Mary Ellen Lawrie Cooney-Higgins, a native of Erie, Pa. and a 1964 graduate of Seton Hill University with a Bachelor of Arts degree in English, was presented with an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree from Seton Hill during the Distinguished Alumni Leadership Awards Program on June 7, 2014. She was authorized to receive the honorary degree during Seton Hill’s Spring Commencement Exercises on May 17, 2014, but Cooney-Higgins was unable to attend that event.
During the program, Michele Ridge, Chair of the University’s Board of Trustees, and Seton Hill President Mary C. Finger, Ed.D. celebrated the accomplishments and generosity of Cooney-Higgins, who is affectionately known as “Mel.”
“Mel is a wonderful example of the Christian values we cherish at Seton Hill,” said Finger. “Her devotion to her beloved Seton Hill and tireless advocacy for disadvantaged and medically-fragile children are the embodiment of what we mean when we say that a Seton Hill education leads to the creation of ethical and productive members of society committed to transforming the world.”
Cooney-Higgins, who lives in Chicago, Ill., served as a teacher and realtor before establishing The Cashel Foundation in 1997. The foundation is committed to social programs that directly address the educational needs of disadvantaged children, the need for long-term community supported homes for children, and the need for providing high-quality care and service to medically fragile children and their families.
Cooney-Higgins is also a member of the Achievement Rewards for College Scientists Foundation, Inc. in Chicago, a national volunteer women's organization that helps graduate and undergraduate students in the United States by providing scholarships in natural sciences, medicine and engineering. In 2011, Cooney-Higgins was named the foundation’s Person of the Year.
Cooney-Higgins serves on the Board of Advisors of Aid for Women, a Chicago-based nonprofit that provides positive alternatives for women facing unplanned pregnancies, as well as on the Women’s Board of Chicago’s Adler Planetarium. She is also an avid supporter of the Hinsdale Junior Women’s Club.
At Seton Hill, Cooney-Higgins’ philanthropy established The Mary Ellen Lawrie Cooney-Higgins ’64 Endowment Fund for the Future of Seton Hill College Students. The Fund provides scholarship assistance to students with financial need who have demonstrated the potential to succeed academically. To date, the Fund has assisted more than 100 students in completing studies at Seton Hill.
Cooney-Higgins’ dedication to Seton Hill led her to take on a leadership role with the University. She served as a member of the University’s Board of Trustees and participated as a member of the Student Interests Committee where she helped enhance the quality of academic and social experiences for all Seton Hill students. As a Trustee, she also hosted events for the University that helped foster relationships with alumni and friends for the long term.
“Mel Cooney-Higgins epitomizes the value of compassionate self-immersion in the task at hand. She was Seton Hill’s first million-dollar donor, and set the pace for leadership participation from alumni and friends in fund-raising efforts,” Ridge said. She continued, “The extraordinary leadership commitment and challenge that Mel provided, personally and through The Cashel Foundation, early in Seton Hill’s capital campaign efforts helped grow the University’s scholarship endowment and build the momentum needed to complete successfully the Administration Building restoration.”
Ridge added, “Mel rallied support through her membership on the President’s Advisory Council to help Seton Hill achieve two prestigious Kresge Foundation challenge awards for the construction of the Katherine Mabis McKenna Center and the Performing Arts Center. With her most recent six-figure commitment for the JoAnne Woodyard Boyle Health Sciences Center, Mel’s lifetime giving to Seton Hill totals almost $2 million. This support conveys, in a powerful way, Mel’s incredible support of our students and our academic programs.”
The Seton Hill Board of Trustees recognized Cooney-Higgins’ service in March 2014 with a resolution that recognized how she “served faithfully as a Trustee and helped guide Seton Hill’s strategic move forward.”
Mel commented about her involvement in the life of Seton Hill, “Seton Hill had a profound influence on my life and I recognize that influence more each day. I’m an alumna; I want to support Seton Hill because I know what it did for me. I know what its distinct approach can do for today’s students.”
Cooney-Higgins’ gift to the JoAnne Woodyard Boyle Health Sciences Center honors President Emerita JoAnne Boyle, her former professor, who died on Nov. 1, 2013. Boyle once said that Cooney-Higgins’ devotion to Seton Hill, “puts a glow on the whole institution.”