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Pangborn rector is one of a kind

Justin Tardiff | Friday, November 11, 2005

Kuukua Yomekpe answered two calls when she took the job as rector of Pangborn Hall – a call back into working ministry with college students, and a literal call from Sister Jean Lenz, assistant vice president of student affairs, urging her to complete a rector application.

Yompke had been working as an editor for Chase Manhattan and was “quite happy” with the 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. nature of the job. On the recommendation of a friend who had attended Notre Dame, Yomekpe put in a partial application for a rector position.

“I had not really thought anything would come of it,” she said. “When Sister Jean Lenz called my cell phone in February, I had totally forgotten about the application, but I agreed to send her my completed application and have a phone interview with her. I was sold once I came to campus for my second interview and the rest is history in the making.”

It is history in the making, as she says, because Yomekpe is the first black female ever to hold the position of rector at Notre Dame.

“Sometimes self-imposed pressures make me question God’s call to come to Notre Dame; at other times I see the value of this position and the potential it has to change the way people see women of color in positions of authority,” Yomekpe said.

Originally from Ghana, West Africa, Yomekpe immigrated to the United States in 1996 after completing high school at an all-girls private Catholic boarding school.

“So technically, I guess I would be first generation African-American,” Yomekpe said. “Most of my nuclear family are currently in Ohio and Texas but I still have quite a large number of my family members in Ghana, among whom is my maternal grandmother who raised my sister and I because both of my parents worked abroad.”

Since taking her post as rector, Yomepke has felt a constant need to excel in her position, similar to how women must have felt when they were first granted entry into Notre Dame in 1972, she said.

“[I have felt] a need to be the very best so that I can pave the way for other women of color to do this work,” she said.

Yomekpe said she is challenged daily, particularly in trying to figure out how to support “my black students” by attending different cultural events, like African American Mass, while also serving as rector and attending different Pangborn events.

“These are the moments when the job is the most difficult … am I black first or am I a rector first?” she said. “[This is a] relatively harmless question, but for a person of color having to choose can be a grueling process.”

Yomekpe said it is important for everyone, especially for people of diverse backgrounds, to see that the administration means what it says and is serious about opening up Notre Dame to everyone – and her hiring is one way the University has proved it is serious.

“It is a rather significant step to have been invited to join the family here at Notre Dame, especially given how people felt after [former Irish football] Coach [Tyrone] Willingham was let go,” she said, referring to his firing by Notre Dame on Nov. 30, 2004. “What better way to do it than through the residence halls, which are at the very core of the Notre Dame experience?”

The hiring of people of diverse backgrounds comes with the challenges of making sure all systems are in place to support the “diverse needs that come with this hiring,” she said.

“I would love to see a better representation of God’s creation on this campus,” she said. “We need to ensure that we are not just bringing in people of diverse backgrounds to make the campus look colorful/diverse but that rather, we are changing the way that we – as a campus – think, behave and process, in order to attract and retain these diverse people.”

One factor that may have deterred other people of diverse backgrounds from applying for a rector position may have been that they didn’t feel supported in the environment at Notre Dame, she said.

“Personally, I know that Notre Dame would never have been on my radar screen as a woman of color because of its general lack of diverse people. I wasn’t white and I wasn’t Irish and I didn’t think there was a place for me here,” she said. “I think the image that is projected is what attracts or repels people.”

The University has made the effort to open its doors to people of diverse backgrounds and to make people feel welcome, Yomepke said.

“We just need to continue doing so – loving everyone the way Jesus did, the way God calls us to do,” she said. “If we continue this way, then we can expect to have more people of diverse backgrounds wanting to come and be a part of this Notre Dame family, because they truly feel at home here.”

Yomepke said while there is strength in the fact that numbers of diverse students at Notre Dame seem to be increasing, one of the weaknesses of diversity efforts at Notre Dame is that all events seem to be happening at the same time, thus “forcing students to have to decide between learning, say, about Native American heritage or entrepreneurship.”

Yomepke hopes more dorms will begin to hold events in the residence halls to promote a casual atmosphere.

“Some students live right next door to a student of Indian or Filipino heritage but don’t know their names until they see them perform at Asian Allure or Blak Images. We need to put names and stories to the faces that live right across the hall from us,” she said.

Yomekpe, the youngest rector at Notre Dame, said she often gets mistaken for a student.

“I think I’m starting to stand out as more and more people recognize that I am ‘that new black rector’ they’ve been hearing about,” she said.

Yomekpe said she did not know ahead of time, nor was she informed in her interview that there had never been a black female rector before at Notre Dame. Such information, she said, would have only caused more stress.

“Coming in, I knew there were a limited number of staff, faculty and administrators of color but I never knew that I would be pioneering in this field of rectorship,” she said.

Yomekpe said she asked questions about the student and administrator/faculty/staff of color representation and the recruitment efforts of the University.

Yomekpe said she made an effort to contact people within the University she knew were working directly with students of color, like Chandra Johnson, associate director of campus ministry and director of cross-cultural ministry, Bong Miquiabas, director of international student services, Lee David Moss of Student Affairs, and Iris Outlaw, director of multicultural student programs and services.

“I knew there was work to be done, but I felt there were resources, energy and effort behind doing this work,” she said.

Yomekpe graduated from Ohio Dominican University in Columbus with a bachelor’s degree in English. She then earned her Master’s degree in English Literature with some Master’s credits in Pastoral Counseling from the University of Dayton.