Category: Archive

Saving Grace

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

Situated in the Upper East Side, the Grace Institute is a four-story school dedicated to educating poor and immigrant women. Founded in 1897, its mission to provide women with business and administrative skills and set them up in jobs with benefits. It has helped more than 100,000 women improve the quality of their lives.
Queens native Mary Mulvihill has been the director of the Institute for over a year.
“There is a real need for a place like this in New York City,” she said last week.
The institute was the brainchild of Irish immigrant and industrialist William Russell Grace, who came to New York when he was 18. He proved to be an astute business man and opened up a shipyard. The men who worked on his ships, mostly Irish and Italian immigrants, complained that their wives and daughters were unable to find work in the city. Grace decided to open a school to help them. The curriculum then consisted of cookery, millinery, child care and sewing. The school provided women with marketable skills, allowing them to enter into the workforce at the time.
This has a special resonance with Mulvihill, whose grandmother came to New York from County Roscommon and worked as a maid in the home of a German champagne maker. “It was a first step for women who were hardworking and capable,” Mulvihill said.
Photographs of those first students hang in the lobby of the institute. Dating from the 1890s, they show the women dressed in formal uniforms. These days, no uniforms are required, but the women are encouraged to dress smartly. Mulvihill said, “It helps women focus on the business aspect of the course.”
Mulvihill is herself a smartly dressed woman in a green suit that matches her eyes. She has reddish-blond hair and a capable manner that suggests she is well able to organize 150 students, six office staff, four custodial staff and all the administration that a school requires.
Mulvihill’s background is in academia and as such might seem like a surprising choice for director. However, even as associate dean for the Business School in Fordham University, where she spent 14 years, she was running courses to help women set up their own business.
“I also helped women prepare themselves for interviews, how to dress, how to present themselves,” she said.
Mulvihill’s next move was to St. John’s University, where she spent seven years. It was there that she saw the advertisement for the vacancy in the Grace Institute. Her interest was immediately piqued.
“I applied for it and the Grace family hired me,” she said. “They are wonderful to work for.”
Mulvihill has a strong work ethic and said she feels that with help and hard work, anything is possible.
“I believe in the American dream,” she said. “I am one of 10 children. We are all professionals with college educations. My parents worked hard to give us those chances.”
The focus of the institute’s curriculum has changed to meet the demands of the modern business world, but its mission remains: to educate women, provide them with work skills and place them in jobs with benefits.
To be accepted for the program, a woman must have a high school diploma, must speak English and be able to type. After that, the only financial commitment a woman must make is a book fee of $150-200.
The Institute has rules like any other educational establishment. Mulvihill said, “We are strict regarding attendance,” she said. “Classes are from 9-3 every day and the course runs from September to May. We have had to dismiss people for absenteeism.”
Mulvihill says it is necessary to do this because employers want women who “understand the responsibilities of work.”
She does, however, understand the pressures that many of these women are under.
“Many of them have very difficult lives,” she said. “Even to complete the program is a huge achievement. Some are on welfare, some of them suffer from domestic abuse, some are single mothers and have to pay for child care, which is very expensive. They are juggling everything at once.”
The institute aims to lift them out of the circle of poverty.
“If you are poor, a job with benefits really helps you to move out of the horrible no-man’s land, then they can start to move,” Mulvihill said.
Mulvihill said she would love to advertise more and to reach further into the community. “We approach Catholic, Protestant, Muslim and Jewish places and ask if we can put an advertisement in their bulletins,” she said. “I am keen for more interested women to contact us.”
Mulvihill wants the women to have as rounded an education as possible. “I had a liberal arts education,” she said. “I was taught by the nuns and they felt that you had to know a little bit about everything to open your eyes.”
To achieve that end, she started an art program. Every eight weeks, an artist is invited to display her work in the corridors of the school and to give a talk to the women. “It was so interesting to see the women develop an interest and to see the questions get more sophisticated,” Mulvihill said.
Currently adorning the walls are the large, acid colored canvases of the “Bag Ladies” series, by artist Elena Patterson.
There is also a book program, run in conjunction with a writing class. “The women have to read a book each semester,” Mulvihill said. “At the moment it is ‘When I was Puerto Rican,’ by Esmeralda Santiago. It is the story of an immigrant who eventually went to Harvard.”
Mulvihill wants the women to realize that there is more to life than the drudgery that they are used to. She organizes trips to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and plans to see the African-American quilt exhibition at the Whitney in January. Another idea being suggested is a scavenger hunt in the city, to help the women find their way around.
“It’s important for them to know where the main places are, especially if they work for someone who travels a lot or if they need to send packages,” the director said.
Mulvihill has many plans. “I would like to do a touch-typing course during the summer,” she said. “Then, in January, we are starting an entrepreneurial course with 20 women. I am anxious to see how it goes, I would love to build it if it works out.”
It seems as though everyone involved in the institute wants to help. One of the custodians, an 80-year-old Cuban immigrant, asked Mulvihill if he could organize coffee for the women. He worked out that for $15 a week he could give each student a cup of coffee every morning.
Maura, one of the students, preferred not to give her full name. Smartly dressed in a chocolate brown suit, she is an attractive woman who already looks like part of a business work force. She left Ireland when she was 17 and has been in the U.S. for more than 25 years. Having left school at 16, she had few of the skills necessary for the modern workplace.
“I have done lots of waitressing but really wanted to upgrade myself,” she said. “I saw the advertisement in a church bulletin and thought, this is the course I was dreaming of.”
Her children are grown up and so she has time to devote to the course. “My husband is proud of me,” she said. “I started in September and have made lots of friends.”
Her dream job would be working for Aer Lingus. She has encouraged a friend to try the course and is full of praise for it. “As soon as I read the advertisement, I knew it would be the answer for everything,” she said.
Mulvihill said of Maura: “She is a hard worker and is well presented. She is a perfect candidate and we will find her a very good job.”
The learning curve has been steep for Mulvihill. “The change from academia to this has been like night and day for me,” she said. “To have a whole school to work with and to help women move on in life, that is very important to me. This is it for me, I am staying here. I love it.”

Other Articles You Might Like

Sign up to our Daily Newsletter

Click to access the login or register cheese