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Foreign RAs visit for inspiration

by TESS CIVANTOS | Monday, October 11, 2010

When a Catholic university in Mexico decided to start a residential dorm program for its students five years ago — the first such program in a country where most students live at home during college — the university needed an established example of Catholic residential living to learn from.

Enter Notre Dame, which partnered with the University of Monterrey to host three of its resident assistants (RAs) and an administrator from Wednesday to Sunday, giving them a chance to engage in dorm life and plan ways to bring the Notre Dame spirit back to Monterrey.

“The people here were very welcoming and amiable,” said Hector Campbell, a junior at the University of Monterrey. “We learned a lot of things to incorporate little by little. We hope to strengthen our relationship with the university so our residents are inspired by this.”

As they learned about residential life at a Catholic university, the Monterrey visitors packed plenty of activities into their five-day visit, including meetings with Office of Residential Life and Housing, Student Affairs, Campus Ministry and the rectors of the newest dorms, said Erika Garza, Student Life coordinator at the University of Monterrey.

Meals were also a chance for the group to learn about life at Notre Dame.

“We had activities all day and Notre Dame RAs have been with us for all our meals, so we can ask them about what they do,” said Armida Lopez, a junior at the University of Monterrey.

Before leaving campus Sunday, the visitors attended a Notre Dame football game — an experience they said they were anticipating all week, especially after feeling the energy on campus Friday and Saturday.

“We’ve seen very little kids and also very old people with that passion for Notre Dame,” Garza said. “The love for Notre Dame has no age.”

Although the visitors said they admired Notre Dame’s residential life, differences between the two universities will make dorm life at Monterrey a distinct experience.

The University of Monterrey is only 41 years old, and its residential program is barely older than Notre Dame’s Duncan Hall. Only 420 of the university’s 12,000 students live on campus, compared to 80 percent of Notre Dame undergraduates. The university also only has two dormitories — one for men and one for women — connected by a garden, sharing one chapel and with no inter-dorm visitation.

“There are plenty of common areas on the rest of campus,” Garza said.

While Notre Dame already has a long and rich dorm history, Lopez said, at the University of Monterrey, “we are still creating that history.”

Lopez and the other visitors had plenty of ideas for creating their campus’ own traditions — ideas gleaned from their observations of Notre Dame residential living and from advice given by Notre Dame’s rectors and resident assistants.

“I learned that students form a sense of dorm identity through activities,” Lopez said. “For RAs, there’s a line between friendship and authority.”

Garza said she picked up some very concrete tips from her Notre Dame visit.

“Many of the campus activities work because they’re free. The residents don’t have to pay anything,” she said. “Dorms should put most things to a vote so that residents feel involved in decisions.”

One thing not be up for debate, however, is penalties for rule infractions, Garza said.

“There has to be a sense of importance to the sanctions,” Garza said. “We want rules about alcohol [and other disciplinary issues] to be successful.”

The Monterrey visitors said they also want to bring home another unique aspect of Notre Dame’s campus culture: its spirituality.

“We don’t have anything like the Grotto, but we’d like to incorporate more spirituality,” Lopez said. “It’s amazing that students here still go to Mass and pray at the Grotto without their parents telling them.”

The Monterrey group said they enjoyed their visit so much that they are already planning ways to come back to campus. Garza said she wants to spend a month at Notre Dame during the summer working with the Office of Residence Life and Housing, and the students said they hope that the partnership between the two universities grows — including a possible trip by Notre Dame students to Monterrey.

The Monterrey visitors also visited Loyola University in Chicago after they left Notre Dame for a further example of residential life at a Catholic university. As they left campus Sunday, they left a message for the Notre Dame students and administrator: “Thank you, and Go Irish!”