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Keough priest-in-residence shares Notre Dame journey

| Monday, January 27, 2020

After having graduated from Notre Dame himself in 1999, Fr. Nate Wills now resides in Keough Hall as a priest-in-residence.

Wills said he wasn’t initially interested in attending Notre Dame after his older brother started at the University one year before him. 

“I basically wanted to go to any school but Notre Dame because I thought that was his thing,” Wills said. “Then I came to visit him sometime in the fall and totally fell in love with the place. I was really excited because it felt like home almost instantly.”

He said he was particularly drawn to Old College Undergraduate Seminary.

“They were asking the same questions about discernment that I was,” Wills said. “It was just a really good environment to learn and to grow in, and some of the guys who were in Old College with me at the time are still some of my closest friends.”

Wills graduated with majors in theology and computer applications, and during his undergraduate career, he worked as a layout assistant at The Observer. He said his experience at The Observer contributed to his discernment about entering the priesthood.

“People would just casually sit next to me and bring up questions,” Wills said. “We would get into the most interesting conversations at a really deep level and I just loved it.”

He said the experience was “confirming” for him to continue having these types of conversations on a deeper level.

“Putting yourself in a position of ministry sometimes invites beautiful conversations in,” Wills said.

After graduating from Notre Dame, Wills entered the Alliance for Catholic Education (ACE) program and taught for two years in Chicago. He said he found a “vocation within a vocation” as a high school teacher.

“[I] fell in love with the mission of Holy Cross in education,” Wills said.

He finished seminary, spent four years at St. Joseph Parish in South Bend and then attended University of Wisconsin-Madison to receive a Ph.D in education in 2015. 

“I studied technology in education and my focus is on blended learning, which is using adaptive computer programs in the context of a traditional classroom to create a personalized learning paths for kids and to use the data that’s kicked out in those programs to make targeted interventions and really smart ability groupings for the kids,” Wills said.

Wills returned to Notre Dame in 2015 where he first resided in St. Edward’s Hall before moving to Keough Hall in 2017.

Upon his return, Wills worked for ACE, where he now teaches full-time for the Remick Leadership Program for aspiring Catholic school principals. As these principals are sent across the country and the world to teach, Willis spends a lot of time traveling and working remotely.

He said he and two colleagues have a grant to implement blended learning research at five schools in the archdiocese of St. Paul Minneapolis. 

“We are working with those five schools to really lead the change of using technology for personalization in their schools so they can give kids an education befitting their dignity as children of god,” Wills said.

Wills also spoke about his experience living on the fourth floor of Keough Hall. He said he had a desire to be in the life of the students and that his fourth floor room in Keough has allowed him to do this.

“The way my room is situated, it’s right in the elbow of a big thoroughfare. When I’m not traveling, the guys are great about stopping in,” Wills said. “It feels like a great community. It’s been a wonderful experience for me.”

Wills said the hardest part of serving as a priest-in-residence is getting to know his hall’s residents and establishing a presence in the hall.

“The guys are all very welcoming and kind and often want to talk, but they just don’t always know when I’m around, so that’s been a bit of a challenge for me,” Wills said.

The most rewarding part has been seeing residents move towards positions of leadership and responsibility and maturing.

“The challenges of first year are real, and it’s amazing to see guys flourish within the community and bring people along,” Wills said. “I am constantly amazed at the superpowers of the kids in my dorm.”

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