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‘It’s kind of like freshman year 2.0, 40 years later’: Inspired Leadership Initiative fellows discern career, life transitions

| Monday, February 28, 2022

After a career in Catholic higher education, Margaret Higgins found herself in the peculiar position of being a former college administrator and high school president lost on the way to class during her first day of school.

As a member of the third cohort of Notre Dame’s Inspired Leadership Initiative (ILI), Higgins is one of 23 adults who have returned to college for one academic year at Notre Dame. Open to any individual who has completed a career of at least 20 years, on average, the program offers fellows an opportunity to step aside from their career to equip themselves for their next stage of life, founding director Tom Schreier said.

Fellows in the ILI are guided to discover opportunities that exist for them at their respective career point, discern one of those opportunities they wish to pursue and then design their next stage of life.

“It’s an ambitious objective for a year but it’s one that we think is really valuable and important for those people that participate,” Schreier said.

Courtesy of Matt Cashore/University of Notre Dame
The third ILI cohort has been on campus since August. At the end of the academic year, the cohort will travel to New Mexico for its capstone immersion.

During the academic year, the cohort takes a course together on “the human journey.” The human journey has three elements: great books, the heart’s desire and designing an inspired life. The course is designed to engage the fellows intellectually, discover their true inner passion and equip themselves so they can pursue that passion, Schreier said. 

“Our objective, though, is not to help people figure out exactly what they want to do. It’s to help people figure out who they want to be in this next stage in life,” he said. “And I think that’s a really important distinction. And that’s what we try to talk through in this core course is that if you know who you want to be, then you can figure out what you want to do.” 

After Schreier finished his own traditional career in 2015, he considered attending the Advanced Leadership Initiative at Harvard University or the Distinguished Careers Institute at Stanford University. 

While he was considering the two programs, he dropped off his youngest child at Notre Dame and had a conversation about his desire to return to school with some people at the University. During the conversation, they told him he should work to start a leadership program at Notre Dame for people after they have completed their careers — one that would be similar to that of Stanford and Harvard but reflect the culture of Notre Dame, Schreier said. Two years after the conversation, the ILI was up and running. 

Current fellow Tim McDermott, who graduated from Notre Dame in 1984 and has had a diverse career path with jobs in law and regulation, said the spirituality of the ILI distinguished the program from its counterparts at Stanford and Harvard for him.

 “The spirituality of Notre Dame is pretty infectious,” McDermott said. 

In addition to the core course the cohort takes together, fellows have the option of auditing up to three courses per semester. Because the ILI is not a degree program, fellows can audit courses in any field in which they are interested. Fellows also attend a weekly “Lunch and Learn,” where faculty from across the campus present and speak with them, and have a weekly dinner together as a cohort. Additionally, fellows can take part in organizations and activities on campus.

McDermott, who was a participant in Bengal Bouts — the men’s club boxing team — his senior year at Notre Dame, has worked out with the club during his year in the ILI.

The program is also open to the spouses of the fellows. Although they are not a part of the cohort, spouses can audit courses and participate in activities on campus. While McDermott joined the boxing team, his wife is singing in three different choirs.

“It’s really helpful to [take part in the ILI] with your spouse as part of the process because you’re really going to end up on the other side of that fence together, and so I think it’s a really good thing, and I think it’s one of the really under-appreciated aspects of the program at Notre Dame, that the spouses really can can be a big part of the program,” McDermott said.

At the end of the academic year, while students are taking finals, fellows take part in a capstone immersion. During the immersion, the cohort travels to another location — generally overseas — to create an experience with the help of the University’s resources that they could not create themselves, Schreier said.

This year’s capstone immersion was supposed to take place in Rome, but due to travel challenges caused by the pandemic the cohort is instead traveling to New Mexico. The first two capstone immersions took place in Rome and the Holy Land.

“The idea is to blend all three of the things we try to appeal to — mind, body and spirit — into this,” Schreier said of the immersion.

Both McDermott and Higgins said one of the biggest benefits of the program is it has allowed them to get out of their normal routines and put their home life “on pause,” as Higgins put it.

“That’s kind of the magic of the program is it gets you out of your routine and gives you time to think about maybe some bigger issues or different issues and think more deeply about stuff,” McDermott said.

Schreier said the most important thing the ILI looks for in applicants is an openness to campus life and engaging in the community as students, not experts. Schreier said he wants fellows who are looking to take classes in areas outside of their expertise.

“What we really look for is an openness to what we call ‘discerned transformation,’” Schreier said. “And by that we mean we want people that are going to take full advantage of what we have to offer.”

Higgins, who volunteers at St. Margaret’s House — a women’s shelter in South Bend — and is auditing courses in business and theology, said the ILI has given her time to stop and think.

“If you have any idea or any desire to learn anything,” Higgins said, “doors are open all over this campus.”

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About Ryan Peters

Ryan is a sophomore in Knott Hall from Lake Forest, Illinois. He is majoring in business analytics and minoring in constitutional studies. He currently serves as Notre Dame News Editor for The Observer. Follow him on Twitter @peterrsryan.

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