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Meghanne Downes | Thursday, February 19, 2004

He wants to make Notre Dame a better Notre Dame. As a student in the ’60s and a father in the ’90s, he believed Notre Dame lacked something key to making it better. Now, as an administrator in 2004, he is committed to filling this void by making Notre Dame more diverse.Dan Saracino, associate provost and the director of admissions, graduated from the University in 1969 able to count on one hand the number of blacks in his class.Through enhanced recruiting, the University once known as a haven for white European Catholics is a far cry from the dire situation it was in during the pre-civil rights era. Today, it boasts a freshman class of which 21 percent are minorities, the most diverse in history. However, Saracino believes more can be done. “The primary goal I have is to improve diversity,” Saracino said. “I want to make Notre Dame a better Notre Dame, and diversity, in its broadest sense, will make Notre Dame better.”For Saracino, improving diversity is not a narrow endeavor. It expands beyond the typical definers such as race to more personal characteristics, such as whether the applicant’s parents are educators or whether the applicant would be a first-generation college student. The man who makes diversifying Notre Dame his mission took an indirect route into the field of higher-education admissions. Upon graduating from Notre Dame, he had planned to attend law school but opted to defer for a year to work in the admissions office. A year later, his request for another deferment was denied, and he remained an admissions counselor. “It was the first time I thought I was in a profession,” Saracino said. “I just thought I was doing service for Notre Dame. Saracino’s service focused on building minority recruitment, and Notre Dame implemented a program designed to increase this. Today, that program boasts its own department within the Office of Admissions, with individual counselors who specifically recruit black, Asian and Hispanic minorities. The program also relies on its minority alumni board to recruit area students who would be a good fit at Notre Dame.”What we are doing is still the same as back then – trying to reach those young men and women who should be hearing the story of Notre Dame and are not,” Saracino said.In 1977, he left Notre Dame to become the director of admissions at Santa Clara University in California. During his 20-year absence from Notre Dame, the University saw its minority numbers steadily rise coupled with the closing gap between the percentage of men and women who were admitted. Though Notre Dame’s numbers might have increased relative to diversity, there was still something missing.His daughters, who attended Notre Dame in the ’90s, often returned home telling him that Notre Dame provided a quality education but was lacking something due to the absence of diversity. “My daughters didn’t realize they had diversity [in California] until it was taken away from them,” Saracino said.In 1997, Saracino returned to Notre Dame as director of admissions with a mission to continue to improve Notre Dame and to make it more diverse.But that word is not limited to race for Saracino. He believes that Notre Dame needs to construct its incoming classes so they are more ethnically, socio-economically and geographically diverse. Saracino denies claims that the University’s desire to become more diverse is an attempt to become more like Stanford or institutions in the Ivy League. “We are not trying to be something we are not,” Saracino said. “We respect them but we don’t want to emulate them. If it means it does get more comparable, so be it.”He said he frequently hears from alumni who complain that their children have not been accepted at Notre Dame. His response is that Notre Dame has become more difficult and the admissions office will uphold this standard and not sacrifice the overall quality of the class.Preferential aid packages are offered to ethnic minorities, Notre Dame Scholars, children of educators, first-generation college students and other students who are desirable for Notre Dame.Though Notre Dame usually can recruit these desirable students from elite college prep schools, Saracino believes this limits the dynamic of the class.The University needs to reach out to the smaller schools that are scattered across the country, he said, to create a more diverse applicant pool that is still committed to academics, service and faith. This includes reaching out to first-generation college students to increase the socio-economic diversity of Notre Dame’s undergraduates. The admissions office originally believed that it would find first-generation students through its minority recruitment program, but Saracino said they soon discovered that many parents of minorities had attended college due to changes in the civil rights era. To even further diversify the applicant pool, Saracino said, Notre Dame is now a gender- and religious-blind institution.He linked the religious and ethnic diversity to the expansion of the varsity athletics program and said recruiters are after the best student-athlete – not the best Catholics.Though the percentage of Catholics in recent incoming classes usually hovers around 83 percent, Saracino said religious affiliation does not affect an applicant’s chances and that the percentage of non-Catholic admitted students reflects the applicant pool. “I’d rather have a Jewish or Methodist student who believes strongly in his faith than just an applicant who checks the Catholic box,” Saracino said.Saracino believes Notre Dame would not have been a top-20 academic institution when he attended as a student because it was too limited as only a white, Catholic university. He said this is not necessarily a bad thing, as a passion for Notre Dame and community service existed but the University needed to evolve. Since his early days in the admissions office Saracino said his mission has been the same — to make Notre Dame a better Notre Dame by diversifying it. Though he would never trade his ’60s education, he said the best thing he saw a decade after graduation was co-education. Since the ’70s, he said he has whole-heartedly believed that Notre Dame is a better institution because of its commitment to increase the amount of ethnically diverse and international students.Saracino returned to Notre Dame to help diversity evolve even further and believes that the future Notre Dame student will have a face that is a mosaic. “The future is a student who is a mosaic in the truest sense,” he said. “You couldn’t say it was male or female or white, black, brown or Asian. It would be a true mosaic with a hundred different experiences.”