Zahra Chaudhry, Senior Editor ’18, sat down with Lauralton Hall’s President and Head of School, Mrs. Miller, on Sept. 5, 2017. They discussed the President’s life before Lauralton, why she loves the school and what she expects from LH students.
I noticed that you have a pretty expansive professional background; would you mind telling me a little more about your life before Lauralton? I read about your role in international business and in opening a prep school in Dubai?
Miller: I would like to say, first of all, that I really like to plan things. I like to look forward to things, and I wish I could claim that when I was your age, I had my life planned out. But, I think, as you go into a career, you learn about what you like, what feeds you, what interests you, and then you end up going on a different path that you didn’t expect.
So, if you asked me when I was a senior in high school, what did I want to do? I wanted to be a journalist. I was a triple major in college—journalism, French, and economics management. My father said that was code for “indecisive.” He said that I would be a professional student, and he still teases me today; he says, “See, I said you’d be a professional student,” and here I am.
President of an all girls’ school.
Miller: Very happy being in a girls’ school. So, I didn’t plan it. I did work in international business for almost a decade, and that is part of what brought me back, later in my career, to starting a brand new school in Dubai.
But, ultimately, I missed being in a girls’ school. I missed being in an independent day school. I found that I really didn’t want to work at a for profit school. I wanted to work for a girls’ school that makes the decisions in what’s in the best interest of the students—not shareholder wealth. So, [I’m] happy to be here in Connecticut.
Along the theme of your travels in Asia, where you were managing business, what do you think you’ve learned there that you could bring back here?
Miller: You know, the number one thing I learned while studying and teaching Japanese language, culture, and history—which I love—is really the value of relationships. When two people in Japan become friends in kindergarten, they never lose touch. It’s like an obligation, they call it on or giri. And it’s the idea that [if] you have a relationship with someone, you can’t just drop it when it’s no longer convenient. It doesn’t matter if you move across the world; it doesn’t matter if there isn’t social media.
My husband Mark was shocked by this: when we got married, almost twenty years ago, I had friends from Tokyo fly in for the wedding and then fly out. He’s like, “They spent a fortune,” but when you have a relationship, that stays for life. I think, as Americans, our friendships and our relationships are sometimes what’s convenient. So, that’s one thing I learned in Asia that I really appreciate.
Why Lauralton? What drew you here?
Miller: I’ve learned, from working in different schools, that I like a school who knows who it is, who has its traditions [and] identity—they know what’s important to them. But, I also have a problem with a school that says, “Well, that’s the way we’ve always done it—that’s why.” I’m happy to do things the way you always have—if there’s a good reason. But this intersection of tradition and innovation, I really like that tension, or play, between the two.
My being a history teacher by background, I wanted you all to know—why did Catherine McCauley end up founding the Sisters of Mercy? Why did the Sisters of Mercy found Lauralton? Once you understand that, you are like, “Oh, I’m part of something bigger.”
So, that drew me to Lauralton—that tradition and innovation. I knew that the school was a Mercy school, but like the community I was in in Dubai, welcomed people of all faiths, all ethnicities, all languages. That’s sort of why Lauralton clicked for me.
What kind of changes do you think our school could benefit from over the course of your administration?
Miller: I think my job is not to bring change, so much as it is my job to lead the change that’s already percolating here. For example, Lauralton has what I call some “signature programs.”
Things where it doesn’t matter if you pay double the tuition, pay $40,000 at any other school in Connecticut, and you can’t get what we have here. I think part of my job is to celebrate, you can call ‘em “differentiators” or “points of distinction.”
And what are those points of distinction?
Miller: I think we have a lot of them. I’m learning new ones everyday. For example, I think the way archeology is going to be taught here as an elective course with a dig on our campus—that’s amazing, what school has that?
I’m learning that there are young women here who are in Girl Scouts, and they do their culminating project, the Juliet Lowe project, here. Three girls in the past three years, one a year for three consecutive years, have chosen to do her project here, on our campus. How many schools can say that?
Emily Plumb is doing a really cool, internet radio station right next to the Flavia Finucane Innovation Lab—how many schools can say not only do we teach, and learn, and incubate knowledge, but we let a young woman do her Juliet project on our campus?
Every time I learn about these signature programs, our whole leadership team meets in a circle, and I want them to know about every signature program. I think my job is more to celebrate and accentuate those things…not so much to change us.
Do you have specific goals, then? Or, is your approach mostly focused around where the students lead the school?
Miller: Part of my job is to make sure this school is here fifty years from now. Part of it is to really grow and nurture these signature programs, but part of it is to make sure that, financially, we’re taking great care of the campus, and we’re doing smart things, so that we are here when your granddaughter wants to come here.
So there’s no pressure there at all, right? 50 years—make sure the school’s thriving. *Laughs*
There will come a time when there are smart, capable young women whose families cannot pay $20, 535 a year—and so we need to make sure that opportunities exist, so that when you come into school, you’re not continuing paying for each opportunity.
One of the things I liked about Lauralton [was] the Sikorsky Challenge team—that did so amazingly well—there were no fees, to my understanding, to participate. I want to make sure that those kinds of opportunities are always part of your tuition.
Niche is an online company that does private school rankings, and this past year we climbed five spaces. We are now 30th in Connecticut’s private schools out of about 68. We have an overall A rating in academics, sports, extra-curricular activities—but a C in diversity.
Miller: Oh, wow.
Is there anything there that you think we could change?
Miller: Well, first, I am a little bit leery of school rankings. I went to an undergraduate school called Ohio Wesleyan University. The reason I went there was because there was no little box to check that said, “My parents love me, they can afford to pay my college tuition, but they’re not paying.” I had very few college options that would give me a full ride. That very same month Ohio Wesleyan was on the cover of US News and World Report— it said, “Top Liberal Arts School in the Nation” great, right?
But, you can’t go from being top in the rankings one year—to look where they are now. It doesn’t quite make sense.
And some of those rankings are based on things like how much money is in the endowment, things like that—which only have so much affect on your education on a given day. I’d say quality of teachers is more important—well, how do they measure quality of teachers? So, I’m grateful when they give us nice awards, but I’m not sure how much stock I put in them. I’d rather interview every young woman who graduated from here last June, and see how her first semester of college goes, interview her at Christmas break, and that’s the ranking I want.
What about the diversity bit?
Miller: Yes, that’s important. Right now, 3/4 of our student body is Catholic. It could be that Niche doesn’t think that that is enough religious diversity. I tell people we are a warm and welcoming Catholic school. We are happy to accept intelligent, driven young women that are not practicing Catholics. That’s fine. We want racial diversity—we achieve some of that through an open admissions process, and also by having $1.4 million in scholarships and financial aid. So, can we do more? I bet we can. But, I’m pretty pleased with where we are.
Do you have a final message for the student body?
Miller: I want this year to be one of Lauralton loyalty. And what I mean by that is I want there to be such tremendous school pride. We have a great honor and distinction to learn here together. I want them to be really proud of that. They don’t need to be modest or humble that Lauralton’s giving them something no other school can. And while we like our friends that go to public school, and we appreciate our friends who chose another independent school, I’m sad to say they’re missing out [and] I wish they were here.