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SXU Alumna Brings the Gift of Music To Her Role as School Principal


Mariagnes Menden '86, '03, Ed.D., approaches her role as principal at St. Nicholas of Tolentine School in a unique and special way – she seeks to incorporate music into each and every student's life, believing that music truly helps to shape an individual, and as she serves a population of 374 students each day, she constantly works to incorporate the values of faith and service that she learned at SXU.   

Menden began her undergraduate career at SXU in 1982, double-majored in music education and marketing with a minor in French. After graduating, she began teaching within the Archdiocese of Chicago Catholic Schools. She went on to earn a master's in educational administration from SXU in 2003 and became principal of St. Nicholas in 2005. Menden aimed to further her education and received a doctorate in curriculum instruction from Loyola University in Chicago in 2015.

At St. Nicholas, Menden serves a primarily Hispanic population of students. Menden finds it essential to help students develop leadership, serve the community and gain the power to make a difference. She immerses herself in the classrooms and works with teachers to help them strengthen their teaching practices. "I am most proud of being able to meet the needs of diverse learners. All are welcome here; we believe in the inclusiveness of what we're called to do through our Catholic faith. Regardless of where a child may be or what learning aids they may need, we accept the challenge to help a child grow to their greatest potential," said Menden.

Since starting as principal, Menden has doubled the number of students who attend St. Nicholas and has brought several changes to the school. In addition to serving as principal, she also taught music once a week, brought singing and dancing to the classroom and organized free shows students would perform throughout the year.

"I took my gift of music and music education that I developed at SXU and gave students the self-confidence they need to express themselves. Every child here has studied a musical instrument during their time here. Music is so important; it's a beautiful expression of a child's soul, and I love that they're able to share that," said Menden. "At least half the students have continued to play guitar, piano or in orchestra, and it is directly because of SXU that I saw the importance of how music helps to shape students. Music stays with you for your whole entire life and is part of who you are, and that is what kids who attend St. Nicholas take away from it."

Menden credits SXU for preparing her for her career, giving special thanks to Sister Bernadine, Sister Simeon, Jan Bickel, D.M.A., and Martha Morris, who helped her to develop her musical gifts to share to the community, and to Eileen Quinn Knight, Ph.D. and Meg Carroll, Ed.D., for helping her to realize she wanted to become a teacher and understand the philosophy of education. Menden believes they influenced her life profoundly and taught her what she needed to lead a school.

"From the first time I taught her in undergraduate studies until she received her doctorate from Loyola University, I have been honored by her accomplishments," said Knight. "Dr. Menden truly delights in her work. She includes the parents and students in all she does and invests in her faculty who in turn invest in her school and her mission. She brings the joy of being a follower of Christ to a Catholic school. I send my students to observe at Dr. Menden's school and she treated them with loving care and respect. Her hospitality to each and every student is something every principal should strive for."

"I am so proud of the many successes Dr. Menden has achieved, and I remember fondly working with her in the classroom and ensembles, where she always brought a smile to my face!" said Bickel. "She lives and breathes the mission of the Sisters of Mercy and Saint Xavier University every day, and she makes me proud as she strives to keep music and the arts in the forefront of education. Her drive for excellence, warmth, and life-loving personality will help her continue to achieve high degrees of success." 

Menden's favorite part about attending SXU was participating in all of the musical performances. "There's something sacred about being part of a performance group where you're dependent upon the other person to know their part to make a magnificent sound and creation. That's what I bring to all my work. Whether I'm leading a group of teachers or talking to parents at my school, I'm very conscious of everyone in the room and how we create that space or moment in time together, and I got that from being part of musical performances at Saint Xavier," said Menden.

"I also loved the bookstore and being in the diner. It was home," added Menden. "Whenever I go back there for workshops or professional development, it still feels like home when you walk in there. So many professors touched my life in different ways."

Menden, who is currently working on a second doctorate in educational leadership at St. Francis University, hopes to be the best leader for whomever she is called to serve and aims to be seen as a person who is willing to help, make a difference and display her Catholic presence in all that she does. "I'm fascinated with education, the professional development of teachers and the strong connection in the classroom, where teachers collaborate to teach their collective wisdom and show students how to be successful," said Menden.

"The face of education is changing for good, and we have to be open to really seeing the possibility. We'll face constraints, but we must see the opportunity of the challenge and ask ourselves what gifts we can bring to the field that will make a difference to students."  

As Menden looks to the future, she hopes to continue to grow and respond to the changing needs of children and community. "It's really because of the education I received at SXU that I am where I am today. I came in there, and they gave me wings so I could soar. The way each professor took an interest in what I was doing and in my life and education, seeking to understand me beyond the classroom, showed that they cared about us in different ways, and from that, I learned to have presence. Now I have presence within the community and lead the wider community with my faculty. I truly see the student before me."