A President & Her Students

Vol. 8, No. 36
Sept. 7-13, 2000
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St. Mary’s College:
No Country Bumpkins In this Rural Campus

Round the bend on Route 5 in Southern Maryland, past tobacco barns and cornfields, the waters of the St. Mary’s River shine. St. Mary’s College of Maryland enjoys about as remote a setting as you can get on this side of the Bay. There’s no college town here: no hip cafes, no CD stores, no trendy clubs, no art movie houses. In fact, there’s no town at all — unless you count the postholes and brick foundations of 366-year-old Historic St. Mary’s City that lie beneath the neighboring fields. But for 1600 students that make the campus their home most of the year, the college offers more alluring goods, among them its Number One ratings in academics and sailing. U.S. News and World Report rates St. Mary’s College the nation’s top public liberal arts college.

As school resumes this millennial year, we asked 47-year-old Jane Margaret ‘Maggie’ O’Brien — four years the college president and this year parent of an incoming freshman— and five of her students to tell us what is so good about Maryland’s 160-year-old public honors college.

BW One of the great allures of St. Mary's College is its sailing. On many levels, you're the Number One sailing school in the country. How does a little place like you earn a big title like that?

MOB It's very much a microcosm of the college. We didn't have a sailing program of any substance until 1991. Teddy Turner Jr. gave us the boat he'd sailed to make a bid for the America's Cup. We bought a couple of other small boats. People started giving us other boats. We started winning. Five years ago we started placing in the top five in the intercollegiate racing and have not left the top five since then.

Teddy is a trustee. He's going to head our fund-raising effort to build a new sailing center. What motivates him? Inspiring students, that's what he really cares about. It's the David and Goliath story. It doesn't matter how big the boat house is at the Naval Academy. That's not the name of the game. You can have 10 coaches per student and if you don't have students who are clever entrepreneurs like Teddy, they're going to lose.

BW So the same qualities that take students into the top ranks of sailing will stand by them in the world?

MOB Yes. You know what I love? It's not that the students come in and they win at sailing. It is students who have never sailed a boat in their lives come in and end up placing number one in the country in sailing. That happens all the time.

Sophomore Jamie Smith, All-American Sailor

St. Mary's renowned sailing program lured sophomore Jamie Smith. Smith's sailing career took off as a Seahawk: She was named an All-American for the 1999-2000 season.

"We are probably the smallest school with a really competitive and successful sailing team in the country," Smith says. "Plus, the school and the community supports the sailing team so well."

Success should be familiar to Smith. As a standout student at St. Mary's High School in Annapolis, she was salutatorian of her senior class and vice-president of the school's student government.

Jamie took this leadership and academic excellence with her to St. Mary's College. Now pursuing degrees in both math and economics, she praises her college for its small classes and one-on-one attention. "My largest class was about 30 people, so the attention you get from your teachers is great," she says.

Jamie also loves the atmosphere of the small school. "For me, it's a lot like living in Southern Anne Arundel County," says the West River resident. "That's what I like about it."

For many students, the final lure of St. Mary's College is the combination of an outstanding education with a reasonable price. Smith agrees: "I'm getting a great education for a total bargain."

BW Your 1,600 students are not the only ones who get an education at St. Mary's College. Bay Weekly keeps getting lured down for mind-expanding opportunities unequaled anywhere near.

We've seen your sailing team build on last year's achievements, when your college co-ed and women's teams earned Sailing World magazine's number-one rating, and their coach, Adam Werblow, was named coach of the year. This year, their womens' co-ed and team-racing teams are national champions.

We've seen Helen Thomas, the dean of the Washington press corps. We've seen the extraordinary Bread and Puppet Theater, an avant garde traveling troupe involve St. Mary's students in a modern morality play on the evils of genetically modified food.We've seen the premier showing of nonconformist art from the former Soviet Republic and now independent nation of Georgia.

One of the things St. Mary's College does is create extraordinary opportunities and a heady intellectual atmosphere. What happens freshman year at St. Mary's?

MOB There's a great anticipation that students have. It's classic Charles Dickens' Great Expectations all condensed into about three months. There's a sense that your life will unfold. It's the expectation that great things will happen to you. It's yours for the taking.

BW What is the basic experience of St. Mary's College?

MOB We are small, co-ed and residential. We try to combine the openness of public education with the excellence and opportunities of private education. This makes us unique.

I would say in some ways we are a combination of St. John's and Johns Hopkins. We provide a high quality, liberal arts education that is affordable and accessible.

BW What do your students study?

MOB There are five very popular majors in any liberal arts college: biology, English, sociology, psychology and either history or political science.

BW We know marine biology is a strength here because of your location.

MOB With the federal government, we've just developed an initiative on the St. Mary's River estuary. That has involved already almost 50 students and faculty, related to marine studies. Kids really interested in marine studies we always encourage to go to the Caribbean over spring break. A group of 20 to 30 students go to Belize to do coral studies, which is a research interest of one of our faculty members.

BW You also have Historic St. Mary's City next door. Do you respond to that peculiar environment?

MOB We are one of five colleges in America that have an archaeology program. Ours is not a major, but it is almost as strong. We have the finest archaeology lab in America. No comparison. No other school has anything close.

Freshman Chelsea Kehne, Looking Ahead

For freshman Chelsea Kehne - daughter of long-time Bay Weekly contributor Don Kehne - the size of St. Mary's College was the big plus. "It's small, so it allows you to build personal relationships not only with people but with your professors," she says. An added bonus for her is the way St. Mary's College can help a kid decide what her interests are. "It really helps students pinpoint their specific interest, and helps them find their passion. It makes it unique," says Kehne.

Her passion for volleyball will continue at St. Mary's, but competitive play will wait at least a year, until she finds her feet. A standout player at her high school, Friends School of Baltimore, she barely managed a full course load plus practices, games and road trips. In high school, Kehne also sang in the Chamber Choir - which took her to Europe one summer - while finding time to star in league play as well. Her work-study at college will remind her of that summer, for she's student helper at the international education program.

What will her passion be?

"I'll just have to wait and see," she says. "I have four years to figure it out."

But before her first week was over, Kehne - and her roommate - had been recruited to the sailing team.

BW Tell us about the characteristics of your young people. Do they come from all over the state?

MOBEighty percent call Maryland home, while twenty percent come from outside Maryland. Nearly one-third of students are first-generation college students.

Four hundred fifty-nine new students started at St. Mary's College this fall, 381 incoming freshman and 78 transfers. Of them, 183 were male and 276 were female. These exceptional students boast average SAT scores of 1240 and an average grade point average of 3.5.

Diversity is a big part of the experience at St. Mary's College, and almost 20 percent of the freshman class will be students of color, about 11 percent will be African American. The minority population of the entire college stands at 19 percent. We not only get minority students but keep them. We have one of the highest retention rates of African American students in the country.

Senior Brandi Caple: Making Diversity Work

St. Mary's senior Brandi Caple embraces this diversity. In addition to being treasurer of the Black Student Union at St. Mary's, she is also a student mentor in the Multi-Cultural Achievement Peer Program, MAPP to most students. This organization helps underclass minority students get adjusted to life at St. Mary's College.

"Younger minority students are assigned mentors that help them make the transition from high school to college. It's a diverse school, but students coming from different environments might have trouble," she says.

A graduate of Elizabeth Seton High School in Bladensburg, Caple was vice president of her senior class and was actively involved in community service. She was also a member of the school's Onyx Club, which she describes as the black student union at St. Mary's.

Caple chose St. Mary's as her college because of the "close-knit community." Like many students, she found the size attractive when she visited.

"It's a small, friendly community," Caple says. "The focus is on schoolwork, so you really know what you're here for. The professors really care about you."

BW How do you get your students into St. Mary's gear?

MOB There's a naïveté as students come. That's where our orientation program comes in. One hundred fifty students return three weeks in advance of the 350 new students coming in. So an African American student might be directed toward the minority peer program. A student with an interest in the environment will be hooked up with our St. Mary's River Project folks, who actually study the Chesapeake estuarine of the St. Mary's River.

BW So for all your diversity, you keep a close connection with St. Mary's County?

MOB We do a student service day, so they get out and see the Head Start program in the community. They see the fire department. They can plant trees for one of the retirement communities. So they actually feel a part of the local community.

BW Tell us more about your local connections.

MOB St. Mary's County is a transitional community of about 100,000 people, which was historically home to watermen and tobacco farmers. We're now looking at a several-billion-dollar industry in our back yard in Patuxent Naval Air Station.

One of the things we're focusing on now is the economy of tobacco, for it is the foundation of our democracy. There was no concept of democracy before St. Mary's City. It was based on a tobacco economy. The fierce devotion to principles was the foundation of civil society. That's what I want students to learn. We're creating an Institute of Democracy, a sort of civil society.

The orientation students who come back to help the first-year students have a dinner at the statehouse, built in 1676, which is the first statehouse in Maryland. The richness, the importance, the significance: for me it's a feeling that we are leading the next generation in those first-year students.

BW How do students thrive in your intellectual community of St. Mary's College?

MOB You get an incredibly strong core education, but there are two stages in intellectual maturation. The first one is the knowledge base. The second is the creative results - where a person steps out and becomes aggressively involved in their own development.

Most people are very knowledgeable, they just haven't developed a creative outlet for that knowledge. But then there's a curiosity that drives them, and in the right environment there's an ambition that drives them. The neat thing is when we first start to see this becoming something real. Suddenly there are five other areas of interest that the faculty has opened up for them and the student feels very validated. They think, "Great, I really had an idea."

It's an enlightening experience when it first happens. You think, "I cannot believe it."

BW How does St. Mary's help people reach that second stage?

MOB Many of us, because of the way education is structured, believe that there's some magic formula, some silver bullet that gives you the opportunity to become the best lawyer, the best physician. There isn't. The more creative opportunities we give a person early, the more magic we're going to get out of them.

We take our students to the stage where they become a primary producer, the creator of a work. They have opportunities at a young age to contemplate in a primary way a creative structure. It's like a light bulb goes off one day. You realize, "It was me. It was my reaction with my environment that created this." There's an infinite possibility.

2000 Graduate Matt Bachtell: On the Way

Norton and Nancy Dodge are part of the hidden culture of St. Mary's County. In 40 years of travel to the former Soviet Union, Dodge, a former professor of Soviet economics at St. Mary's, brought to freedom over 17,000 pieces of art disapproved of by the reigning Soviet aesthetic. All of it found a home in Cremora, the 960-acre Dodge estate on the Patuxent River. Eventually, the collection will belong to Rutgers University.

St. Mary's student Matt Bachtell, then a 19-year-old junior, began cataloguing the collection. Two years later, the kid from Williamsport, Maryland, mounted the college's first major exhibit curated by a student, "Nonconformist Art: Works of the Soviet Republic of Georgia From the Norton and Nancy Dodge Collection."

St. Mary's was his first and only choice of college. He aspired to a career in biology, but one art history class his freshman year changed that. As well as cataloguing the Dodge collection and carrying a full course load, the art history major worked 20 hours a week in the gallery.

BW At the opening of "Nonconformist Art," my guest - who is curator of the art collection at the University of Missouri at St. Louis - described Bachtell's opportunity to work with a vast private collection and mount the show as "extraordinary."

MOB The St. Mary's project really helps students become independent creators. All our undergraduates do a senior thesis, which can come in a variety of forms, including research projects, creative projects, internships and performances.

Past students have written novels, designed curricula, investigated social problems and analyzed ethical issues. Whatever form it takes, we find that the St. Mary's project caps off their studies. The general education requirements provide the well-rounded education, a chosen major gives a depth of study, and the St. Mary's project puts it all together.

Matt's senior project was the show. From it, he's got a good master's thesis. It would take him six months to write it. He could weave that into a Ph.D. in art history in two years. That's the leapfrog our senior thesis provides.

BW I understand that the college also gives students extraordinary opportunity for leadership. A former Bay Weekly intern, Evan Christman, was not only the editor of the college paper, The Point News, but also the student trustee of the college. He explained to me that St. Mary's College gets as many trustees - one - as the whole University of Maryland system.

MOB Any student can apply to be a student trustee. It's an opportunity to work with a board that has some very prominent Americans: Ben Bradlee, vice president at large of The Washington Post; Steven Muller, the chair of the board, who is president emeritus of Johns Hopkins; Teddy Turner - son of billionaire media mogul Ted Turner - who's underwritten our sailing center; William Donald Schaefer, our state comptroller; Congressman Steny Hoyer.

BW It seems to me that what you're saying is that you take some of the best and brightest students in Maryland, from all the counties, and you put them back in a situation that is very much Maryland at its roots, which are the roots of democracy. And through that, by pouring ideas into them, you prepare them to be participants in American society in all of its arts and sciences, and you also send them into the world at large with its opportunities and dangers.

MOB Well stated.

BW And your faculty?

MOB Composing a faculty for a liberal arts college is quite different than for a university. Every person has to be a teacher/scholar. Faculty are active in research and writing with 13 Fulbright awards among them. Ninety-eight percent hold a doctorate or the highest degree in their field.

Our faculty numbers 120, and the number has been growing - which is unusual these days - increasing by about 20 percent in the past four years. With more on the way. We have another 16 that we're hiring. It's a planned escalation of the number of students as well as the faculty.

We are very proud of our student-faculty ratio of 13 to 1. Students are always directed by faculty here. You need to have a focus toward a social agenda. We rely on faculty to develop that. For example, Joanne Klein, in the theater department, helped bring Bread and Puppets here. Her plays tend to be socially conscious.

From the diverse perspectives of our faculty, our students see the world anew. We have professors from Bangladesh, from Vietnam, from the Amish community. Some live as far away as Washington.

Veteran Freshman Howie Grube-O'Brien: The President's Son

Howie Grube-O'Brien has a very different take on life at St. Mary's College than most freshman. The president's son, he calls himself a "veteran freshman" of the college.

"I've lived the St. Mary's life for five years. I have taken a course at the college, attended various events and worked out at the gym on a regular basis," he says.

So when Grube-O'Brien set off for college on August 24, he was under the impression that he would instantly fit in. But that didn't happen. "To my surprise," he says, "I was feeling nervous and anxious when I set foot on campus that day. I was confronted with all new people, a new roommate and a mother who headed the institution," he says.

Grube-O'Brien came out of the first week, as most freshman do, with a sigh of relief. "Not only have I made it, but I've found some great friends, and I've managed to find plenty of time to study and have fun," he says.

His activities stand on their own as well. He plays on the tennis team for the school and has a slot on the campus radio show. He's also become a member of Students Organizing Alternative Programs (SOAP), which gives students alternate places to hang out, away from the drinking scene.

So after an anxious first week at St. Mary's College, the first freshman says, "I'm comfortable with St. Mary's College once again, and I look forward to my next four years here."

BW What brought you to St. Mary's?

MOB I was really looking to return to Maryland. My parents, Tom and Edie O'Brien, bought a summer home on the Severn River here when I was four years old, then a year-round home the next summer. Most of the homes were summer cottages built around a summer camp that was established in the '30s. We lived on a little peninsula down on the Severn River. It was a relatively quiet, preserved childhood. In those days kids didn't own cars.

I was the first class that went to an integrated Bates Middle School. After high school at Annapolis, I left in 1971.

My mother and my sister Judy still live in Annapolis, in Sherwood Forest. Returning to Maryland was a five-year passion for me, and I came back in 1996 as president of St. Mary's College.

BW What did you do in between?

MOB I graduated from Vassar College with a major in biochemistry. I got my doctorate in chemistry at the University of Delaware.

After teaching chemistry for 13 years, I served as associate provost and dean of the faculty at Middlebury College in Vermont from 1988 to 1991, but the isolation was too much. Vermont has only had more people than cows in the last decade.

After leaving Vermont, I served as president of Hollins College in Virginia from 1991 to 1996.

BW Tell us a bit about your family and household.

MOB I was married at 21 to a wonderful man, Jim Grube. Jim and I met in 1971, we were married in 1975. I was married right after I graduated from college. I agreed with Jim that we would have two children and I would go on to graduate school.

I was a young faculty member. I was 25 when I got my Ph.D. and was teaching kids who were three years younger than me.

My first child, Howard, was born in 1982 and the second, Tucker, was born in 1984. He's a junior at St. Mary's Ryken, in Leonardtown. Howie is 18 and a freshman this fall at St. Mary's College.

My husband is now president of the Teamwork Company, an Internet-based fitness and wellness company.

We have a family home in Annapolis as well as a home near the college at Leonardtown.

Kim Cammarata and Don Kehne contributed to this story.

Copyright 2000
Bay Weekly