Combine Academy of the Holy Names' classic architectural facade with it's Bayshore Boulevard location — nestled amid some of Tampa's finest homes — and you begin to understand how it could be intimidating to a group of girls coming from inner-city schools.
Add the fact that Academy's high school is for girls only, and another imposing perception develops for first-time students.
But five seniors who brought more diversity to the school say a warm and embracing reality trumped their initial perceptions.
"Going to an all-girls school scared me," explained Jazmin Woods, who came here in ninth grade after attending St. Peter Claver, which is predominantly African-American. "I just thought, 'So much estrogen.' …
"On TV, when you see all-girls, like bad girls club, it's constant cattiness. I thought it was going to be something like that, but it really isn't like that. The whole cliché about sisterhood is actually true."
School officials and donors recently honored Woods and four fellow seniors who are women of color: Natalia Parra-Barrero, Essence Grant, Noela Lalime and Derecia Timmons, who both live in the Brandon area.
It was the first-time Academy held a luncheon for its Link Scholarship Program, which was created four years ago to increase diversity at the school. The scholarship led the girls to choose the high school over others.
School officials say they're convinced Academy of the Holy Names can offer a positive experience for girls from all walks of life, but increasing diversity is fraught with challenges for Catholic schools.
They not only have to deal with some negative perceptions, but financial constraints also can be a challenge even though the school provided more than $1 million in financial assistance to 20 percent of its student body this school year.
"The scholarship's name is not an acronym, but rather a link to our mission to be as diverse as possible — to welcome students of all faiths, races, ethnicities and financial means so that all who seek an Holy Names education may receive it," said Debbie Gavalas, the school's director of advancement.
In a room of corporate and civic leaders, each student stood confidently and spoke glowingly about their experience at the school. They are the first Link scholarship recipients to graduate from Academy of the Holy Names.
"Like most freshmen, I didn't want to come here my freshmen year," laughed Timmons, who came from the predominantly black Academy Prep and will attend the University of Florida. "But I would talk to girls in the eighth grade … or talk to their parents and tell them to send their kids to Academy (of the Holy Names).
"This is the best decision my mom has ever made for me. I am so thankful."
Lalime, a talented artist and singer who will attend the University of South Florida in the fall, described herself as painfully shy coming out of St. Peter Claver, but showed no signs of that when speaking to the group.
Grant, who also came out of Academy Prep, shared a similar sentiment. Before coming to Academy of the Holy Names she didn't think she could leave her mom to attend college. Now? She's headed to Marist College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y.
Woods, once a self-described "home-body," went on a mission trip with Parra-Barrero to the Dominican Republic this year. She will go on to Loyola University in New Orleans.
Parra-Barrero, who transferred from Robinson midway through her sophomore year, plans to attend Nova Southeastern University, but is certain she will miss her classmates.
"My first day, all the girls were introducing themselves," Parra-Barrero said. "I was overwhelmed. In public school, no one is going to come up and say, 'Hey, how are you? So you're the new girl.'
"I don't know what I'm going to do without my 76 sisters."
School officials have also worried that non-Catholics may be concerned about the religious aspects. These students, however, had only praise for the broad-based religious education. Juniors take a world religion class while seniors engage in a course that focuses on developing personal faith irrespective of denomination.
The school looks to offer four new students Link Scholarships for the fall, and if the reaction of the Link Scholar donors is any indication, the effort may grow.
Like many in the room during the recent ceremony, Columbia Restaurant president Richard Gonzmart, who attended the Academy's co-ed grade school, fought back tears as he reflected on the girls' accomplishments.
"To see what you have become and what you're going to become, you've made us very proud and honored to be a part of this," Gonzmart said.