Reflections on Change

By Emily Behr ’93

I’ll never forget August 22, 1989. I was a member of the first co-ed class at SI, one of 175 girls in a school of 1,225 students. On our first day of orientation, we were greeted by nervous yet expectant teachers, excited juniors and seniors and the news media. They literally greeted us — they stood on the front steps of school and watched us arrive that first morning. After 134 years of single-sex education, everyone was ready to get a good look at us. As I reflect back, I also recognize God’s welcoming presence. He was in the face of Fr. Mario Prietto, SJ, SI’s principal, who welcomed us that first day in Orradre Chapel and did everything in his power to make us feel comfortable. He was in the face of our teachers who banded together to form female ’support groups’ to make sure that we were able to adjust and integrate into the historically male-dominated school environment and support us through a difficult school transition. He was even there in the very pink walls of our brand new locker room — such a well-intentioned (yet slightly misguided) gesture by the school administration to ‘rebrand’ facilities for girls — to let us know they had planned for our arrival and were welcoming us with open arms. All girls must love pink, right?

Last March, I had the opportunity to lead a Kairos retreat for some of our seniors, and I shared the above reflection with them about my first day at SI. As a naïve and oblivious eighth grader living in Marin County, I had no idea what I was getting into when I accepted a place in SI’s “pioneer” class of 1993. Today I feel incredibly grateful, blessed and proud that I was able to be a part of this incredible class.

At our 10-year reunion in October 2003, Genesis IV editor Paul Totah interviewed several of my classmates about their experiences at SI. As one would expect, our class experienced our share of challenges and struggles as we lived through SI’s growing pains. Amber Clisura, now a textile and fashion designer, recalled, “It was a trial by fire. The faculty wasn’t sure how to handle 175 girls, and we weren’t sure how to handle the faculty.”

During our first few years, the school paid so much attention to the female members of our class that, at times, the boys in our class lived in the shadows. David Ciappara, who today works as a paramedic, remembered, “As a guy, you melted into the background. With so many guys there, the girls paid attention to the older guys. You were like a number almost unless you played sports.” For MelissAnne Gallo, “it was eye opening to see that not all of us were welcomed at first. On my freshman retreat, a senior admitted that he [at first] didn’t want us to be there and that he agreed with all the alumni [who also protested SI’s decision to go coed], but he now saw that it was a good thing.”

For the most part, our experiences were overwhelmingly positive. Adversity that we faced made us stronger as individuals and as a class. Attorney Tiffany Cheung reflected that being at SI “taught me to be a stronger woman. As a freshman, I was surrounded by men, so I learned to speak out for myself and to be independent.” Despite her trial by fire, Amber Clisura believes that her teachers “prepared me for the world in unexpected ways. I received an education in finding my principles and sticking to them. My teachers taught me not to be afraid to do that, and I’m thankful for them.” Jean-Paul Bergez, who owns his own landscape design business, was grateful for the extra attention we received. “People warned us that being a freshman is rough, but it was easy [for us] because people treated us so well. No one gave us an initiation process. Everyone patted us on the back telling us we were special, instead of knocking us down because we were freshmen.”

For me, the most incredible thing about being part of this historic class was the myriad opportunities that we were offered. Erica Drous noted that “we had a better high school experience because we never had to be the youngest girls.” For four years, our class, particularly the girls, served as the school’s guiding force. We served on varsity sports teams as underclassmen, gaining valuable experience that earned our teams championships during our final two years. As freshmen, Blair Wilde and I were the only two girls admitted to Service Club for our sophomore year. Because there was no female representation on student council (made up primarily of seniors), we were invited to attend the student council retreat as sophomores.

Cross country standout Alicia Stanfill and track star Lorelei Suarez were the first girls selected for the Block Club. At times Stanfill felt the pressure of being the first to break tradition. “I knew I was setting precedent and that I couldn’t screw up and ruin it for everyone else,” but she also knew that she was consistently “supported and given all of the coaching and equal opportunities” afforded older students.

I fondly recall having Fr. John Murphy, SJ ’59, as my English teacher freshman year. For years, the brilliant and dedicated Fr. Murphy only taught juniors and seniors. As department chair in 1989, he added one freshman English class to his own schedule because he wanted to see what it was like to teach a coed class. The 30 of us in his class had been blessed with unparalleled intellectual challenges coupled with Fr. Murphy’s caring, generous and loving spirit.

Our class was a class of firsts, but our experiences were much like every other graduating class at the Prep. We studied as much as necessary, immersed ourselves in theater, athletics and other activities, celebrated liturgies, prayed together, laughed together, cried together and made lasting friendships. Bryan Giraudo, now an investment banker, marvels at how typical our experience was. “There was beauty in what Fr. Prietto and Fr. Sauer did. They did not make [co-education] an exception, other than the speech on the first day. As I recall, the first day there were TV cameras and then class. It didn’t matter the next day.”

Emily Behr is a member of SI’s first coed class and the first one from that class to work full time for SI. A Stanford graduate, Behr first worked in the school’s admission’s office and now directs the SI Magis Program.

By Lorelei Suarez ’93

As a member of SI’s first coed class, I had the good fortune of having Fr. John Murphy, SJ, as an English teacher for three of my four years of English at SI. I enjoyed his rigorous lessons, and he taught us how to write far better than any of my professors at UC Berkeley. I treasure this memory, among others, from my four years at SI — years that changed my life and formed me in ways that I will never forget. My time at SI, I am certain, made me the woman I am today.

My closest friends remain the girls I met those first weeks as a freshman Wildcat. Moira O’Neil is working on her Ph.D. in Santa Barbara, Alicia Thomas just celebrated her one-year wedding anniversary, Monette Benitez is a mom, and Dina Calvin is engaged. When we get together to celebrate one of our life’s great moments, as we do to this day, in many ways we are still those 14- and 15-year-old girls who played basketball, danced in 3 Shades, monopolized talent shows, pulled all-nighters writing term papers, and, most importantly, created the first generation of female Wildcats.

I am one of very few women in my occupation. I am by far the youngest employee and the only minority in my office. I am also successful. Ask me where I learned how to succeed, how to lead, how to rise above, and my answer will always be: the halls of SI. Corporate America isn’t the first time I demanded to be accepted by a male-dominated organization. Until Alicia Stanfill and I joined SI’s Block Club, it was the only all-male club left at SI. She and I made the cut, and the rest is history. We were given an extraordinary opportunity (just as we were in Fr. Murphy’s English class) by being in the right place at the right time to own a special place in the SI memoirs.

We started as eighth graders by answering the call to be part of a pioneer class. As freshmen, we found ourselves outnumbered seven to one by the boys. As sophomores, we paved a path for those who would follow, redefining the school’s identity while honoring its past. How many chances does someone really get to change history and to do it as part of one’s high school experience?

I know how blessed I was for being a part of the Class of ’93. Like all teenagers, my high school years were filled with angst, peer pressure, doubt, fear and pain. Some of my experiences were perhaps even more painful than they might have been elsewhere. But as the years continue to pass, and as I face the world and everything it throws my way, I am convinced that my time at SI was close to perfect. Without those heartaches and tears, along with the joys and triumphs, I might not be the confident and strong person I am today.

My time at SI provided me with rare opportunities to be a leader, to set new standards, to create new paradigms and to discover new frontiers. At SI I learned that I could transform the world in limitless ways because I was the magic wand. SI generously gave me the gifts of self-reliance, self-sufficiency and self-esteem. As a result of molding us into such strong individuals, our educators succeeded in shaping us into young adults with the experience, faith and conviction to change the world, just as Ignatius hoped we would and just as we prayed each day when we asked: “Lord, teach me to be generous. Teach me to serve You as You deserve; to give and not to count the cost; to fight and not to heed the wounds; to toil and not to seek for rest; to labor and not to seek reward; save that of knowing that I do Your will, O God.”

SI, you taught me well.

Lorelei Suarez is a business consultant in human resources, employment practices and employer liabilities. She also is the founder of Emerging Professionals In Collaboration, a networking organization for young professionals supported by the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce.