Blessed are they who don’t fit
Tom Naatz | Friday, April 17, 2020
If you read official communications, or even just watch a video or two from the admissions department, you’ll hear all about how Notre Dame has so much to offer. And that’s true — Notre Dame is that rare place where you can basically do anything. But, too often, the Notre Dame narrative is all the same. If I had to spin a generic Notre Dame tale, it would go something like this:
“I pretty much knew I wanted to come here since I was a toddler. My first words were the Notre Dame Victory March. Once I got here, I met all my best friends Welcome Weekend — we were all in the same section of the same dorm. We do everything together. Dis-o really solidified our friendship. We’re all business majors. We try to take most of the same classes, we’re all going to study abroad together. Senior year we’re going to live in a house off-campus. All of our opposite sex friends live in [insert opposite sex dorm]. It’s a great time. Oh, and roll Newfs!”
Of course, I don’t mean to suggest there is anything wrong with living your Notre Dame years the “normal way.” If that’s your truth, live it. But don’t feel trapped if it’s not. The easiest way to become cynical about this place is to walk a lightless road.
I spent the first year and a half of my time at Notre Dame trying to live that life. But from the beginning it was a poor fit. More of an introverted free spirit than a work-hard/play-hard type, I felt like a fish out of water in Notre Dame’s proto-fraternity male residence hall culture. It wasn’t that I didn’t feel welcome; I just wasn’t that interested in pursuing the 40’s-at-4 lifestyle.
For most of freshman year I made it work. Then I hit a sophomore slump, hard. I kept seeking belonging where I belatedly realized there was none. This revelation was not easy to swallow. I’d perceived myself as having spent the better part of two years being told what my Notre Dame experience should be, yet when I looked around my section, I couldn’t spot any groomsmen. It’s not that I disliked the people I was around, I just found myself wondering, “Is this all there is?” frequently. I was deep in the doldrums.
Then it dawned on me. I was the problem. No one had forced me into this situation. I was the one who had chugged the Kool-Aid.
“Alright, Tom. Time to break out,” I thought to myself.
And break out I did. I started hanging out with people whose company I actually enjoyed; they lived in the same dorm but — horrors — in a different section. A few of them even lived in our “rival” dorm (gasp!). United by a sense that our residence halls were more of a home to return to at the end of the day as opposed to a lifestyle in and of themselves, those people are my best friends. In another oddity for this place, as I take stock of my friends at the close of my college career, I would guess that a majority of them are female. I made challenging assumptions a cornerstone of my college experience. I stopped using The Observer to explain my long absences from the dorm and instead as an outlet to express myself in writing. I eagerly applied to be a philosophy TA so I could “corrupt the youth,” as we say in the philosophy department.
I reasserted my own identity. I resolved to be my own man, as opposed to the person Notre Dame might have expected me to be. I rediscovered my love for a place whose luster, in my mind, had severely diminished. Ultimately, I realized conformity is a pretty miserable road to travel.
It’s no secret Notre Dame unites people in a way few schools do. Of course, that’s one of the school’s calling cards. The school loves to brag about its success in making lifelong friends out of random roommates and total strangers. It’s very laudable, and sometimes it works incredibly well. But we have to recognize that sometimes the effort falls flat.
And what better place for that effort to fall flat than a school like Notre Dame?
As my story demonstrates, this school is swimming in opportunities. If you told me when I graduated college that I would serve on the editorial board of a daily, student-run newspaper, that I’d study abroad in Israel and Spain or that I’d intern in the federal government, I don’t think I would have believed you. Coming out of high school I could not begin to fathom everything Notre Dame had to offer. It can be very overwhelming; it’s a lot easier to hide in your dorm playing Xbox than sift through all of your extracurricular options.
Of course, writing for The Observer or spending three weeks in Jerusalem is fascinating on its own. But experiences like that are nothing without the people you meet along the way. Sure, I can write a news article in AP style or recite the major points of contention in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in my sleep. But I learned the most from my co-travelers on the road. They expanded my horizons in ways impossible to conceive just a few short years ago. I never would have met any of them if I had cocooned myself in my dorm.
In my most emo moments that first semester of sophomore year, I felt like I’d blown it. I had one shot at this whole Notre Dame thing, and I’d completely whiffed. Now I recognize how dumb of a thought that was. It’s never too late to put yourself out there. If you see a flyer that intrigues you, dig deeper. If all of your friends want to study abroad in London but you’d rather go to Chile, do it. You want to student-manage a sports team? Shoot your shot. Who cares if it sounds unconventional? Life is all about the adventures.
So don’t get discouraged if you’re feeling stuck. There’s a world out there to explore. There is no such thing as “the Notre Dame experience.” Instead, there are thousands of variations of “a Notre Dame experience.” Our school is an ever-expanding kaleidoscopic puzzle, made up of so many different pieces. Blessed are the ones who don’t fit.
Tom is a former a Notre Dame News Editor who decided to turn his passion for Observer Inside Columns into something productive. During quarantine, you can find him writing his thesis about Spanish politics, playing Mario Kart or trying his hand at Twitter. He can be reached at [email protected]
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.