Le Fer Hall

What’s your passion project?

Blog | 09.22.2023

Karen Dyer, vice president for advancement and strategic initiatives

Born in sacrifice. This sentence may seem like a simple sentiment for describing Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College (SMWC), but its simplicity draws me to it. As a place that comes from the hard-earned spiritual, intellectual and physical labor of a collective of those who came before us, sacrifice is a fortifying crux on which those of us who are dedicated to The Woods often develop our commitment.

SMWC staff and friends clear limbs after a storm

Service through sacrifice is a constant reminder of this sentiment, becoming part of our very Woods core and daily vernacular. This was true in 1840, and it is still true today.

As the College prepared to welcome its largest class in the nearly 200-year history of the institution, there was a flurry of service activities throughout the campus, and it is upon this thought I reflect.

A group of staff and friends worked tirelessly following storms in early July to clear downed limbs and trees to reopen The Avenue and East Gate entrances. Dozens of staff and faculty showed up to help move and put together furniture for the new Lake House as the College repurposed the building, the former Guest House, into a residence hall. Several small groups of individuals made up of alumni, friends and staff have taken on the campus gardens and landscaping this summer to spruce up the Fatima Shrine, the Gate House, the Lake House, the stables and the Guerin Hall courtyards and gardens, pulling weeds, cutting shrubs and putting down new mulch. Others cleaned out spaces for improvements that will enhance the student experience, including the equine classroom and lab, which got new flooring. The horses will like this too.  

SMWC students raking leaves in front of Geurin

As students began to arrive, alumni board members came to campus to help pass on our love of tradition and legacy as part of new student orientation. Countless acts of kindness were observed in service to our students from members of our Woods community to help make our students and parents feel welcome. 

As a current graduate student in the first cohort in the global leadership doctoral program, I watched as my fellow cohort members reached out to the newest Ph.D. students, inviting them to join our WhatsApp chat and feel more like a part of our Woods family.  

SMWC Students from the 80s participating in Fuqua Days

There is a great photo of students wearing skirts, bobby socks and pearls raking leaves in front of Guerin. Another photo offers a snapshot from the 1980s, where students and alumni honoring Sister Jean Fuqua participated in Fuqua Days as part of a coordinated campus cleanup. We continue these efforts today during Foundation Week and participate each summer in United Way’s Serve the Valley. We lift up celebrating service as an effort heralded by the SMWC Alumni Board and our volunteer coordinator Kymberli Payonk ’88 as they recognize alumni, student, faculty and staff efforts far and wide. Our student-athletes complete required service hours as part of the Champions of Character program through NAIA.

SMWC staff unloading furniture for the Lake House

Giving back is part of The Woods Way – a commitment to carrying forward an important mission to challenge students to effect change through knowledge and virtue. Sometimes this is represented through volunteering time and effort, while other times, it comes through prayer. This summer brought tangible gifts of plants, mulch, paint and even vacuum cleaners to meet campus needs – to name a few.

What I know is that this idea of service through sacrifice has been around for many years at The Woods – a part of our Catholic foundation and Mother Theodore’s sacrifice to establish a school in the pioneer wilderness of Indiana. And, because The Woods was born in sacrifice, being called to serve is part and parcel to membership in our Woods family. Knowing and recognizing this can lead us to explore the depth of our connection to this place.

We have even given this idea a name – around campus, we refer to working on special projects as our passion projects.

SMWC staff participating in Serve the Valley

My passion commitments tend to focus on picking up sticks, cleaning up underutilized spaces and things related to the historical significance of the institution and often include organizing and writing. I have a few colleagues whose passion project is chairs – you wouldn’t believe how many different styles and colors we have across campus and putting them together in ways that make sense is an art form!

Special projects are something The Woods never has a shortage of – especially with such historically beautiful yet aging buildings and gloriously spacious yet weed-prone gardens. We also have more than 600 campus students and run a horse farm! The opportunities to find a passion project are endless.   So, do you have a passion project? And how might you invest in others as you live out your commitment to our collective Woods values?

Working in the field of higher education fundraising since 1997, Karen Dyer has dedicated her career to supporting higher education – investing in change-makers, creative thinkers and leadership for students of all walks of life through a focus on studying, practicing and leading the art of fundraising. As the Vice President for Advancement and Strategic Initiatives at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College, Dyer provides oversight for the fundraising, communications, marketing, events and alumni relations teams, while heading efforts for the SMWC Aspire Higher Strategic Plan. She enjoys writing and editing and is active in the Wabash Valley community, involved in the areas of strategic planning, fundraising and leadership and community development.


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