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What to know before you enroll

| Friday, March 31, 2023

You’ve opened your decision letter, and you’ve been promised a new home under the Golden Dome. Many things you associate with the school — whether it’s Notre Dame, Saint Mary’s or Holy Cross — are broad identifiers: Catholic, Midwestern, great academics. Perhaps you’ve never had the chance to walk by Saint Mary’s Lake. Maybe you’ve never heard of Father Hesburgh or you don’t understand why sacking the quarterback is such a big deal. 

For some of you, these perceptions may extend beyond ambivalence. You may have some tentative worries about culture, academics, demographics or politics on the tri-campus. As the May 1 decision deadline looms, let The Observer be one of the many voices contributing to your discernment. 

Notre Dame has been referred to as Catholic Disneyland. There are chapels and a priest in each (single-sex) residence hall, crucifixes in classrooms and two theology requirements built into the core curriculum. However, for the most part, your college experience only has to be as Catholic as you want it to be. 

Around 80% of the student body at Notre Dame and 65.2% at Saint Mary’s identify as Catholic. This includes a wide spectrum of students, from those who practice religion rigorously, to those who may be atheist but still check the box on surveys and those who culturally identify with Catholicism. Theology classes can be an interesting way to learn about the Bible as a seminal text. But courses that explore Islam and other religions can also fulfill the requirement. 

At Saint Mary’s, this aspect of the core curriculum is framed as a “Religious Studies” requirement rather than a strictly Christianity-centered requirement. While Catholicism shapes the tradition of the University, there is no obligation to attend Mass, and there are plenty of other ways to find community on campus. For those who aren’t Catholic, Notre Dame does have prayer spaces and other resources. However, the burden of seeking out resources often falls on non-Catholic students themselves, and the University needs to continue their efforts of improving diversity and inclusion on campus. 

The Catholic nature of the University makes certain discussions — such as abortion and LGBTQ+ rights — unavoidable. Catholic belief on these topics is clear, and it guides University policy. In recent years, the tri-campus has seen these ideologies when the University allows certain clubs to invite speakers who actively oppose puberty blockers and hormone treatments for children while the University sometimes denies speakers from groups that support the LGBTQ+ community.

The University’s religious identity can also be seen in housing options. Though single-sex dorms can be enriching communities, they can be uncomfortable spaces for nonbinary or transgender students on campus. Notre Dame has shown increasing signs of inclusivity with new options like the Fischer Graduate Residences for those who do not want to live in the traditional single-sex dorms. Additionally, clubs have held prayer services for victims of anti-transgender violence.

Campus politics can also be influenced by the University’s Catholic beliefs, especially when it comes to abortion. The University has an official pro-life, anti-abortion stance and this impacts the healthcare services available to students. The health center does not provide birth control unless it is for a medical reason. The March for Life is promoted widely on campus. Pro-choice groups are not allowed to hold official club status in the tri-campus community, though unofficial groups like Irish 4 Reproductive Health and Smicks for Choice exist. Despite all of this, the tri-campus community is very divided. While many students are pro-life, there are also many that are pro-choice.  

In terms of demographics, 19% of Notre Dame’s class of 2026 are either first-generation college students or low-income, and 60% of the class are white students from the United States. At Saint Mary’s, 78% of the class of 2026 is white, and 26% are first-generation students. At times, students who do not fit into the majority find it hard to find community based on their backgrounds. There are resources for low-income students like the Office of Student Enrichment at Notre Dame and the Office of Student Equity at Saint Mary’s that award funding to students for things like football tickets, laptops and winter clothing that are essential to the campus experience. Obviously, there is no single way to exist as a minority student. But if you choose, there are student groups designed to support students who share a racial or socio-economic identity.

Beyond dedicated clubs, however, “community” is a term that is often bandied about when talking about tri-campus culture. It’s baked into every aspect of our schools and may even help you survive the harsh winters of South Bend, Indiana. On the first snowfall of the year, you’ll find yourself running to South Quad with your friends for a campus-wide snowball fight and watch students mock duel with lightsabers (even if you have to trudge to 8:30 a.m. class the next day). Even if you’ve never watched college football in your life and dislike sports, when you stand shoulder-to-shoulder with 80,000 fans in Notre Dame Stadium as America’s oldest university band plays, you may feel the exhilaration of being a part of something bigger. 

Even if it’s not through these trademark tri-campus experiences, community will tiptoe into your life. It’s just the way this place is set up. Maybe it’ll be through building a boat with friends in your dorm, having a discussion with a professor about a subject way beyond the scope of your class that changes your life path or even joining the tri-campus student newspaper. 

Maybe you have been preparing to attend Notre Dame, Saint Mary’s or Holy Cross for your entire life. Maybe you feel excited by the dialogue that the tri-campus community offers. Maybe you’ve already decided to join us under the Golden Dome or, with some reflection, you feel like you would thrive in another setting. 

Either way, knowledge is power, and as you make your decision, The Observer can be a great resource to learn more about campus. As an independent, student-run newspaper, we try to reflect the realities of campus and the lived experiences of students as best we can. Whether you decide to enroll at Notre Dame or not, we know you’ll be a force for good wherever you are.

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