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| Thursday, November 18, 2021

Professor Steve Reifenberg, an associate professor of the practice of international development and co-director of Notre Dame’s Integration Lab (i-Lab), is a senior strategic advisor and faculty fellow of the Kellogg Institute for International Studies and a professor in the Inspired Leadership Initiative (ILI) where I am a Fellow. Steve’s research explores international development as a process of accompaniment. As I was discussing over lunch with some recent grads, learning can be enhanced when one applies the lessons of the classroom to “real life.” And, thus, I am motivated to consider all those who are accompanying me on my ILI journey — a year of study, discernment and design which will help guide where I should best apply my skills and talents.

Without those who accompany me, my ILI year could be selfish, certainly self-directed. I have committed to a period of reflection and study — all designed to focus on me. What am I good at? What do I want to do next? What is my purpose? I am grateful to all those who are there to reflect with me, guide and remind me that my greater good is in service to others — to help them be better images of themselves and reach their full potential.

I am thankful to those who are embarking on this journey with me on a daily basis. Even now, we are planning and plotting an impromptu game watch. We enjoy one another. And we are grateful to the spouses who have joined us along the way. They make the path more fun and they are amazing organizers. Watch out world, the spouses of Cohort 3 are amazing.

We are all better for our faculty here at Notre Dame: the ILI profs who lead our “Fellows’ Class,” as I call it. Through our study in “Great Books,” “Heart’s Desire” and “Life Design,” you guide our inquiry and challenge our minds. As students “of a certain age,” your work is certainly cut out for you, but you help us accomplish more than we might have thought possible. The staff in ILI is indispensable and to attempt to say more would surely be inadequate, so I’ll rest at that. The ILI program allows us to sample classes from across the academy. We are stretching our learning across a very wide range of fields of study and everyone seems quite pleased.

Our journey would be incomplete without our fellow students. They motivate us with their inherent curiosity, enthusiasm and infectious optimism about their ability to contribute to the betterment of humanity. A student I met recently wasn’t content to plan for dentistry as a meaningful career. Rather, she wanted to improve the health outcomes of her future patients across a broad spectrum of concerns.

Any number of people have suggested that they are joining my ILI year vicariously. And while that may sound curious, I am happy to share my learning and experience with them. In many ways they are the best examples of “accompaniment.” As I understand Reifenberg’s work, when one accompanies another, one is challenged to respect the other — especially where there is an imbalance of gifts. So the international aid worker must understand and empathize with her clients long before she can presume to know how to “fix” their situation. Accompaniment is a way of “walking in another’s shoes.” That my friends want to do so gives me great pleasure and an opportunity to reflect, often in the moment, on my learnings. Our conversations offer the chance to synthesize reading, studies and experiences. I step outside myself as we discuss my most recent class discussion or case. Their interest validates what I am doing and provides a platform to explore the work more completely. We delve more deeply than I could do alone. And I am glad that they want to share my journey. Alas, I don’t think that they will be able to join us this spring when we venture abroad. That I will do with our Fellows and their wonderful spouses. The opportunity to travel together will forever forge our shared experience. We will be nearing the end of our formal learning together and will share the experience of an international trip full of wonder and all things new and fresh: ancient venues, classic architecture and grand food and wine. Love thee, Notre Dame.

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. Her columns appear every other Thursday. A longtime resident of Chicago, she can be reached at [email protected] or @MEWsmuses on Twitter.

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

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