Xavier’s Women of Excellence: Setting the World on Fire for 10 Years

By Ryan Clark

Maria Bryan always thought she wanted to be a science teacher. With a love for chemistry, and a desire to improve the number of young women going into science fields, she came to Xavier to study and make her wish a reality.

But how does anyone know for certain if their career choice is the correct one — especially as a teenager?

Bryan discovered how she could make certain and she has Xavier’s Women of Excellence to thank for it.

A 21-year-old Chemical Science major from Lima, Ohio, Bryan used financial help from the Women of Excellence to create a summer camp for students in grades 3-8. The camp was STEM-based (science, technology, engineering and math) and the students came to Xavier’s campus for a week something they still do to this day.

Hands-on activities helped the students get a feel for engineering as they were sometimes asked to create something from nothing. 

“The Women of Excellence grant gave me the funds to test the waters and see if teaching was the right path for me,” Bryan says. “Not only did it confirm my profession choice, but I was able to learn so much from my mentors. I feel like I have been able to experience the classroom in a different way.”

Ten years ago, Xavier started the Women of Excellence, a philanthropy group that advances the legacy of Xavier and Edgecliff’s women graduates, while providing opportunities for women to grow as leaders for the University.

With the creation of their Giving Circle, which now includes more than 125 women, the group has been responsible for donating and awarding more than $700,000 in grant money over the past nine years to 84 projects that have benefitted Xavier, our community and our world. 

“The internship helped me to realize how great my passion for educating is,” Bryan says. “I knew that I wanted to become a teacher but I needed a confirmation that teaching was going to be the profession for me.”

Separate grants from the Women of Excellence helped Bryan connect with the Cincinnati community through a group called the Xploratorys, which specialize in trying out new ways of teaching science.

“Skills such as teamwork, organization and problem-solving were really prevalent in the internship,” Bryan says. “I’m going to use these skills when I teach in high school because it’s all about how can you work with your colleagues to better teach the students.”

And, as Bryan teaches them, inevitably more young girls will follow in her path. And the ‘circle’ will continue.

‘A great group of women’

In the early 2000s, Xavier staff members attended a women’s philanthropy conference, where speakers talked about social activism.

“It seemed to line up with (Xavier’s) mission,” says Leigh Ann Fibbe, senior director of Xavier’s University Relations. “We learned about how women give differently, and we decided to create some focus groups and talk to women about what prompts them to give. That led to us forming the Women of Excellence Council. It was one of the best groups I’d ever worked with  just a great group of women committed to getting stuff done.”

With Father Graham’s blessing, and with several members of his advisory council volunteering, the Women of Excellence moved forward.

“Adding mentors, establishing an endowed scholarship fund and funding grants for University groups are some of my cherished memories of Women of Excellence, in addition to the many relationships I formed with the gifted, talented and extremely bright women of character throughout my 10 years,” says Pamela Zipperer-Davis, president of ZD Management, Inc.

Zipperer-Davis also served as chair of the mentoring committee, as well as vice president, president and immediate past president of the group. Over the years, the Women of Excellence have had a hand in expanding the school mentoring program (which was once utilized only by students in the Williams College of Business) and making it campus-wide. They also funded programs exploring the use of Montessori education to help dementia patients.

As the group matured, they decided they would adopt a philanthropical practice that appeals directly to women. The Giving Circle was born.

“The exact function is a way to practice philanthropy in community with others, learn about the hopes and dreams of students, faculty and staff at Xavier, and have a say in how the pooled resources of the Giving Circle community are spent,” says Anne Ernst (’75), executive director of the Women of Excellence and Major Gift Officer at Xavier.

Giving Circle members are allowed to vote on grant winners. Those that donate at $100 (1/10 vote) or above ($1,000 is a full vote) receive an email in early April to review and vote for their three favorite grants. This year's grant winners will be announced at the Women of Excellence Award Luncheon on April 25 at Cintas Center.

“One of our goals with the Giving Circle is to give through the lens of a woman," Norah Mock (’79), former executive director of the Women of Excellence, told Xavier in a 2009 interview after the Circle was created. “The grants (we’re) funding are those that enrich students’ lives. These programs will be those that truly resonate with our members, and most of our members are women.”

“We’ve let the Xavier community know that we are committed to advancing and engaging women in the Xavier community,” Fibbe says. “We’ve provided women an intentional and active way of giving that has resulted in numerous programs that exist to this day as part of what Xavier has to offer, and we’ve offered a platform that allows women to engage in the ways that matter most to them.”

And they’ve made quite a difference in 10 years.

‘We are truly grateful’

Jennifer Trowbridge (’98, ’06), is Managing Principal & Portfolio Manager at RedTree Investment Group in Cincinnati. She is also a member of the Women of Excellence’s development council.

“Women of Excellence has filled a niche need, targeting women who want to give back to the University in some way but weren’t sure how,” she says. “They also bring a diverse group as well as different generations together for a common cause. It’s a great group of women strong, independent and working extremely well together to continue moving forward with our mission to provide opportunities for women to grow as organizational and philanthropic leaders for XU.”

Carla Gerberry, assistant professor in the Mathematics Department, says she’s especially thankful for the STEM camps and Xploratorys. Grants allow her to continue to run Saturday academic events for highly-motivated, underserved middle school students.

“We reward students who attend all three events for the year with a Kindle Fire, and the grant has subsidized those purchases as well,” Gerberry says. “It also permitted us to give scholarships to over 10 students with financial need in the local Cincinnati area to attend STEM camps this summer. We are truly grateful for the Women of Excellence.”

As Maria Bryan prepares for graduation this spring, she knows what she wants to do and how to get there. She’s already developed lesson plans and managed a classroom. She’s cultivated relationships with students.

“I truly believe that each student could become the next big scientist or the next big researcher in medicine, and I hope that when I become a teacher, I show students that dedication and hard work help you to get to where you need to go,” she says. “The internships I did helped me to realize this, and I'm just so thankful that I had the opportunity.”


  • Michelle Hall, associate professor, Department of Counseling, Xavier: “My colleague Cathy Sacco and I received a Women of Excellence grant in the Spring of 2017 to fund a two-year project entitled, ‘Compassionate Xavier: Initiating 50 Compassion Projects Across the Campus Community.’ In the 2018-2019 academic year, 50 Xavier faculty, staff and student leaders will embark on innovate projects to spread compassion throughout the community.”
  • Ken Gibson, Xavier University library director: “In 2015 the Xavier University Library Makerspace grant request for funding from Women of Excellence was successful, awarding nearly $10,000. This allowed the Library to go beyond offering only 3D print service to providing more comprehensive technology-based equipment and tools. As was stated in the original grant, females are underrepresented in STEM fields and provision of a Makerspace encourages and welcomes our women students to access and experiment with technology.”
  • Debra Mooney, vice president/CMO, The Center for Mission and Identity; Founding Director of the Conway Institute for Jesuit Education, Xavier: “With a 2016 WOX grant, the ‘Mastery and Moxie in 31 Days: A Journal and Guide for Career Women’ was completed, edited and printed. The guide and journal includes information on 31 leadership factors, each with an associated prompt for reflection on personal experience (i.e., Ignatian reflection) and a ‘next step’ to turn it into a habit. A 2nd edition is planned.”
  • Megan DeRosier (’13), former mentee in the 2010-sponsored Xavier University Mentoring Program, was a psychology major, but didn’t know what kind of career she wanted to pursue: “I figured finding a mentor – someone who’d already been through the college process, finding a job, having a career – any advice they’d be able to offer me on my own path would be beneficial to me.”