A few things things come to mind almost immediately when we think about all-girls Catholic schools like rules, nuns and plaid – lots and lots of plaid. All-girls Catholic schools are often praised for being academically exceptional, producing like-minded young women who are inspired, ambitious and fearless.
It’s not unreasonable then to wonder how these schools are able to consistently achieve the results that they do. Here are a few insights into what it’s really like to have the all-girls Catholic school experience.
1. Sisterhood is everything
The thing about spending four years with the same group of girls, day in and day out – sharing the same religious views, taking the same classes, favoring the same teachers and flirting with the same boys after school – is that it’s all pretty much one long initiation process into a lifelong sisterhood.
So many women recount their all-girls Catholic high school experiences as the most meaningful experiences of their lives, times during which they formed long-lasting friendships that they maintain even in adulthood, like Micki Wagner, a sophomore at the University of Missouri. For Micki, attending an all-girls Catholic high school was the single most empowering experience of her life. “The girls I went to school with are still some of my closest friends, even though we’re in college all over the country,” she says.
Psychotherapist and women’s mental health expert, Kelley Kitley, explains that all-girls Catholic schools often provide a strong foundation for young girls who may be struggling through adolescence. “I’m the product of an all-girls Catholic high school, which is exactly why I’m doing what I do as a psychotherapist specializing in women’s health,” she says. “It was the foundation I needed as a girl who struggled with family issues and internal insecurities.” Twenty years after her high school graduation, she remains best friends with many of her classmates.
The truth is that wearing the same uniform as everyone else (and in more extreme cases like mine, the same jewelry even down to the shape, size and “sparkliness” of an earring) encourages a certain level of comfort. “I think people perceive all-girls Catholic schools like Britney Spears’ “Baby One More Time” video, just oozing with sex appeal,” Micki says. “[But] it was incredibly real and not sexy, like at all. We all just got a place to be unapologetically ourselves – a safe place to explore what that even meant for all of us individually.”
There’s something about uniformity (quite literally in this sense) that forces people to find more creative ways to express their uniqueness and individuality, whether that’s through hobbies like joining the choir or playing a sport, or through other outlets like academic excellence or volunteer commitments.
2. Religion is not uniform
Although sameness of religious beliefs is the foundation upon which these institutions are conceived, it is often not the case that all students experience the same religious journeys. I, myself, found the rigorous nature of the system to be counterproductive in its efforts to inspire interest in the Catholic faith.
Religious teachings were used to instill discipline and obedience through fear rather than understanding, and over the years, I felt a growing disconnect with the Catholic Church. I attended all-girls Catholic schools all my life up until college, and I remember so distinctly the day that I first questioned everything I was being taught. I was six years old, and my teacher at the time told me (very matter-of-factly) that I would go to Hell if I went to see the parades in an upcoming carnival. Her exact words were, “that’s Satan’s celebration.”
While my experience is not all encompassing, others have expressed for one reason or another that, although religion is what brought them and their schoolmates together, it was not always the main takeaway from the experience. Travel consultant, Jennifer Dillon, attended all-girls Catholic school from kindergarten all the way through sixth grade and is a self-proclaimed “recovering Catholic.”
Jennifer says, “As early as kindergarten, the nuns at St. Mary’s would tell us to be on the lookout for signs that God was calling us to the church, to ‘marry Christ’ and become nuns ourselves. I took this very seriously…until the day in 4th grade when my spiritual aspirations were crushed, and my faith forever lost.”
A local priest visited Jennifer’s class to teach them about baptism and confession – the two basic requirements, he said, for entering Heaven. It was not Father Joe’s lecture that perplexed her but rather his response to one of her questions. She asked, “Does that mean a person can live a terrible life, and as long as they were born Catholic and baptized, and confessed on their deathbed they will go to Heaven? And a person who has never heard of Jesus but who lives a good life and is kind to others will not?” Jennifer says that she doesn’t remember his exact response, “just that they brought hot tears to [her] face.” The nuns listening in on the lecture immediately chastised her for her unruly outburst and disrespectful demeanor. And from that day on, she says that she’s struggled with her belief in Catholicism.
For others, the religious aspect of all-girls Catholic school is equally, if not more, significant to their experiences than the promise of sisterhood. Kelley says that most of the positive feelings she harbors today about her all-girls Catholic high school are owed to “the lasting relationships, supportive environment and spiritual connection” she encountered. “Worshipping together as a community brings a sense of closeness, giving young women the opportunity to openly discuss spirituality,” she says.
Moreover, Kelley says, “The religious component adds a foundational element that nondenominational schools don’t provide, specifically in the area of social justice as a core Catholic belief.” Undeniably, all-girls Catholic schools promote values of kindness, compassion, community, gratitude and philanthropy regardless of the ways in which they approach religious education.
Even though we may not all have left with the same religious beliefs, our experiences at our all-girls Catholic schools encouraged us to think deeply about what religion and spirituality meant to us. Evidently, we were allowed to discover and develop our own religious identities – Catholic or not.
3. Intelligence is attractive… and empowering
All-girls Catholic schools often pride themselves on academic excellence. Statistically, they outperform not only all-boys Catholic schools, but also nondenominational same-sex schools and nondenominational co-ed schools – in number of hours students spend studying per week and likeliness to engage in peer tutoring for example.
Jennifer remembers witnessing these differences first-hand. “In sixth grade, my parents divorced and we moved from rural Wisconsin, where I went to Catholic school, to Colorado, where I enrolled in public school,” she says. “In Catholic school, I had been a sort of middling student I think – not a top student. But when I got to public school, academically, I was waaaay beyond these kids, who seemed wild and undisciplined to me.”
Overall, the experience offers young girls a higher level of academic self-confidence, inspiring them to pursue careers in traditionally male-dominated STEM fields and take an active interest in politics and social activism in the future.
According to Micki, all-girls Catholic schools often create a culture of achievement, and she’s right. In an environment where the male presence is almost non-existent – since many of these schools are primarily staffed by women, nuns included – traditional patriarchal gender roles tend to be less oppressive and less apparent. Every position on every sports team is played by a girl. And every leadership role of every club is held by a girl (Who would have guessed that Catholic school would be feminist?). The result is an environment that is not only incredibly supportive, but also incredibly stimulating. “Being around girls who placed an importance on being smart was so powerful. It truly made me feel like I could rule the world,” Micki says.
Kelley explains that this kind of work ethic stems from a natural competitive streak that most women exhibit. It’s helpful, she says, because it inspires us to challenge ourselves inside and outside of the classroom. Focused, intelligent, motivated and fierce are just some of the words we could use to describe all-girls Catholic school students – a combination that’s bound to ignite some healthy competition. The downside, though, is that if we’re not careful, it can also lead to feelings of anxiety. I can attest to this, since anxiety attacks (especially before a major exam) were not uncommon at my high school and even elementary school. Kelley, herself, remembers feeling pressured in high school to be the perfect overachiever. Now, her areas of professional expertise include anxiety and agoraphobia, panic disorders, obsessive-compulsive disorder and depression.
The takeaway here is that while it’s empowering to exist in a safe environment of your peers who share similar aspirations and are motivated by many of the same influences as you are, it’s important not to engage in unhealthy levels of competition – with others and even with yourself.
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The value of an all-girls Catholic school education, although frequently debated, is unmistakable – uplifting environments in which girls and young women learn that they can do anything and be anything, without fears of gender discrimination. J. Lo, Salma Hayek and, even, Lady Gaga are all top-ranking celebrities who, at one time or another, attended an all-girls Catholic school. And like these women, whether you go on to affirm your faith in the Church, pursue a more spiritual than religious route or opt for secularity, chances are that if you attended an all-girls Catholic school, you and your Catholic school sisters still share very similar ideas of what it means to be strong, confident and passionate women of worth.