CSM president celebrates 20 years at the helm

Walk the campus at College of Saint Mary (CSM) with Sister Maryanne Stevens, and you’ll quickly see a woman who has built a great rapport over the last two decades with the young women who attend the Catholic women’s college she oversees in Omaha.

During a recent morning stroll around the 40-acre campus at 72nd and Mercy, students greeted the 68-year-old, several taking time to break from conversations to say "hello." The interactions continued as she walked by faculty and staff members.

That personal connection is a gift Sister Stevens brought to the region’s only college for women when she became its president 20 years ago – a tenure about three times longer than most college presidents.

Although she has a doctorate in religious education and many years of experience in education, Sister Stevens, who celebrates 50 years as a Sister of Mercy next month, said she had no intention of being a college president. She was on the CSM board of directors and was a tenured theology professor at Creighton University in Omaha when fellow board members asked her to consider taking the position.

"I went over to CSM that evening and walked around, and felt a true sense that God was calling me to accept the offer," she said.

Twenty years later, CSM is a place of growth, diversity and academic excellence.

Enrollment is up 4.5 percent from a year ago, to 1,046, with a record number of students living on campus in one of two residence halls, including one for single mothers and their children. And because of demand for living space, the Sisters of Mercy recently opened their own, nearby residence, Mercy Villa, to house juniors and seniors.

Academic improvements, such as new simulation labs for health sciences, science equipment and a cadaver lab, continue to draw students, Sister Stevens said. This also is the first year CSM is offering a five-year physician assistant studies program.

CSM – one of 41 women’s colleges in the country, 11 of which are Catholic – also gives scholarships to low-income women majoring in science or math and holds a summer academics program for Latina and African-American young women in high school.

And it provides all this while staying debt-free.

With all the changes, however, the mission to provide women access to education in an environment that encourages each student’s full potential and fosters leadership remains the same. And that’s what continues to keep Sister Stevens at CSM, she said.

"It is an environment that seeks to call everyone forth – to challenge each to hone the best of their gifts and talents," she said.

With no plans to retire in the near future, Sister Stevens said her focus is on strategic planning and making education at CSM more affordable. She also hopes to add more sports programs and a performing arts center.

Ultimately, it comes down to helping the women the college serves, she said.

Sister Stevens said she hopes CSM continues to facilitate the education of women "so they walk across the stage at graduation as confident, faith-filled and courageous women walking into the future."

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