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Incoming freshmen: Life begins today

| Thursday, August 29, 2019

In the time of Knute Rockne, for my incoming class exactly fifty years ago or for the current freshman class, the start of the fall semester is the friendliest time of the school year. Everyone is open to meeting others before they unfortunately settle into more hectic and restrictive routines. We who survived our freshmen foray on campus are eager to offer myriad advice. Yet the best practice advice remains unchanged from Rockne to Rudy to now: Your life begins today, so follow your interests and speak to strangers all semester.

Fifty years ago, following what was dubbed “The Summer of Love,” my classmates and I entered as freshmen into an all-male Notre Dame. Eerily, 1969 was not unlike today with its national tensions and anxieties over the raging Vietnam War and my classmates facing a draft lottery that loomed later in the school year. Back then, Sesame Street had just begun airing. The Beatles released their Abbey Road album featuring the iconic cover. Neil Armstrong had briefly energized the world when he became the first human to step on the moon. The week before arriving on campus, many of us newbie Domers had learned firsthand about community sisterhood and brotherhood at Woodstock while dancing naked between the raindrops. For us, the summer had simply been a fun, normal time.

As repeats each new school year, we owned the same faces but had different names as those who step on campus today for the first time. We were confident and brash. We were concerned but hopeful. Each of us thought we knew how to live in a way that would better our parents’ generation. Hailing from a small suburban town, I personally supported fighting in Vietnam to prevent Communism from expanding, reasoning that it would undermine my freedoms and pride in the American democracy. My roommates’ may have been raised in differing surroundings, but we were charter members of the generation that could conquer any problem, just like Armstrong had surmounted space travel.

My class was destined to become an anomaly within the Fighting Irish family tree. We were nationally pitted against the working class hardhats of our society. Again not unlike today, we could either love our country or leave it. President Richard Nixon easily characterized us as radical students. Our parents were torn at what seemed to them as watching their children drift away from the America they had known. Yet many of them gradually converted to our side and eventually opposed the war.

My classmates and I became the radical era of Notre Dame students that threatened to burn buildings on campus. We had been disgusted by Nixon’s war expansion into Cambodia while denying that it was an invasion. We were outraged when American National Guardsmen fired upon and killed unarmed student protesters at Kent State our spring semester. Our student lives mattered, and for the first time in our lives we faced death. The Kent State students could have been us. That sudden reality of death, to us, was not what America stood for throughout its history, regardless of what our parents or the president proffered.

Having now run 50 laps of life since then, I can appreciate just how naive we were at the time. Yet, I am thankful that I evolved from a small-town, conservatively thinking person into a politically liberal and progressive-thinking individual because my eyes were opened at Notre Dame. I learned to think for myself and evaluate life through what I witnessed, felt and experienced. Certainly I — just as most students of every generation — craved to be accepted into social groups. But while in those groups, I also learned to exude individuality I had never felt in high school or in my hometown. I learned to live.

With that in mind, life begins this week for the freshmen of the class of 2023. You will make friendships that will last a lifetime. Unfortunately, you will also experience pain, anger and sorrow along with a touch of heartbreak. But those are the elements that forge your character and make you who you will become. Your resolve will be tempered by loss. Your success will be born by adaptation. Your individuality will be fashioned by your willingness to reach out to strangers. All of these will mold your life one step at a time.

The advice a half-century freshman like me can offer freshmen today is to explore anything that interests you. If you enjoy smoking cigars, join a cigar club and meet others who share your interest. For me, I played baseball and softball into my adult professional life on Capitol Hill. Luckily, those pursuits allowed me to meet presidents, representatives and senators like former Indiana Senator Joe Donnelly, who now teaches at Notre Dame. The point is to pursue a love, and if you are not rewarded, you will at least have a hell of a time throughout life. And that is why freshmen can bank on the fact that their lives begin now.


Gary J. Caruso, guest columnist and Notre Dame ‘73 American Studies major, serves in the Department of Homeland Security and was a legislative and public affairs director at the U.S. House of Representatives and in President Clinton’s administration. Contact him on Twitter @GaryJCaruso or email [email protected].

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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