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By Tom Holmes
Sister Michelle Germanson, Oak Park, admits to having been a rebel when she was a teenager. "When I was a young nun," she recalled, "I rebelled more than I cooperated."
The energetic, effervescent 68-year-old president of Trinity High School in River Forest has retained a great deal of that adolescent energy and has tried to channel it, during the 20 years she's been at the school, into creating a culture at Trinity in which young women discover their own unique identities and embrace who they are.
Sr. Michelle, in effect, is rebelling against an American cultural image which says who you are is based on physical attractiveness or wealth — or marrying a man with both.
"An ideal graduate for us," she said, "is a young woman who truly believes in herself, her own giftedness and uniqueness, and feels empowered to take all that she has and to continue that process of growing."
"Our culture is the best part of us," declared Tara Suchland, Trinity's director of Campus Ministry and Mission Integration. "Our culture is why we are successful. You are expected to embrace and be who you are. Shy is not in the vocabulary of our girls. Empowerment is one of the strongest things they experience here."
If discovering who you are is the goal, then it might seem like common sense to expose adolescents to as much diversity as possible, including boys. Sr. Michelle, however, is convinced by 20 years' experience that remaining an all-girls school is the best way for Trinity to continue the process of enabling girls to blossom into secure, purposeful, self-confident women.
Sr. Michelle said that recent graduates of Trinity who are now in college — and for the last 19 years, 100% of their graduates have gone to college — will return to visit her and say that they can be in a university class with 200 students, but if they know the answer to a question, their hand will shoot up. Often the prof will respond by asking, "Did you go to an all-girls school?"
"Our graduates don't think twice," she explained. "They don't look around to see what others are doing. Being with your own gender builds self-confidence. The best part of who we are is that we're all-girls."
"The hardest part," she continued, "of convincing grade-school children to come to Trinity is the fact that we're an all-girls school, but once they're here, they realize how comfortable they are, how they can ask questions and not worry about trying to impress someone else. They do so much sharing together, and they challenge each other without boys being in the mix. Our girls will say, 'If I want a young man in my life, that's after school. During the day, it's my time.'"
In his book, Inclusion, Eric Law states that when minorities are part of a planning or discussion group dominated by white people, they will often be quiet and not contribute much. But get them by themselves, and they'll be very vocal about the issue. His research indicates that the silence in the larger group is caused by a perceived power imbalance — because of prejudice, a sense that their values don't match those of the dominant group, a history of deferring to those in power. But when they're by themselves, they experience what Law calls a "safe zone."
"In order to reveal ourselves as a community," writes Law, "we must first know who we are. The step of revisiting the safe zone … is crucial before a community enters into dialogue. … If members know from whence they came, they can always find their way back to safety if things do not go well after they have stepped out of their safe zone."
When asked if Law's work with minorities might apply to separating girls from boys during the adolescent, identity-forming years, Sr. Michelle replied, "There is some truth in this statement. Research has told us that girls benefit more when in a single-gender environment. Also, boys benefit more than girls in a co-ed environment. All very interesting!"
The leadership of Trinity is all female as well. James Fowler, a developmental psychologist, wrote in his book, Stages of Faith, "The adolescent needs mirrors — mirrors to keep tabs on this week's growth, to become accustomed to the new angularity of a face and to the new curves or reach of a body. But in a qualitatively new way, the young person also looks for mirrors of another sort. … She needs the eyes and ears of a few trusted others in which to see the image of personality emerging and to get a hearing for the new feelings, insights, anxieties and commitments that are forming and seeking expression."
Adolescents find that mirror in their peer groups, of course, but the leadership at Trinity also provides mirrors or role models of the kind of women the Trinity girls might want to grow into. Sr. Michelle — energetic, successful, happy with her own identity — seems to embody the "ideal graduate" that her school seeks to produce.
"It's the energy that Sr. Michelle gives off," said Suchland. "So much of what Trinity is, is tied in with Sr. Michelle."
Trinity's goal, then, is to help young women find their unique identities as individuals. As Suchland puts it, "We give them time to get to the core of who they are."
On the other hand, the all-girls high school is also unapologetically intentional about forming the identity of its students.
Getting to the core of who they are, for Trinity, also involves growing and sometimes grappling with their faith, whether they're Catholic or not. Suchland said that part of the school's identity is being a Dominican institution. "It's our identity, whether or not our students are all Catholic or even Christian."
She explained that foundational to Trinity's culture are the Dominican Essentials: community, ministry, study and prayer. She added that the charism, or special gift, of the Dominican Order is preaching. That's why the initials after Sr. Michelle's name are O.P., i.e. Order of Preachers.
"We ask our students to preach who they are through what they do," Suchland said. "Hopefully, by the end of their four years here, it's their faith that is at the center of that. I think that's our spirit."
That's why the Dominican Essentials include community and ministry as well as study and prayer. Sr. Michelle said that, along with being empowered and believing in herself, her ideal student is also "someone who knows Jesus' presence, not only in herself but in everyone — that whole sense of being for each other, of responsibility. That's why our service program is so important. If we educate the mind and do not sensitize the heart, we've failed them."
Therefore, although the halls and classrooms of the building at the corner of Division and Lathrop might be perceived by students as a safe zone, the faculty keeps pushing them temporarily into the world around them. For example, in their theology classes, the girls are exposed to the great world religions. They participate in service projects on the West Side of Chicago. And two years ago, 13 students from Trinity went to Mexico to live and work in an orphanage there.
Suchland herself embodies some of the aspects of the ideal Trinity alumna. In a Church where the ordained clergy is all male, she serves as the campus minister at her alma mater.
"It would be wonderful to have a priest here to say Masses and for the girls to have a relationship with a priest," she said, "but I think it's more empowering in a lot of ways to see someone who is part of the school serving in that capacity."
As the campus minister, she even leads communion liturgies, using bread already consecrated by a priest at a previous Mass. She said that some of the freshman girls are shocked to see a woman leading a communion service. "It takes a lot of education to let the girls know we're not doing anything 'wrong.'"
Sefica Cubic is a Muslim who graduated from Trinity in the 1990s. You might think going to a Catholic high school, therefore, would be difficult, but she loved it. In fact, she recalled, her theology teacher held her up to the class one day as an example of standing firm for what she believed in.
Trinity High School started educating young women in 1918 when the doors of a farmhouse on property now owned by Dominican University were opened to 15 girls. The school moved to its present location in 1926 and saw its enrollment peak at 1,300 students in 1964. In those days, Trinity was the only all-girls high school in the area.
Last year the student body totaled 534, of which 35 percent was non-white. Close to a third of Trinity's students are receiving financial aid, and 42 percent of the school's enrollment is from the city of Chicago. Financially, Trinity is "doing fine," according to Sr. Michelle, with a quarter of the $5 million annual budget coming from donors.
"Is that close to what we need? No," she said, "but we've grown [in that regard] by leaps and bounds."
Not all of Trinity's former students or their parents are happy with the experience the Dominican high school provides. On the website, Trulia, one parent wrote, "Trinity does promote the strength of women. Unfortunately, I do not believe that the quality of education provided by the teachers is as strong as they believe. It is a great school for the girls who are self-motivated and are already in the top of their class. If you are a struggling student, that needs extra help or attention, beware of this school."
Which sounds a lot like what people say about Oak Park and River Forest High School.
Another former student, again on Trulia, vented, "They are so rigid in their ridiculous rules, and enforcing detentions, but don't pay enough attention to the quality of the education that they provide. The girls at this school are rude and out of control."
This former student, however, spoke for most of her fellow alums when she added, "I attended Trinity and strongly believe that I would not be the successful business owner I am today if it wasn't for Trinity's superior education, talented faculty, and the leadership opportunities it provided me as a student. It was at Trinity that I learned to be a leader, a strong woman, and to aim high in life. I was extremely prepared for college when I graduated, and found that I was far ahead of most of my peers in university classes. I will never be able to thank Trinity for all it has done for me."