I am Notre Dame (and so can you)
Billy McMahon | Wednesday, April 22, 2015
I’ve spent a lot of column inches over the past year criticizing the university’s policies or administration. From what I’ve said about the administration caring too much for wealth or my tangles with the more ridiculous side of university discipline, it would be easy to conclude that I didn’t much care for this place. In fact, it’s meant a great deal to me, so I think my last column should be this one.
When I’m somewhere I don’t like, I leave. It’s pretty simple, just look for the nearest door. Liking a place is the hard part. When I’m somewhere I like, I try to make it better. My method may feel like a shove — a largely ineffective one, if we can be honest about the impact of student newspapers — but it’s no less an effort at bettering my home.
As a member of the working poor, my background is not typical for a student here. Notre Dame pulled me out of my family’s struggles through foreclosure, eviction and periods of homelessness. It has been my home more than anywhere else for the past four years. I’m not talking about the magic others have felt from looking at the Golden Dome and sentimentally calling this place “home” in its own special way. I’m talking about the University, and now the neighboring part of South Bend, being my home in a real and practical sense. It’s been the most stable living arrangement I’ve had in a while, whereas I’m always worrying about where my family is going and how they’re doing. I love my family more than any home, but that didn’t change the reality of my situation. Throughout my four years, my friends would talk about going home for breaks. I was leaving it.
This university is more than just a school, it’s a community. I don’t mean that in the cheesy way a tour guide might say it (sorry Tim), but with the weight of all the real conditions, problems and opportunities that define any community. Notre Dame can do great things. It has done great things, but it can do more. It can use its status as the largest employer in the area to set living wage standards. It can use its billions of dollars of endowment and fundraising strength to invest in revitalizing South Bend. It can tell its own students that no religious belief can justify discriminating against their peers. These are a few of the things I think it can do, but I’m just one of thousands in this community. I can’t speak alone.
I can’t stay here forever, that’s the nature of a university. Even if it was different, I think it would be time for me to leave anyway. I’ve made some of the best friends of my life here, and it’s been great engaging with the passionate academics on the faculty. Still, there’s always been a part of me that’s felt out of place. It might be hard to know what I mean if you’ve had different experiences in your life, but in many ways this university isn’t made for people from my class. The students here can talk Dante, but not desperation. The culture seems to assume a certain upbringing. The University has set about increasing racial diversity, but the student body can still feel pretty homogenous when it comes to class, which most shapes our conditions in life. There’s much to be said for speaking and living with others of different backgrounds, but when it seems like they’re all from the same different background, you realize you need people who understand the shape of your life. I always knew it would be like that, of course, and I love Notre Dame for what it’s been for me these past four years.
I don’t know what’s ahead of me. I’ve got some ideas, but I don’t commit myself to more than a few years at a time. There’s too much to do. But even if nothing in the classroom could prepare me for it all, I’ll still be better for having been here for this moment in the history of a university that will outlast us all.
In the lifetime of the bricks that we all pass by every day, many generations of young students have come here, made it their home, and passed into old age. Those bricks haven’t changed, but what we make of them has. So here’s what I have to say to all present and future members of this community — making this place your home means making yourself responsible for it. Don’t shirk that responsibility, and no matter how good it already is, keep pushing for a better Notre Dame.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.