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From SFU to NYC: Cecelia MacDonald

January 31, 2018

Cecelia MacDonald started taking classes at Saint Francis University when she was just 13 years old. Nine years later at the age of 22, she sits at her desk in a midtown Manhattan high rise, looking out a roomful of floor-to-ceiling windows at a sea of skyscrapers. New York City offers a very different view from the trees and mountains of Loretto, but one she’ll surely become all too familiar as an associate lawyer at Skadden NYC

At first glance, Cecelia fits right in at a prestigious, big-city law firm. There’s a professional air about her. She stands confidently and greets you with a firm handshake and steady eye contact, letting you know she’s present and taking notes on your every word. It’s only when she starts to tell her story that her small-town roots begin to show.

And as she sits, poised, fondly recalling her time at Saint Francis—you realize just how extraordinary this young woman is, and wonder how exactly she got here, 300 miles from Loretto, 37 stories above the ground, in one of the biggest cities in the world.

“Why not?”

Most 13 year-olds’ priorities likely revolve around social media, Friday night football games, and their friends’ schedules. But Cecelia was never like most 13-year-olds.

“I was a little bit bored in junior high school,” she said, without an ounce of pretension in her voice. Seventh grade was a difficult year for Cecelia, but not because the work was especially hard. She stood out from most of her peers, constantly seeking more from her education.

Cecelia’s lack of satisfaction with school was clear to her mother, Annette Cronauer. “Cecelia has always been a conscientious and disciplined student. The times in her educational path when she wasn't being challenged really had an impact on her.”

So together, Annette and her daughter explored Cecelia’s options, considering online courses taught by local colleges.

School of Arts & Letters insetAnnette, a 1990 graduate of Saint Francis with degrees in English Literature, Corporate Communications (self designed), and a minor in Biology, sought her alma mater for advice. She consulted Associate Provost Dr. Pete Skoner about Cecelia’s wish to take online classes at such a young age. He responded: “Why not? Give her a chance.”

Cecelia would adapt that mantra as her own, completing her first two online courses by the end of 8th grade, all while traveling with the high school volleyball team, figure skating, and participating in clubs and other extracurriculars.

“I would study for my college courses on the volleyball bus to and from away games, so that was funny,” she recalled with a chuckle. “Saint Francis was one of the only schools that would have offered me that opportunity.”

Paving Her Own Way

Cecelia spent the next three years taking online courses at Saint Francis while continuing to excel at her high school studies and after-school activities. The heavy workload didn’t deter her, but instead gave her a window to college life, and a glimpse of the opportunities awaiting her at Saint Francis. This window led her to the decision to forego her senior year and enroll as a full-time college student.

Her mother reached out to Donna Menis, Chair of the Communications Department and Honors Program Director, who she had remained in touch with from her former SFU days. Donna agreed to interview Cecelia, then 16 years old, about her ambitions.

“When I saw the maturity she exhibited while she and her family were deciding if attending college was the right choice for her at the time, I knew she would be okay—whatever she decided.”

The decision to not only choose college, but to choose Saint Francis, was easy for Cecelia.

“I loved the small community atmosphere and supportive vibe at Saint Francis,” she recalls. “The professors took an interest in my education from a young age and gave me confidence.”

Cecelia moved to campus two weeks after turning 17. She had accumulated enough credits to start as a college sophomore.

A Writer at Heart

Only a select few faculty and staff knew her age—younger than most college freshman—but they knew she was a special student.

Donna Menis knew, of course, but kept it to herself. “I was lucky enough to be Cecelia’s academic advisor. “During her first year here, her professors would come to me to say what a gem she was and how pleased they were with her work.” When she’d eventually tell her colleagues Cecelia’s age, they were astounded. “I’m betting [they] checked Cecelia’s transcript, because it was hard to believe someone so young was so accomplished.”

Cecelia McDonaldPassionate about writing, Cecelia began her college career as an English Literature student, but quickly took advantage of the other courses offered at the School of Arts & Letters. She later would self-design a Creative Writing & Thinking major, and minor in Philosophy, Women’s Studies, and Dystopian/Utopian Vision (self-designed).

“I picked all of the courses that I really wanted to take, and then justified why they would help me become a better writer,” she said. “I chose classes in philosophy, psychology, and other English courses that interested me. I think the great thing about a liberal arts education is that it provides the basic fundamental building blocks that you’re going to need in your career. It also teaches you how to think."

Before the end of her first semester at SFU, Cecelia had won first prize for non-fiction prose in annual Delta Epsilon Sigma essay contest, a national writing award, and was published in a journal.

She eventually decided to write her first novel, a children’s book about Mario Lemieux, and enlisted the advisement of Dr. Brennan Thomas, Chair of the Literature & Languages department.

When Dr. Thomas first met to discuss the book, she was in awe of Cecelia’s methodical approach to writing. “During my first encounter with her, she already knew what she wanted to include in the book, how she wanted to lay out the story and illustrate it. I thought, this is someone who is very passionate, very hard-working.”

For her senior thesis, Cecelia went on to write a science fiction novel geared toward young adults, a project that honed her writing skills even further. Dr. Thomas met with her weekly over tea and cookies, and the two discussed ideas for the book. “I saw the same amount of maturity and dedication in Cecelia as I saw talent,” Dr. Thomas said. “She was very good at making an ordinary scene seem really extraordinary.”

Ann Eppard Scholar

Cecelia’s future as a writer was clear to her from the moment she set foot on campus. But her decision to become a lawyer was nowhere near as planned. That came during her junior year, when Donna Menis encouraged her to apply to for the Ann Eppard Memorial Scholarship and Congressional Internship—one of Saint Francis’ most prestigious honors.

The scholarship, created by retired Congressman Bud Shuster (PA, 9th) to honor his late chief of staff, Ann Eppard, provides a congressional internship to one deserving student each year who best emulates Eppard’s drive and fearlessness.

“Ann was one of the first women to hold a chief of staff position in the United States Congress,” said Shuster. “She dedicated her life to the 9th congressional district and was very highly respected on Capitol Hill. She was tough, bright, and politically savvy.”

While it was obvious to everyone around her that she fit the bill, Cecelia still had to be convinced an internship in Washington D.C. would be right for her.

Cecelia Macdonald Pull Quote“I told Donna, ‘I’m an English major. I have no interest in politics whatsoever, you should ask someone else.’ But she encouraged me to apply anyways, so I seized the opportunity.”

The scholarship board of nine members unanimously approved Cecelia’s application, a first for the committee.

“It was clear from her interview that Cecelia was extremely bright,” Congressman Shuster recalls. “She was Super Woman.”

The internship gave her insight into how congressional offices and committees run, and how the White House operates. Cecelia enjoyed every minute of it. “I went to D.C. and I loved it there—surprisingly, I loved it.”

The Eppard internship lead to more opportunities to participate in government events.

Rob Young, Asst. VP of Government Relations, Grants, and Foundations at Saint Francis, became an invaluable political mentor for Cecelia during that time. He encouraged her to participate in Student Lobby Day in Harrisburg. Cecelia presented in front of lawmakers, and it was clear to Young that she was a natural leader.

“Harrisburg is very fast-paced, you walk into these offices and you have only few minutes to convey your message to legislators, but Cecelia was very well-prepared and offered personal perspective, knowledge, and professionalism," said Young. “She was fully engaged and very comfortable in a setting that can be overwhelming.”

Now certain that she wanted to pursue law, Cecelia took her LSATs in the fall of her senior year. She received a number of scholarship offers from top law schools, and ultimately accepted a full scholarship to the University of Iowa College of Law. She graduated from Saint Francis with high honors, said goodbye to Loretto, and packed her bags.

“I learned how to learn at Saint Francis. In law school you’re thrown into topics that you have no idea what they are, and so that combined with a strong writing background helped me.”

Cecelia McDonald6

Before long she had moved to New York for the summer, and quickly transitioned from intern to young professional. She received glowing reviews from her Skadden bosses, and received a job offer at the end of her internship. She will begin her full-time position as an associate lawyer after graduating from Iowa this spring.

A Passion for Law

Cecelia began law school the same way she started at Saint Francis: passionate, determined, and unmatched. In her first legal writing course, she received the highest grade in the class. She credited her Saint Francis mentors and writing courses and mentors for her preparedness.

Ranked number two in her class of 146, professors at Iowa quickly took notice of Cecelia. They encouraged her to apply for an internship at Skadden, an international law firm with its largest office in New York City. It was another unexpected opportunity presenting itself, but not one that Cecelia could turn down.

Becoming That Someone

With an undoubtedly successful future ahead of her, Cecelia has never forgotten her roots, and the many mentors and opportunities that have led her to where she is today. She hopes to continue to write, and maybe even publish a novel.

“Honestly, I have no idea where I’ll end up. I would have never thought I’d be working at a law firm in New York. Saint Francis taught me to seize opportunities as they present themselves. And I will.”