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North Hills Monthly

Spirituality, Scholarship and Service Integral to Oakland Catholic Education

Sep 30, 2018 05:57PM ● By Vanessa Orr

Oakland Catholic students collaborating in a Physics Lab.

Many students enter high school with the end goal of getting into good colleges and going on to successful careers. And while these ambitions are encouraged and nurtured at Oakland Catholic High School, they are preparing their students for an even bigger mission—to serve as positive agents of change throughout the world.

“Our purpose is to educate young women to prepare them for the world in which we live,” said Mary Claire Kasunic, president of the all-girls Catholic school. “We have a long tradition of graduating female leaders grounded in values, gospel teachings and faith who have a sense of duty and responsibility not just to one group, but to the bigger world around them.” 

The concepts of spirituality, scholarship and service are integral to Oakland Catholic’s purpose, and the staff and faculty work to instill these values in the 560 young women in grades nine through 12 who attend the school. 

“We don’t see these concepts as independent silos; we believe they should be integrated—one isn’t divorced from another,” explained Kasunic. “Spirituality permeates the environment, which in turn builds a supportive community that encourages academic excellence, and fosters responsibility to the greater good. The idea of ‘leader as servant’ is ingrained in the community at Oakland Catholic.”

One example of this type of integration is the Global Competence Initiative (GCI) certificate program, which requires students to annually commit to participating in specific courses and activities with a global perspective. This certification process includes a number of encounters, including lectures and seminars, and engagements that can be fulfilled in many ways, such as by participating in a World Affairs Council summer program, a global studies institute, or taking part in mission and service trips. Senior GCI scholars make poster presentations in the spring where they share their experiences and what they’ve learned.

“The Global Competence Initiative certificate program gets to the heart of our mission,” said Kasunic. “It’s not a one-off experience where they just swoop in, do a good deed and leave. The girls are involved in something sustainable so that they have time to understand the situation and see what they can do to help. They not only learn about the culture in which they are immersed, but they learn something about themselves.” 

Students have gone to Patzún, Guatemala every summer for the past nine years, where they teach English and conduct a reading program. They travel to New York City, Appalachia, and Jamaica to help with service endeavors. They also participate in activities locally, including helping with home repairs for those in need living on Pittsburgh’s North Side through the Pittsburgh Project.

“Our goal is to inspire students to become lifelong leaders and lifelong agents of positive change,” said Kasunic. “We want them to understand that we are all part of one united community, and as result, we have obligations to one another.”

Graduates of Oakland Catholic, and the three all-girls Catholic schools that are part of its legacy, go on to succeed in a myriad of careers that range from physicians and lawyers to nonprofit organization administrators and corporate CEOs. “One of our students is the founder of a dance company, and another is doing outreach in Tanzania, Africa,” said Kasunic. “A number are working in universities or in the field of international relations, and we also have female engineers working at Google and Amazon.

“We want our students to step up readily for leadership roles because that is how they can more effectively lead for societal change,” she added. “It’s important that they move outside of their comfort zones, because being a leader is about more than understanding people who look like you; you have to interconnect with people from many different backgrounds, especially in this global climate.”

Academics are heavily stressed at Oakland Catholic and surveys completed by parents show that this is the number one reason why families choose the school. Not only are retention rates extremely high, but the school also has a 100 percent college acceptance rate.

“Research says that a 90 percent or higher retention rate is exceptional, but if we’re losing 10 percent of our students each year, that’s 56 girls leaving,” said Kasunic. “Our retention rate is between 98 and 99 percent, and that reflects not only on the hard-working, motivated, supported individuals who go here, but on the commitment that their parents have made, because it can be a sacrifice to attend a tuition-based school.”

While a large part of Oakland Catholic’s identity is rooted in the religion, the school strives to have a balanced and diverse population, which includes students who are from different geographic, ethnic, socioeconomic, racial and religious backgrounds. One-third of the students who attend the school aren’t Catholic. 

“Families who send their daughters here choose a faith-based, value-centered environment where uniqueness is celebrated,” said Kasunic. “We meet students where they are and walk with them, and this environment lends itself to high expectations for self, school and community.”

Caroline Richard, an Oakland Catholic senior, found this to be true after first attending public school. “My two older sisters went to Oakland Catholic, and though the three of us are incredibly different, we all found a place where we could belong. There is a place for every girl here,” she said.

Richard especially likes the unique focus that comes from attending an all-girls school. “Going into college and then the work force, it’s important to know your worth, both academically and spiritually,” she explained. “Oakland Catholic does an outstanding job of making sure that every girl is treated with dignity and respect, and knows that she can change the world in a positive way.

“What really stuck out to me as a freshman was realizing that every teacher here really wanted you to succeed, and that they would do everything in their power to help,” she added. “While I was originally hesitant about coming to an all-girls school, I wouldn’t change my experience here for the world. I have grown in my faith, my academics, and my confidence as a person, and I feel that I’m ready for anything the future holds.”

“This type of educational experience empowers young women and helps them find their voice,” added Kasunic. “This is especially relevant in today’s society—they need to know that there is a greater purpose beyond themselves.”

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