On Thursday, October 19, Emma Willard School students, current and former faculty, parents, alumnae, trustees, friends and distinguished members of the greater Capital Region officially welcomed Jennifer C. Rao as the 203-year-old institution’s 17th Head of School.
Prior to coming to Emma Willard School, Ms. Rao was the Director of Academic Affairs at Garrison Forest School in Baltimore, MD. She holds her B.A. in Economics and minor in French from Bates College, and her M.A. in Private School Leadership from the Klingenstein Center Teachers College at Columbia University. Prior to working in education, she worked as a financial analyst in Boston. Ms. Rao located from Maryland to Troy with her husband, Arjun, and two sons, ages 7 and 4.
The installation ceremony was held at Curtis R. Priem Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, NY. The program focused on leadership, global citizenship, and the importance of excellent education for women. The two-hour event featured words from Emma constituents, video greetings, and musical and dance performances.
Mayor of Troy Patrick Madden welcomed Ms. Rao to the school and to the city of Troy. “Today’s ceremony marks the beginning of a new chapter in your life, one that will forever link you to the Troy and Emma Willard community. Throughout our shared 200-year history, Emma Willard has remained a jewel in the crown of our city,” he said. Madden also shared with the audience that his wife, Amy Williams, is a third-generation alumna and that her daughter Hannah is also a graduate—a fourth-generation alumna.
In addition to the education of women, Ms. Rao said that Emma’s global community was of great value to her. “Equally important to me is a diverse and international community. Being from Mexico, with a husband from India, and grandparents from Mexico, England, Scotland and Sweden, I was brought up with an international perspective. Emma Willard offers an incredible multiplicity of perspectives. We have 35 countries and 31 states represented at our school just this year. We are a mosaic of humanity that generates connection and understanding in our world.”
President and CEO of MVP Health Care Denise Gonick P’16 ’20 spoke of leadership. “We are living at a time when all leaders must search within themselves to find their paths forward and be accountable for the shadows they cast. It is precisely at trying times in life – whether they be in business, in government, among family and friends, or in facing a personal challenge – that we must reach deep within ourselves to find that reservoir of talent, strength and resolve that propels us forward in pursuit of our convictions and ideals.”
She acknowledged Rao’s decision to pursue higher education in the United States. “Among the many reasons that I am excited to welcome Jenny Rao as the 17th Head of School is that her story illustrates how the absence of role models motivated her to take action herself. Her decision as a young woman to apply to and attend college in the United States was neither expected nor easy. But she did it anyway. She blazed her own path and in doing so became the very role model she herself didn’t have. Her approach teaches our girls an important lesson: set a goal, determine what steps are necessary to achieve it, and then begin.”
“In Jenny Rao, we have a stellar role model, mentor, and leader. I call upon each of you to join together with Ms. Rao to further the cause of women’s education. Together, we know no bounds. The future is bright,” said Emma Willard School Board of Trustees Chair Susan Hunter ’68.
Colleague and Upper School Head at Friends School of Baltimore Steve McManus spoke of Ms. Rao’s impact on students at her previous school. “In her, the girls could see an example of a strong and confident leader who could also be warm and collaborative. In her, they had a role model of a woman who was true to herself, who was genuine, who had integrity, who was not afraid to take risks, who was able to advance and thrive professionally and enjoy the fulfillment of raising a family.”
Current student Lily P. ’18 confirmed that the students at Emma Willard have embraced Ms. Rao as their new leader. “Over the past two months, the students have watched Ms. Rao become an essential part of the community, bringing her enthusiasm, kindness, and joy for her work to each day at Emma. One morning, while discussing this very moment with Ms. Rao for a Clock article, she told me why she was so excited to commit to Emma. ‘I have found, finally,’ she said, ‘a community and a group of students that speak to my heart and my mind like no one has before.’”
“Above all else, I am here for our girls,” Ms. Rao told the audience during her speech. “The depth, intelligence, passion and humanity in our students makes Emma simply extraordinary. Exceptional education for women is more important now than ever before. Our world desperately needs female voices as we work to solve some of the most complex problems humanity has faced. We need women scientists and engineers working to solve issues of climate change, hunger, and to bring us renewable energy. We need female politicians and CEOs bringing the voice of women into the halls of government and into the board room. We need female global citizens who can do more than just translate between languages—women who can interpret language with the nuance of culture and national identity to bring the world together. We need women artists, authors, historians and journalists who can share their own unique perspective and share stories of women around the world.”
During the ceremony, Ms. Rao was gifted with several Emma-specific items. Faculty presented her with a hand-carved baton so that she could “conduct the orchestra that is the Emma Willard adult community.” Alumnae shared their favorite Emma traditions and gave her a class ring from a graduate of the class of 1946 to welcome her to the Emma sisterhood. Students decorated a gift box and filled it with notes from the entire student body and presented her with a fun music video.
The Board of Trustees presented Ms. Rao with two significant gifts. The first was the medallion of the Head of School, bearing the likeness of founder Emma Hart Willard, the year 1814 when she launched her school, an illuminating lamp signifying the lifelong love of learning shared by every member of the Emma Willard community, and the school motto, “semper fidelis”—always faithful.
The second was the mace, the formal symbol of the authority and independence of the Emma Willard School community when called together in times of unity and celebration. Ms. Hunter announced, “With these symbols of office, we entrust you with our hearts and minds, that you may lead this community on an upward trajectory to new heights in the education and empowerment of young women and girls-first thinking."View more photos from Installation for Jenny Rao on Facebook