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Sister Ruth Dowd, R.S.C.J: Leading the World of Education for 94 Years and Counting

Sister Ruth Dowd, R.S.C.J. recently celebrated her 94th birthday. For a birthday cake, the diminutive Roman Catholic nun was presented with an ice cream sundae, and the light in her eyes wasn’t just a reflection of the candle. Sister Ruth, as most people know her, has a zest for life that infects those around her.

Nearly all of her life has been devoted to her passion: education. Throughout all of this time, she has been more than just a teacher – she has been a builder. After graduating in 1940 from the small all-women College of the Sacred Heart in Harlem, she immediately joined the order of the Religious of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. In 1949 she returned to her alma mater, now moved to Purchase, New York, and renamed Manhattanville College, where she taught philosophy for 18 years.

Following her calling to broaden the educational opportunities for women and minorities, Sr. Dowd returned to Harlem in 1967. There, in conjunction with the New York Urban League, she created the Harlem Preparatory School. At the time no prep schools existed in Central Harlem.

“Our goal was to bring in high school drop-outs and prepare them for college,” she recalls. “We promised that if they were able to complete the program, we would place them in colleges, and we succeeded in placing a great many students into colleges, including the Ivy League.”

Five years later, her efforts won the 1972 National Council of Women’s Women of Conscience Award for encouraging black youth to continue their education. Other winners of that award have included Anne Morrow Lindbergh, Barbara Jordan and Margaret Mead.

Sr. Dowd’s next challenge was as director of the School of New Resources at the College of New Rochelle where she spearheaded the building of the school’s innovative, self-designed degree programs. She was just getting started. In 1983 she returned to Manhattanville, now as Dean of Adult and Special Programs. A year later she would put the small college on the literary map when she hosted the first Writers’ Week conference, an annual event that is now in its 28th year.

In 1986 Sr. Dowd founded Entrepreneurial Center at Manhattanville. The adult program soon became the school of Graduate and Professional Studies with a flagship program in Human Resources. Soon the school was offering curriculum in leadership, strategic management, marketing and a master of arts in writing, that has gone on to develop the talents of many writers, including writers such as well-known poet Alice Quinn, essayist, columnist and author Phyllis Theroux, editor/publisher Nan Talese, and Amazon’s 2009 Breakthrough Novel Award winner, James King.

A graduate and recent director of the writing program, Karen Sirabian calls it, “a rare sense of community for writers.” Under Sr. Ruth’s stewardship, the writing program began sponsoring a yearly Meet the Writers Literary series that brought nationally known novelists and poets to the campus, and an offshoot of the program, the literary journal Inkwell soon became a nationally recognized publication.

Ms. Quinn, now Executive Director of the Poetry Society of America, studied under Sister Ruth. “Her determination to build a great writing program at Manhattanville was galvanizing. Famous, distinguished writers came to the school on a regular basis and gave their all to the students,” Quinn said. “She is extraordinarily tenacious on behalf of her passionate interests, and in all good ways. To care so much about an institution, to always be thinking about how it can become greater in true homage to its storied past, and to be so forward looking into one’s 80s and 90s, was a wonder to behold.”

Admiring colleagues point to her rare talents as a risk taker and visionary—terms usually associated with Fortune 500 CEOs, not nuns. “She has touched tens of thousands of lives,” Sirabian said. “Children of privilege, children of poverty, struggling writers and best selling authors, students starting over and students whose life is learning. This is a person you could meet for an hour and have the whole course of your life altered. I’ve seen it happen, heard about it happening and have read countless letters that she has received affirming that very thing.”

Colleagues and former students alike speak of her ability to unite people toward a common purpose, her adventurous spirit, her dedication to social entrepreneurship and, most of all, to her uncanny ability to make a difference in people’s lives by helping them identify and achieve their goals. Sr. Ruth puts it more simply. “I have a terrible failing,” she confesses, “I love to start things.”

On October 1, 2009, Sr. Dowd stepped down and was given the title Dean Emeritus in recognition of her achievements and lifetime body of work. “I have always allowed my faith to lead me,” she says summing up her career, “and I was never disappointed.”


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