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An old adage

| Thursday, November 4, 2021

When I initially pitched the idea of this column, a bi-weekly piece that would run in the Viewpoint section of The Observer, I proposed a “then and now” retrospective as an alum of a certain age. I promised that I would not be “that alum.” You know the person well: “In my time at Notre Dame, things were so much better. They were more rigorous. We worked harder.” One can almost envision a grandparent who walked five miles each way to school. And both treks were up-hill.

I promised, however, that I would focus a positive lens on my comparison.  And, so I propose to do that in today’s piece. We have all recently returned from fall break which marks the half-way point of the semester and the quarter mark for my ILI program. Just before break, the undergraduate students were engaged in mid-terms, papers and a variety of group endeavors. Spared some of those rigors, I nonetheless embarked on “my MBA class,” a course entitled “Judgement,” one often considered among the most rigorous in that program. As I reflected on my classroom experience to date, I revisited an old adage that says something like “Education is wasted on the youth.” (To digress a moment, apparently, Oscar Wilde actually said: “Youth is wasted on the young.”)

I am struck that today’s ND students give lie to that assertion. In my experience as an ILI Fellow, current ND students are engaged, thoughtful, curious and, in a measure beyond their peers, kind.

Nearly everything is different in the classroom now from my experience a million years ago. Let me count the ways: The ND undergraduate student body is comprised of young women and men in almost equal measure. My three non-ILI faculty are all women and each has mentioned her children in class. Racial representation is sadly stalled, likely at percentages not much better than my era, though ND is working on it. In no case are we lectured to for a full seventy-five minutes; in fact, discussion and debate are expected and often required. Gone are the days of reading five whole books per week (one for each course) replaced by online chapters and articles. Podcasts, videos and recordings supplement our study. In one course, panels of students debated the pros and cons of various policy questions. In another, both sides of strategic business decisions.

But I said that this would be about the students. Without being sentimental, my sense of the students is that they are well-prepared to study at the highest levels. They challenge themselves from day one through every day that they are under the Dome including generally at least one excursion abroad or, as I learned at Saturday’s tailgate, multiple trips. It seems that most students have multiple majors, engage in one or more sports and spend their breaks either in service or another immersive learning experience. All participate in the classroom, even the introverts among us for whom this may well be a challenge.

ND is a highly selective university, and so we expect students to be talented and prepared, but what stands out about the vast majority of the students I have met, both this year on campus and others I have known in other venues, is that they are truly motivated to bring their talents and skills to be a force for good in the world. I cannot think of one student that I know or have met who is selfish to a fault.

In return for a culture of scholarship, generosity and hard work, the ND family is rewarded with a lifetime of friendship, collaboration and, in my opinion, love.  A love that will transcend time and place, that will be a force for good and will sustain alums once they leave Our Lady’s gaze and care.

Am I being sentimental? Perhaps. Is there privilege here at ND? Undoubtedly, yes. Is there an equal measure of self-awareness that forms the basis of being a force for good; yes, it is there, and it seems to be hard at work on self-improvement. Is there room for improvement? No doubt. Would I want to study, learn and engage anywhere else? Absolutely not. 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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