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What I hope for

| Thursday, April 23, 2020

Graduating from the University of Notre Dame was my greatest childhood aspiration. It began with my earliest memories of attending a football game once or twice a year. I remember everything from the drive to campus, parking in White Field, hot chocolate at the games and of course sleeping in the back of the car the whole way home. Notre Dame became this place for me that embodied the most joyous times with my family. 

How incredible that I was given the opportunity to fulfill that dream and I couldn’t be more grateful. 

But it wasn’t what I had pictured growing up. Sure, there were the football games, the friends and those Rudy-like fall days on campus, but there were a lot of times that weren’t so picture-perfect. There were times that I felt overwhelmed or increasingly frustrated as I realized my voice was one which seemingly did not belong on campus. These feelings were only further validated after I became a columnist and shared my thoughts on campus issues only to be told, “If you don’t like it here, you can leave.” 

But I am so thankful my time at Notre Dame wasn’t that quintessential experience — it shouldn’t be. Yes, Notre Dame is about football and Sunday dorm mass and all of these other things that make it so unique, but it is also a place of learning and challenge. 

The greatest threat to Our Lady’s University is becoming a relic — something so classic, special and of another time that it therefore becomes untouchable and goes unchallenged.

Notre Dame is a place where students should be compelled to reckon with their perception of the world. We must be exposed to a variety of different opinions in order to create more informed versions of our own. Instead of drowning out certain viewpoints for the sake of comfort and convenience, we have to find a balance between Notre Dame’s central identity and the right of all community members to speak freely. 

I worry that instead of recognizing the changing times and reorienting the vision of this University to best serve the student body, we cling to a historical past that ends up alienating the very people this place aims to teach. It becomes nearly impossible for all students, especially those who do not fit the historical image of the “classic ND student,” to enjoy these unique and special aspects of the Notre Dame experience if they are prevented from fully expressing themselves and their identities out of fear and rejection. 

The idolization of Notre Dame’s history can prevent us from moving forward in meaningful ways. If we signal to a specific point in our tradition and work only to emulate that period, we lose sight of the ways in which Notre Dame serves all students, not just those that fit the Notre Dame archetype. 

We shouldn’t resist change. Notre Dame has already undergone a major transformation even during the four years I was here: we constructed the stadium and student center additions, sent students to the Women’s March, added the new Ansari Institute for Global Engagement with Religion and are now conducting classes online during the pandemic. These are just a tiny snapshot of all the ways in which Notre Dame has changed in such a small period of time.

Looking back even further, it is clear that change has been a vital component of our history. Father Hesburgh transformed Notre Dame into the accredited research university that it is today, growing the research award funding from $2 million to $28 million. Not to mention the fact that he formally admitted women in 1972 and played a key role in the Land O’ Lakes Statement, declaring the independence and academic freedom of Catholic universities. If we cling so hard to the past and the classic alumni experience, even critical transformations such as these will face crippling resistance.

If my time at Notre Dame had been that classic experience, I don’t think I would have learned half of what I have. I am so thankful that I was able to come here and rather than move through my four years without incident, I was forced to question myself and my belief system. The good times certainly outweighed the bad, but college should be a time of discovery and self-reflection. 

With all of that in mind, I have many hopes for this place I was lucky enough to call home for four years. I hope students continue to push back and offer their input when the administration appears disjointed from our interests. I hope we continue to expand freedom of speech and expression for every member of our campus community. I hope Notre Dame increasingly opens its doors to all high school students, not just those with a forceful and institutionalized legacy behind them.  

But most of all, I hope Notre Dame continues to serve the current students as the primary beneficiaries of this University, regardless of outside pressure. 

Notre Dame is a real place. We are not isolated from the realities of the rest of the world. This University is a school, a place for people to learn — not a museum serving only to catalog a history of Catholic education in America. 

Every member of the Notre Dame family has a role to play in shaping and reimagining the mission of a Catholic education – there is no end point to this goal.

Thankfully, however, I don’t think we will succumb to the risk of preserving the past at the expense of the future anytime soon. There are incredible students on this campus dedicated to ensuring that their viewpoints are heard and all voices are recognized. Too many to count. 

And while it feels sad to walk away this semester as an alumna, rather than a student, I hope this University continues to be a place of challenge, learning and fruitful discord. So, with that, thank you to my family, friends and fellow Domers who have read my columns these past two years, I’m sure there will be many more columnists who contribute to that essential discord for years to come! 

Love thee. 

Jackie O’Brien is a Notre Dame senior studying political science and peace studies, originally from the Chicago suburbs. When she’s not writing for Viewpoint, you can find her attempting to complete the NYT crossword, fretting over law school applications or watching RuPaul’s Drag Race. She can be reached at [email protected] or @im_jackie_o on Twitter.

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

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