but he insisted she keep motoring on with classes, so she’d have something to provide a joyful distraction. They had been married 26 years, through all of her degrees, and he’d often say that he only wished Alverno was coed so he could attend, too.
In early October, his journey ended. Megal had completed all her classes but still had work to do on her final project, now without her main supporter. At her husband’s funeral, friends and family waited in a line that stretched three hours to greet her. Among the throngs was a surprise: Sister Andrea Lee, president of Alverno College. Although the two didn’t know each other well, Lee had heard of Megal’s history with the school and went as the college’s representative. She comforted her in the receiving line and offered prayers.
“It was incredibly moving for me for the president of Alverno to come and support me,” says Megal. “To me, it was pretty amazing.”
A few months later, in December, they met again. Megal had finished her doctorate and walked across stage with a classmate, Linda Bay, as the first two Ph.D.s in the school’s history. Lee congratulated her, and told her the accomplishment meant that much more given the circumstances.
“She’s a pretty special lady,” Megal says.