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Notre Dame welcomes retirees back to the classroom

| Friday, September 14, 2018

At the beginning of the school year, some Notre Dame students might have noticed something a little different about some of the people in their classes. In addition to the usual demographic of 18- to 22-year-old college students, sprinkled in classes throughout campus for the first time was also a group of 15 retirees, the first class of fellows in Notre Dame’s Inspired Leadership Initiative (ILI).

The ILI is a new program at Notre Dame this year that allows retirees to come to Notre Dame for a year, take classes and discern what they want to do in their retirement. It is based on similar programs at Harvard and Stanford.

In 2016, Tom Schreier, founding director of ILI, was among the many retirees who had ended their careers, and he was wondering what to do next in his life.

“I finished up what I call my ‘traditional career.’ I was leading a very large financial services firm based in Chicago,” he said. “We sold that firm. I was really trying to decide, ‘What’s next for me?’ I thought, ‘I think I want to do something different from what I have done, but I want to do something that leverages the kind of skills and knowledge and relationships that I have.’”

Schreier, who attended Notre Dame for his undergraduate studies and Harvard for graduate school, discovered an article about Harvard’s program for retirees: the Advanced Leadership Initiative.

“I thought that to be very interesting,” he said. “I thought it to be a very intriguing, smart way to make a transition as opposed to just meeting with friends and colleagues … and saying, ‘What kinds of things have you done?’ To do it in a structured, thoughtful way.”

Ultimately, Schreier applied to both the Harvard and Stanford programs for retirees. In the fall of 2016, as he was considering the two programs, he and his wife dropped their youngest child off for her first year at Notre Dame.

“I was approached by people I know who are in the University leadership and they asked, ‘What are you going to do now?’” he said. “I was telling them I was trying to decide between the two programs and they said, ‘Would you ever consider catalyzing a program like this at the University of Notre Dame?’ They said the senior leadership of the University was very interested in doing it and believed very strongly that Notre Dame could create a truly distinctive offering in this space.”

Schreier ultimately decided to help establish such a program at Notre Dame. Two years later, the first class of ILI fellows arrived at the University.

For ILI co-founding director Chris Stevens, the program is a glimpse into a future where people are living much longer — perhaps living for decades after they retire.

“For people who have had an accomplished life — maybe a career in business, or law, or medicine, or non-profit — and they’ve done it for 30 years or so and they want to pivot and do something different, there [was] no place for them to go until Harvard started [its] program about 10 years ago and then Stanford started their version of the program about five years ago,” Stevens said. “We feel like we can do it here at Notre Dame. It really is filling an unmet need. The retirement model is totally outdated. People who are 55 to 60 have maybe another 20, 25 years of life left to them.”

Stevens said the fellows audit between two and four Notre Dame classes of their choosing in a given semester. In addition to those courses, they meet as a group once a week to take a great books class. The group usually has a luncheon with a guest speaker on Thursdays. In February, the group will travel to Notre Dame’s Rome Global Gateway. In May, they will make a trip to Notre Dame’s global gateway at Tantur Ecumenical Institute in Jerusalem. Fellows’ spouses are invited as well, and some of them are taking a class or two, Stevens said. Applications for the fall of 2019 open in October.

One of the focuses of Notre Dame’s iteration of the program, Stevens said, is discernment and working for the public good.

“Many people in this stage of life want to be a greater force for good,” he said. “They’ve been crushing it on Wall Street or working 60 hours a week in medicine, or whatever. Sometimes they want to stop for a second and really discern what they want to do for the rest of their life to be a greater force for good.”

Stevens said he hopes the program is a positive experience for Notre Dame students, faculty and fellows alike.

“We think there are tremendous mentor opportunities, for both students and for faculty. Some students, as the program evolves, may adopt a fellow,” he said. “And perhaps that fellow will come to a hall once a week, or something like that, and be available to mentor and talk. We think there’s all kinds of engagement opportunities.”

Tuck Hopkins of Fort Wayne, Ind., a retired labor lawyer and 1974 graduate of the University, said he has loved his time in ILI so far.

“The first three weeks have been a breath of fresh air, because instead of waking up and having to get things done — because that’s your job — I wake up now and I’m looking forward to just learning,” Hopkins said. “Already I’m hoping that it doesn’t end.”

Hopkins — who is taking a history class about colonial America, an art class about Renaissance art and an economics class about the Federal Reserve in addition to the great books course — said students and professors have been very welcoming.

“The professors have been so supportive,” he said. “For students, looking at someone who’s 66 years old sitting next to you, I wonder what you’re thinking. The students have been outstanding.”

An important part of ILI is the total cohort. Hopkins said he has particularly enjoyed getting to know other fellows. The inaugural group, who Stevens referred to as “co-creating fellows” due to their role in pioneering the program, come from multiple countries and a wide variety of careers.

“The other fellows are fantastic. We’re meeting a couple times a week and getting to know each other,” Hopkins said. “These people are just great people.”

Hopkins noted that despite their diverse backgrounds, the fellows all possess good leadership abilities and, as a result, the group is getting along very well with one another.

“I think across the cohort, I don’t think there’s anyone who has been successful in the same field. So we’re looking at all sorts of lives, all sorts of careers,” he said. “The thing they have in common is that everyone was a leader. Everyone has that desire to succeed, to be successful. The other thing I’ve seen in them is they have the leadership skills that you would want in terms of getting along. … It’s very obvious the reason that they’re successful is that they show their employees the way. They lead by example. As a result of that, we are getting along unbelievably well. We’re almost a protective group now. It’s almost funny. Friendships were almost immediate. Everybody wants everybody else to be successful.”

Though Hopkins is not sure exactly what he wants to do once he has completed ILI, he said his participation in the program will definitely shape his life in the future.

“Three weeks in, right now I’m just having the time of my life and enjoying every day,” he said. “At the end of it, I think I’m going to be a better person for it.”

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About Tom Naatz

Tom is a senior at University of Notre Dame. He is majoring in Political Science and Spanish and is originally from Rockville, Maryland. Formerly The Observer's Notre Dame News Editor, he's now a proud columnist for the paper.

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