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I was older then. I’m so much younger than that now

| Thursday, August 26, 2021

“It is our great pleasure to offer you admission to the third cohort of the Notre Dame Inspired Leadership Initiative. We are enrolling a rich cohort of participants able to contribute a diversity of experiences, backgrounds and interests, and we feel you would not only fit wonderfully but benefit greatly from the other fellows in this cohort.”

I call it a “quarantine accomplishment.” I applied and was accepted to Notre Dame’s Inspired Leadership Initiative (ILI). I will be joining the third cohort in the program and returning to campus for the 2021-22 academic year. I am both wildly excited to be part of this amazing program and slightly apprehensive to be learning side by side with current students and accomplished peers. ILI is a yearlong program of study, discernment and design. It allows experienced individuals the opportunity to design the next phase of their lives. We return to campus, participate in classes and share a learning environment with one another and with undergraduate and graduate students. Faculty and staff work with us to shape our learning and growth. We are welcomed to bring our own experiences to the classroom and campus. In addition to our Fellows’ class, I will be taking about three courses with Notre Dame undergraduate and graduate students.


It was the waning days of the summer, August 1976. Friends were getting ready to head to college. I was grabbing the last shifts as a waitress at Howard Johnson’s. I would be leaving my small town of Kingston, New York, in the Hudson River Valley to attend Notre Dame. I am the first generation in our family to attend college, though I was to be the fourth to graduate from Notre Dame. Arriving on campus and moving into Breen-Phillips Hall, I met my dear friends Amy and Robin. They were responsible for our first-year orientation in BP — a decidedly amateur sport compared to today’s Welcome Weekend.  Robin and Amy took me under their wings as I was living with a senior — three friendships that endure despite distance and time.

My four years at Notre Dame flew in a trice. AP Biology allowed me to skip Emil (first-year chemistry) and change my intended major from biology to government. An ill-reasoned decision meant that I would stay on campus sophomore year rather than joining mes amis in Angers. My studies offered opportunities to learn with truly wise professors: Fr. Burrell and Fr. Burtchaell in theology, John Roos in government and countless others. Notre Dame won two National Championships my first year: one in Fencing and the other on the gridiron. BP remained my home all four years and I am glad for that. A group of us headed to Europe for two months immediately after graduation. What a grand adventure — and my first time leaving the country. Alas, all good things must end, and home I went and back to Howard Johnson’s for a few months to replenish my bank account before heading to grad school at the new Harris School of Public Policy at the University of Chicago.

Chicago has been my home for all these many years. I enjoyed a career in corporate information technology and maintained a commitment to service and a relationship with Notre Dame serving as president of the Chicago Alumni Club and vice president of the Notre Dame Club of Chicago’s Scholarship Foundation. And then came the pandemic.


The summer of 2021 is so very different. I will start the ILI this month. Vaccines are done.  Notre Dame is doing a great job with COVID. I’m constantly updating my “ILI bucket list” with more people to meet, courses to take and things to do. The mundane responsibilities of life command attention: doctors’ appointments kept, schedules to stop and start, and housing secured. Oh, and that driver’s license that requires proof of identity and the passport that has expired throw new wrinkles in the to-do list. But, at the end, a new beginning. I’ll be returning to a place I love to study and reflect, to learn and to grow and to contemplate new ways to focus my talents and interests. And I should mention another exciting new commitment. The editorial staff at The Observer needs 700-800 words in a column for the Viewpoint section of the paper, complete with a proposed title, future columns and to know my past experience “with advocating clear, persuasive arguments.”


You will find me here every other Thursday with a reflection on Notre Dame then and now. I promise an honest perspective.

Love thee.

Mary Ellen Woods is a graduate of the Notre Dame class of 1980. She has returned to campus as a Fellow in the Inspired Leadership Initiative (ILI). As an undergraduate, she lived in Breen-Phillips and now lives off-campus. A longtime resident of Chicago, she can be reached at [email protected] or @MEWsmuses on Twitter.

Editor’s note: This piece originally stated that Mary Ellen’s columns could be found every other Tuesday. It has been changed to correctly reflect her actual publication day which is Thursday. 

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

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