The Observer is a Student-run, daily print & online newspaper serving Notre Dame & Saint Mary's. Learn more about us.



Firth talks about ND journey

Meg Mirshak | Thursday, November 15, 2007

Ann Firth’s father, a German doctor, was taken prisoner by the Russians and tortured during World War II.

Notre Dame’s associate vice president for student affairs described her journey as the daughter of immigrants to her position at the University during a talk Wednesday.

Firth prefaced her story with her father’s. After the Russian army captured the doctor, who had been drafted into the German army, he was enslaved and tortured by the Russian government. But Firth’s father persuaded a Russian doctor he had tuberculosis. He was then freed, since the Russians feared he would infect other prisoners of war.

After Firth’s father and mother met, they immigrated to the U.S. but maintained their German heritage and identity. Firth spoke German, ate German food and wore German clothes – things she said were not easy as a child.

“I appreciate my German heritage,” she said. “But at the time, I was different.”

Firth has long moved past the memories of those who tormented and teased her as a child, but she underscored the importance of those who were kind to her.

“The first lesson I learned at that stage in my life was the importance of kindness,” she said. This principle has remained with her since.

Firth spoke to faculty, staff, rectors and students in the Coleman-Morse Center lounge as part of the noontime luncheon series titled “Telling HERstory.”

Her presentation was the third in the series, which is an initiative to highlight, honor and give a voice to women in leadership positions on campus.

Firth shared memories of events and influential moments that have directed her life as a student and professional woman at Notre Dame.

Firth said her high school principal, a Holy Cross priest, was one of the people that helped direct her story. He encouraged Firth to attend Notre Dame, and she became a student in 1977.

Since she attended Notre Dame in its early years as a co-educational institution, Firth said she has watched the evolution of women at Notre Dame.

“It is wonderful to see the leadership roles I see women embracing on this campus,” she said.

After Firth’s undergraduate years, her mother encouraged her to become a lawyer.

A mentor she found at Notre Dame persuaded her to attend Notre Dame Law School after seeing the moral and ethical concern Firth had for the law.

Firth practiced law in Chicago for the year following her graduation from law school, and then married her friend and classmate. She attributed her 22 years of marriage and five children to common values, faith and commitment.

Firth realized she did not want to practice law and moved with her husband to South Bend, where she inquired about jobs at Notre Dame. She was offered the position as director of Residence Life and Housing, a newly created department at the time.

“It was the beginning of a career that has far exceeded anything I could have hoped,” Firth said.

Firth became the primary hearing officer for disciplinary matters and, at the age of 25, she was not far removed from the issues she encountered with students.

“I had to learn some important lessons on how to handle myself and how to wield authority gracefully,” Firth said.

She said she learned valuable lessons on being a parent, serving God and serving the Catholic Church during her career at Notre Dame.

“I have been extraordinarily blessed to find work that I love with great colleagues who have allowed me the flexibility to fit it in with my family,” Firth said.

Firth said she could never pretend to have all of the answers to balancing a career and family. She admitted that it is “a little hard to have it all, all at once.”

Firth said she could not tell her story without sharing her faith. Although her parents were not religious people, Firth said, she emulated her German grandmother, a very devout Catholic.

“What I really want is for people say at the end of my life that I loved and served God,” she said.

The next speakers in the Telling HERstory Series will be student body president Liz Brown and vice president Maris Braun on Dec. 10 in the Coleman-Morse Center Lounge.