Joining forces beyond the gates
Three groups of alums share the benefits and joys of working together, rediscovering the Mount Holyoke bond beyond the gates and South Hadley.
Katharine Smith ’05 and Rebecca Stephens ’03 are nurse practitioners who first worked together at the Drexel Vaginitis Center in Philadelphia — at the time the largest vaginitis program in the world. When Drexel closed their outpatient practices in September, Smith and Stephens moved their practice to the nearby Thomas Jefferson University Department of Obstetrics & Gynecology. They work closely to treat complicated, often unusual, conditions that can erode a woman’s quality of life.
“We focus on chronic vaginal infections and pain, such as vulvodynia and vulvar dermatitis,” Smith says, referring to two conditions that can be difficult to diagnose and treat. “For these women, a lot of times it’s been years since they’ve been able to get any help. When they finally find us, we get them on the right course.
“It doesn’t sound very glamorous, but it’s one of the most rewarding areas I’ve worked in,” Smith says, “because we see women who have been miserable. I see them as a new patient, and then I give them a plan. They just start crying and say, ‘Oh my God, there’s something we can do.’”
“Ours is a specialty practice. Unfortunately, a lot of people don’t end up here soon enough and have suffered for a very long time,” Stephens adds.
Smith always knew that she wanted to work in medicine; in fact, she wrote her University of Pennsylvania dissertation on women who attended Seven Sisters colleges to become nurses between 1880 and 1920.
She learned, she says, that becoming a nurse “was seen as a way to have an independent feminist career, where you could be in charge of your own work and make positive social change.”
Smith had worked as a nurse practitioner for 12 years, specializing in this niche field for the past five years. As her case load at Drexel escalated, it became apparent that the practice needed another nurse practitioner. Her boss, Dr. Paul Nyirjesy, put her in charge of the search.
“I’ve found that nurse practitioners tend to have a similar life view as me and a similar sense of humor. And that’s really what I wanted when we were hiring someone new,” Smith says. “I wanted a young woman with a good sense of humor whom I felt was like-minded.”
That person turned out to be Stephens, a Mount Holyoke friend of Smith’s husband, Cameron O’Mara ’05. The two lived in Safford Hall during their senior year, and they bonded over their odd hours.
“We were the only ones who were up at 7 a.m. having breakfast in the dining hall,” Stephens laughs.
O’Mara suggested that Stephens and Smith connect. Stephens had been working as a women’s health nurse practitioner in routine obstetrics and gynecology care at Penn Medicine, but she felt that she’d hit a plateau.
“I knew Drexel was one of the top programs in the country. I knew about Katharine. I knew about Paul Nyirjesy. I knew about the work they did and that there was an incredibly long wait to get in as a new patient. They were local celebrities,” she says, laughing.
And so when Stephens received a Facebook message from Smith, she was ecstatic.
“I ran downstairs to my wife, who was working out on the elliptical in the basement, and I said, ‘You’re not going to believe this. We send patients to this practice all the time, and Katharine is reaching out to me about a possible job opportunity. I need to work there. I need to work with Katharine!’” she recalls.
The pair met for coffee, and the connection was immediate.
“We walked in and hugged each other. There was such a common bond. There was so much that was unspoken. It had been a while since we had both been at Mount Holyoke, but it was just something that was inherent in both of us. It’s just impossible to replicate that elsewhere. It really feels like it’s part of your DNA,” Stephens says.
The pair say that their current setup is the perfect match personally and also professionally, collaborating daily on diagnoses.
Together, they say, they feel they’re making a life-changing difference in women’s health.
“I see so many people for whom vaginitis has ruined relationships, or they’ve had trouble with intimacy, which then affects their identity and how they feel about themselves. To be able to help somebody get that back is important,” Smith says.
And they’ve also made a difference in one another’s lives.
“We both have young kids, and our families are very close. I’ve lived in this city for 10 years, and my husband and I always said that we’ll never have friends like we did at Mount Holyoke. And now we do,” Smith says.
An Orchestral Order
Over the summer, recent graduates Relyn Myrthil ’19, Healey Suto ’19 and Hanna Danziger ’19 worked together as employees of the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s Tanglewood Music Festival in Lenox, Massachusetts. The trio were also suitemates at Mount Holyoke where they studied music. Together, they learned the ins and outs of arts administration and donor relations, receiving professional-level exposure to gain real-world skills. All three say that thriving in their positions wouldn’t have been possible without the Mount Holyoke network.
Myrthil was in her third summer as a head guide at Tanglewood, part of the public representative team, interacting directly with patrons.
“We see everything and are seen by everyone, which has its perks,” Myrthil says. “We were able to rub elbows with a lot of big-name artists, such as Yo-Yo Ma. His wife, Jill Hornor ’74, is an alum of Mount Holyoke!
“We worked with a lot of different departments and really saw the inner workings of arts administration and just what exactly goes into keeping the Boston Symphony Orchestra going. It’s been a really fantastic real-world learning experience.”
Like Myrthil, Suto was a summer public representative and guide. In this capacity, she was at the helm of the information desk at the center’s main gates, liaising with executive staff who welcomed guests and providing support at events.
“Often, different departments around the BSO and Tanglewood will have work that needs to be done, and they can call on the guides to have somebody do that job for them. So we end up doing a lot of random but very interesting things, being exposed to a lot in that way. It’s a very multifaceted position,” Suto says.
She landed the job thanks in part to Myrthil, a friend from a first-year music seminar. Suto had interned for the San Francisco Opera and was considering a career in arts administration. Knowing this, Myrthil had told her about summer opportunities at Tanglewood and encouraged her to apply for a job.
The result: the pair worked closely both in the front office and backstage.
“We saw each other every day and collaborated and relayed information to each other, making sure that the team was working as efficiently as possible,” Myrthil says.
Myrthil’s love for music was sparked as an undergraduate, thanks in part to Mount Holyoke Orchestra director Ng Tian Hui. He allowed her to work as orchestra president and assistant conductor.
“He was instrumental — pun intended— in really steering me toward a professional music management career. He taught the first-year seminar where Healey and I met in 2015. He really encouraged me to pursue everything and anything I wanted, and to deal with the consequences of biting off a little more than I could chew, which happened more than once — as any Mount Holyoke student would say,” she says, laughing.
Myrthil also attended the Crafting a Life in the Arts Symposium on campus — an event sponsored by Mount Holyoke’s InterArts Council that brings graduates working in the arts back to campus to talk about their careers. She was able to network with alums at the event.
“Just being able to be surrounded by successful alums in the arts was super-inspiring as a budding music major,” she says. There, she met Kristie Chan ’15, who spoke about her career with the BSO. Chan encouraged Myrthil to apply for a seasonal position at Tanglewood.
“I’m forever grateful for the mentorship that Kristie offered me as a sophomore, and that I’m still able to go back to her even now, juggling different interviews and trying to decide what my next chapter might be. … I feel like that really shows the power of graduating from Mount Holyoke, which has such a strong and connected alumnae association,” she says.
At Tanglewood, Myrthil was housed with Danziger, a college friend from Glee Club. Danziger held a summertime position in a different area from her classmates, working as a development assistant in the Friends of Tanglewood office. There, she handled donor relations and membership benefits.
Again, the Mount Holyoke alumnae chain came into play when Danziger was looking for a job. Former BSO annual fund and donor relations director Susan Brennan Grosel ’82 asked Chan, who asked Myrthil, if she knew a Mount Holyoke student interested in the position.
Happily, she did. And happily for Danziger, her BSO experience will extend beyond summertime: She recently accepted a year-round position as an individual giving coordinator.
“The BSO has a fondness for the school, the students and the workers that Mount Holyoke produces,” Danziger says. “I was really, really lucky that an alum reached out looking for someone from Mount Holyoke. There’s an assumption that we’ll be good.”
The Perkins Power Trio
Perkins School for the Blind in Watertown, Massachusetts, got a Mount Holyoke infusion in 2019, with the addition of three key players: Meredith Elkins ’91, director of brand and content; Perrin McCormick Menashi ’90, director of media and public relations; and Stephanie Jones Wagle ’97, director of digital strategy.
Working collaboratively, the three interact daily, crafting and delivering the institution’s message. While they don’t regularly interact with the students — who are blind or deafblind — their efforts directly support the mission of Perkins to improve the lives of people living with blindness or deafblindness. Their work also shapes the perception of such disabilities for the general public.
“Put the person before the disability — a ‘person who is blind,’ rather than a ‘blind person.’ It doesn’t take much,” says Elkins. “Kindness is free, and we should give it out. This is just, to me, a more high-order level kind of kindness.
“There are between six and 10 million children in the world that are blind and visually impaired and who may or may not have a second additional disability, and we’re out to help them all.”
One recent triumph: Menashi placed a story about a student boxer in the school’s deaf-blind program with the New England Sports Network, which featured him successfully maneuvering in the ring.
Knowing that they all share an academic and intellectual bond makes these successes even sweeter, the colleagues say.
“I know that the two people I work with are going to be some of the smartest people in the room, full stop, because they come from Mount Holyoke. I know roughly what their temperament is going to be and what their approach to things is. We’re all type A, high-energy, and get the job done,” Elkins says. “It’s like I have two other brains doing my job with me.”
Elkins landed her job first, then quickly suggested that Menashi, a longtime friend from Boston’s Mount Holyoke club, apply for the public relations role.
“Decades after graduation, Mount Holyoke was still paying dividends in terms of giving me new professional and personal relationships,” Menashi says.
Meanwhile, Wagle — a former Mount Holyoke News editor — was transitioning from a digital agency in New York City into the nonprofit sector and connected with Elkins to network. Fortuitously, the digital strategy director position was available.
“I knew she’d rock it, and the rest was history,” Elkins says.
Now, Wagle manages the school’s disability awareness websites, social media channels, e-learning programs and apps.
“We’re peers,” says Wagle. “Our work is so deeply intertwined. We’re all looking at each other’s plans. Everything Perrin does for public relations directly impacts the work that I’m trying to do in social. Everything Meredith does in creating content and guiding the voice of our brand directly impacts all of the content that we’re putting onto the website and all of our digital channels. And having this Mount Holyoke background created an immediate sense of trust. These are my people — and I know that they’re trying to do the same type of good work that I want to do.”
—By Kara Baskin ’00
Kara Baskin ’00 is a writer for The Boston Globe and a contributing editor at Boston magazine.
—Photos by Holly Clark
This article appeared as “Joining Forces” in the fall 2019 issue of the Alumnae Quarterly.
November 4, 2019