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Graduates reflect on 4 years of academics and growth

Marcela Berrios | Friday, May 18, 2007

The president changed, the football coach did too and the campus is ever expanding. Notre Dame has moved fast the past four years, but for the seniors graduating Sunday, life suddenly seems to be moving even faster. Still, as they pack up and prepare to leave their undergraduate careers behind, students say they’re ready to enter the workforce, thanks to the University and lessons that will last.

Surpassed expectations

Senior Patrick Welch said he arrived at St. Edward’s Hall four years ago excited about football games and the life of a college student. Like many teenagers out of high school, the thought of four years away from parental supervision, push-ups after touchdowns and pizza at midnight with the guys down the hall were Notre Dame’s most attractive promises. He said he leaves now knowing the University gave him a lot more than that.

“I came to ND excited about dorm life and football. I leave most excited about the great

people I’ve met here, helping others, philosophy and literature,” Welch said.

An English and philosophy student, he will participate in the Alliance for Catholic Education (ACE) program after graduation, teaching at under-resourced Catholic schools across the country for two years.

Senior Francisco Castillo echoed Welch’s words, saying, “Notre Dame really is more than just football.”

Hailing from Puerto Rico, Castillo said after he was admitted to Notre Dame, he thought he would spend the next four years of his life standing on cornfields with white people from the Midwest. Instead, he said he has made friends from every country in Latin America, as well as from Europe and Asia.

“I come from an island,” he said. “If I had stayed in Puerto Rico, I would’ve never been exposed to all the different cultures I’ve encountered here. In class, every person has a different upbringing and different opinions about everything, and when people say Notre Dame is homogenous, I really don’t think they’re talking about the same university I’m talking about.”

Castillo said he has friends from Argentina, Switzerland and Ohio, from different religions and socioeconomic backgrounds – and they all have shared their stories with him, teaching him more about people than any textbook.

Annie Lauer also said she never expected to love Notre Dame as much as she does.

“I grew up with a degree of wariness about crazed ND football fans, being formed as a Marquette basketball fan from birth. But the past four years have converted me, and I love it,” she said.

Lauer said her pleasant four years at Notre Dame are a direct result of the moments that touched her, including spring break service seminars, visits to Cardinal Nursing Home with Sant’Egidio, peace studies conferences and memorable lectures.

The most important gifts Notre Dame gave her, however, were the wonderful people that filled her life, she said.

“Friends with whom I can talk, laugh, dance, work, pray, and just enjoy being alive,” Lauer said. “It’s going to be difficult to leave, but excitement for the future definitely serves as a consolation – and I look forward to hearing about the world-changing things that my friends and classmates will do in their lives.”

“Everyone here has something to teach you”

Juan Antonio Balderrama, a Keough resident, said for four years he has been in awe of the intelligence and the wisdom of every person at Notre Dame.

“Intellectually, I was overwhelmed,” he said. “The faculty at this university is first class and extremely knowledgeable and dedicated and committed to the students’ education.”

As a civil engineer, he said his professors challenged him to fight sleep and study beyond his body’s strength – but his classmates also pushed him to learn more.

“My classmates certainly contributed and enriched my education,” he said. “They shared with me their own interpretations of the material and through teamwork we improved our experiences in the classroom, and maybe angles and perspectives that I would’ve otherwise missed, I got from them.”

He said in the midst of their discussions about physics and calculus, he also learned to laugh with his team members and enjoy the work in front of him.

“The guys in my classes, I hang out with them every day, and since everyone is so smart every conversation we have is simply enriching for me,” he said. “They’re great guys, and they got me through those all-nighters and any boring lectures, but they also set the bar for what I want to do next.”

What Balderrama will do next is tackle graduate school in Florida. He said he thinks Notre Dame gave him the basics and the tools to become a satisfactory employee, but he has learned to demand more from himself than mere satisfaction.

“My ambitions go beyond being a high-ranking employee at some company. I think that Notre Dame’s undergrad preparation is great, if you want to be a great employee,” he said. “But if your ambitions are greater you need more knowledge, both theoretical and practical, so you just have to keep working at it and drawing knowledge from everyone around you. It’s a process that never ends.”

Though it may never end, Balderrama said he’s not tired of homework or burned out, but rather motivated about the challenges that await him. He said he thinks he’s learned everything the College of Engineering could teach him, and he’s ready for the next step, outside Indiana.

“I have all the basic tools I need,” he said. “This school gave me my wings. I have to fly away now and keep going on my own.”

Religion and faith

Senior Larissa Zavala said Notre Dame helped her mold her Catholicism from her parents’ catechism into a conscious and individual faith.

“You get here and you attend the freshman Mass with your parents because it’s on the schedule and that’s what your parents want to do with you, but before you realize it, you’re going to Mass because you really want to be there and soak it in,” she said. “People develop their own consciences and a desire to be a better person because the Masses really touch you and wake up in you that feeling.”

Zavala said she found refuge and solace in her hall Mass every Sunday after a week of work and play because the homilies spoke directly to her thoughts and feelings as a college student. During final exams, for example, her hall Mass relaxed her, telling her tests will come and go, but her friendship with Christ will remain.

“The realization that the Lord’s word is aimed directly at you hits you, and that’s not something you can get as easily from Masses outside Notre Dame because the priests have to broaden their homilies to accommodate all the ages and all the different people that may be present,” she said.

When Zavala returned to her home country, Panama, during the summers, she said sometimes she experienced difficulties enjoying Sunday Masses without her classmates and the feelings of empathy and solidarity with every person in the room. She said she has thought a lot about the changes that lie ahead for her relationship with God after she leaves Notre Dame and hall Masses behind permanently.

“I have to accept that from this moment forward, I am a part of the larger Catholic community, and that Mass can no longer be about me and my college experiences,” she said. “Notre Dame brought me closer to God but now it’s up to me to keep it that way because it won’t be laid out on a silver platter for me anymore. I’ll have to look for him everything I do, but I think I’m leaving this place well prepared to do that.”