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A steward of student life

John Cameron | Thursday, September 13, 2012

Put simply, Vice President for Student Affairs Erin Hoffmann Harding’s role is to make sure every student’s undergraduate years at Notre Dame are as fulfilling as hers were.

“I had a really wonderful experience as a student, and I want to make sure that’s true of every student,” she said. “In a very direct sense, I’m trying to give back.”

Harding said her goal is to offer the same traditional experiences that make Notre Dame special to an evolving student body. The need for greater inclusiveness, she said, was highlighted in the spring by the movement for a Gay Straight Alliance (GSA) and the response to a racist incident on campus.

“We really do have some more work to do in being welcoming and inclusive,” she said. “I see from our students in surveys when they graduate that they are not satisfied with the diverse experience they’re offered here.”

Harding’s office is actively evaluating opportunities to expand inclusivity to both LGBT students and those of varying ethnicities, she said.

“[University President] Fr. John [Jenkins] has asked our office to look broadly at the services and support that we offer to our gay and lesbian student population on campus,” she said. “Also with the ‘Call to Action’ [campaign] last year, we’re working with the student organizations to make sure those types of events don’t occur again.”

The incoming class, the most diverse and international yet, is a positive sign of a trend toward a more dynamic student body makeup, she said.

“I think the incoming freshman class, for example, is a really exciting thing for the University,” she said. “All of us can benefit from learning from people of different cultural backgrounds, ethnicities, et cetera.”

Harding said her office intends to offer these increasingly varied students an equally broad array of opportunities, a trend that has continued since her time as an undergraduate.

“Compared to when I was a student, we have so many more opportunities to find a passion and pursue it, whether that’s something like undergraduate research – which was relatively new when I was here – or study abroad, which has exploded since I was here,” she said.

While Notre Dame students continue to push themselves toward their passions, Harding said she hopes the University continues to offer opportunities for balance.

“If there’s one concern I have, it’s balance. When you look at the world and technology and how quickly things move, there’s so much demand on our time,” she said. “Achieve balance also – take a little time to rest. Do one thing well versus five things at a cursory level.”

Part of her role, which includes oversight of the Career Center, is to help students pursue their passions after their undergraduate years, she said.

“I hope that Notre Dame continues to do a lot to help students moving on,” she said. “We want to do all we can to help students find the right path. It’s a challenging market out there, so we’re doing everything we can to make sure our students are as competitive and successful as they can be.”

For those students seeking more advanced degrees after graduation, Harding said she expects Notre Dame’s graduate programs to continue to grow and improve during her time at the University.

“We are excited to offer additional support in this area, even as we continue to enhance the undergraduate experience,” she said.
No matter what successes students reach after graduation, Harding said one of the University’s greatest roles is to instill a common set of values.
“I hope this place continues to stay grounded and all [students] continue to be grounded in a set of values,” she said. “Everything starts and stops there. I think Notre Dame has done a great job there so I hope we continue with that in the future.”

Keeping with the theme of moderation in student life, Harding said the University will strive to provide for all aspects of student health and well-being.

“Physical and mental health are areas of increasing focus within student affairs across the country, and Notre Dame is no different,” she said. “Where we are different is that once our students are physically and mentally well, our spiritual formation, our developmental approach, is really unique. But we have to get that foundation right first.”

While the University strives to provide spiritual guidance and pastoral care, Harding said she will work for an atmosphere of open dialogue and exploration.

“Whatever faith you are, I want Notre Dame to be a place where students can explore – academically obviously – but also their beliefs,” she said.

The spiritual and ethical foundation of the Notre Dame student experience is one unique aspect Harding said she pledges to maintain.

“I will never apologize for the fact that Notre Dame is held to very high standards. I think that is one of the best things about us,” she said. “We are unique and different in that we’re trying to be the best research university in undergraduate education we can be, while at the same time remaining distinctly Catholic.”

Harding said she is prepared to stand by that unique Catholic identity while considering policy issues, regardless of public criticism.

“It makes us unique, different and a truly wonderful experiment in higher education,” she said. “If that brings a little attention along with it, that’s okay.”

Controversial issues and media attention are a new challenge for Harding, who was most recently associate vice president of strategic planning. However, she said she did not hesitate to accept the new role and benefitted from the guidance of her predecessor, Fr. Tom Doyle.

“He was wonderful, from the moment we started this transition. We met weekly in the spring and it was a different topic each week, covering everything from housing assignments to conduct and discipline,” she said. “He was a true gift and mentor.”

Harding said her education will not end with Doyle’s weekly meetings.

“There’s a set of professionals in this division who’ve been doing this particular work much longer than me, and I’ll continue to learn from them, and I also think we’ll learn from our student body … as our students continue to grow and change,” she said. “I have tons to learn, and hopefully listening is one of my strengths in terms of leadership style.”

Whatever change manifests during her tenure, Harding said she will work tirelessly to maintain the feeling of community and good will among Notre Dame students, faculty and alumni.

“Ultimately the care for the individual and that sense of community are probably most important,” she said. “No matter what changes in 10 or 15 years, I still want students graduating feeling like they were a part of something bigger than themselves.”