Reflections on a Superlative Year

Posted on Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Our Lady of the Lake University hired a one-of-a-kind leader in 2013. No other college can claim a president who has taken religious vows and climbed a 4,700-foot rock formation at Yosemite National Park. No other school has a president who drives a Prius, loves to dance, boasts a PhD in chemistry and can say she once put her foot down with three Oblate priests.

Several years ago, Sister Jane Ann Slater, CDP, awoke at 4:30 in the morning to begin a hike atop a famous granite formation at Yosemite known as “Half Dome.” Seven people set out. Only four reached the summit. “We ran around, looked over the edge and congratulated ourselves,” she recalls. “I told the men, three Oblate priests, ‘Read my lips: From now on, no more ‘he-man stuff.’”

The March hiring of Sister Slater – she will serve as president through August of 2015 – was perhaps the most memorable event in a year full of superlatives for Our Lady of the Lake University.

A former school teacher, college professor, dean, trustee and Superior General of the Congregation of Divine Providence, President Slater brought a wealth of experience to her office and feel-good energy to the community. She also brought a good measure of humility and optimism.

“I am awed,” she said in March. “I’m a little nervous, of course, but I’m also very excited.”

It was a good year to serve at the University. In January, OLLU unveiled its Strategic Plan for 2018, Rooted in Providence: To Grow, To Graduate, and to Lead, a detailed roadmap for impact and growth. With a stated goal to recruit nationally and internationally, increase the Lake’s footprint and grow to 4,000 students, OLLU saw fall enrollment soar to 3,000 – the highest headcount in 10 years.

Also in the fall, OLLU launched majors in Biomathematics, Chemical Biology, Integrated Digital and Public History, Pre-Law and Legal Process and Sacred Music, and opened a new campus in La Feria, the first private Catholic university in the Rio Grande Valley.

“The Rio Grande Valley is a vital region for the future of Texas,” President Slater said during opening ceremonies at the campus. “We believe its citizens deserve quality options when it comes to higher education. … The winners here will be Valley students and their families for generations to come.”

After OLLU received reaffirmation of accreditation from the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS), faculty and staff made significant progress in 2013 toward completion of the remaining items from the accrediting body’s final report.

OLLU enjoyed a strong year in donations from its supporters. The spring and fall phonathons exceeded targeted goals as $116,799 was raised in donations and pledges for The Lake Fund. The San Antonio Livestock Exposition renewed its commitment for $100,000 toward undergraduate and graduate scholarships.

Other major gifts included: $83,043 from The Hogg Foundation for the Worden Bilingual Scholarship Program; $75,000 from The Scanlan Foundation for Mission and Ministry and scholarships; $46,783 from Methodist Healthcare Ministries to fund the Graduate Program in Psychology’s partnership with Haven for Hope to perform on-site assessment and therapy for homeless clients; $31,600 from the Baptist Health Foundation for graduate scholarships; and $25,000 from USAA for unrestricted scholarships.

The music department launched a Steinway Campaign to become an All-Steinway School and received its first pledge toward that goal. Many donations – large and small – came from OLLU’s devoted network of graduates. Twelve percent of the University’s alumni give back to the school – the second highest percentage in San Antonio behind Trinity University. The percentage of alumni giving ranks above the national average.

In athletics, the Lake celebrated a number of championships and historic firsts and launched a compelling new web site for its fans ( and for those who wish to buy sports apparel (

The Saints women’s basketball team was the regular season co-champion of the Red River Conference and qualified for the NAIA national tournament. The men’s golf team finished seventh at the NAIA national tournament. Senior golfer Aaron Flores finished second at the NAIA national tournament and was named first-team All American.

In the fall, the Saints women’s soccer team won the conference regular season and the conference championship tournament for the first time and advanced to the NAIA tournament. The women’s cross-country team also won the conference title for the first time and advanced to the national meet.

Off the field, Saints athletes excelled in the classroom. Five students were named 2013 Daktronics-NAIA Scholar-Athletes: Martin Hansson, Emily Backus, Alyssa Mora, Victoria Vazquez and Bryttany Willoughby. Each is a junior or senior who maintained a minimum grade point average of 3.5.

From until January through December, OLLU received a number of accolades and positive media coverage. U.S. News & World Report (Best Colleges 2013) cited OLLU for having 62.5 percent of its classes with 20 or fewer students, the best percentage in San Antonio. Diverse Magazine named OLLU a Top 100 Degree Producer for awarding master’s degrees to Hispanics. OnlineU ranked the school’s online MSW program the nation’s sixth most affordable for social work.  

The year was not without its challenges for OLLU, including transitions in leadership positions, but the focus must always return to undergraduate and graduate students. As President Slater says, “Our congregation’s founder Father John Martin Moye said, ‘Do not slacken in your zeal for the instruction of youth, for prayer, and for all the good you can do in your profession. Do not be disheartened by difficulties. Hope against all hope.’”

In 2013, students remained the heartbeat of the University, many of them battling through a variety of challenges to pursue degrees. Perhaps no one faced more year-end adversity than senior Patricio Espinoza, a mass communication major who began his higher education quest 25 years ago in Southern California.

Espinoza is a husband, student and veteran broadcast journalist, who has won six Lone Star Emmy Awards. He started his reporting career in the late 1980s and began taking classes at San Diego City College. As Espinoza moved from one television market to another, he enrolled in local colleges to continue his education.

More than two decades after starting college, Espinoza and his wife Bernessa moved to San Antonio. He became a freelance reporter for News 4 WOAI-TV, took a job with the Oblate Missions, enrolled at OLLU and began caring for his elderly parents, who live near the University.

Just weeks from finishing his final semester, his wife was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. “It was the week of Thanksgiving,” Patricio says. “It turned pretty dark. There was no way I could study. I quit going to work for a couple of weeks and fell behind in school. I was pretty close to quitting.”

Bernessa encouraged him to press on. Professors offered support. More good news came from doctors. The cancer was detected early enough for them to offer hope for a positive outcome. Still, Patricio wavered. How could he catch up with his most difficult class? The math component to physical science presented an enormous challenge.

A professor provided a tutor, James Laney, the son of OLLU’s College of Arts and Sciences Dean Michael Laney. “This kid is like a genius,” Patricio says. “I met with him at the tutoring center and it made a big difference.”

Patricio took his last final exam on Monday. He will graduate on Saturday, completing a journey not even cancer could stop. He aspires to become a college professor.

“My wife is starting to feel better,” he says. “I’m going to have a little more time now to be with my family and rest. But as soon as I can, I want to get back to school and start working on a master’s degree.”