I used to love “back-to-school” nights in my elementary school days. My brothers and I would lead my parents through the gates of our asphalt-paved campus on the west side of Los Angeles, eager to show off the classroom projects and displays we prepared for their annual visit. Mom & Dad would cram into our child-sized desks for talks from our teachers while we’d join friends for playground fun under the lights. Finally, we’d enjoy a KFC picnic dinner at the outdoor tables where we kids would have lunch during the day. Back-to-school night was equal parts adventure and pride, returning to campus at a time when we didn’t have to be students.
Such was the feeling this past weekend, visiting my alma mater in northern Indiana. Notre Dame, that most Catholic of universities located near the south bend of the St. Joseph River – founded by Fr. Edward Sorin and his band of Holy Cross brothers in the mid-1800’s – drew me away from more convenient West Coast options like UCLA or Stanford (neither of which accepted me… details). Who was I, a Methodist from California, to attend a smallish Catholic school over 2,000 miles from home? Notre Dame’s admissions counselor did a heckuva sales job. Rather than own up to the humid months of the first semester or the penetratingly-cold months of the second, he focused instead on the promise of an outstanding faith-based education, coupled with small-dorm camaraderie, nationally competitive sports teams, and Midwestern hospitality. When I graduated in 1985, it’s fair to say Notre Dame delivered on all of those.
Thirty years later – this past weekend – I set foot on campus again, adding to only a handful of visits since my long-ago commencement. I won’t lie – returning to my college roots was a little daunting. The Notre Dame of my years was by all definitions smaller, more modest, and less prestigious than the globally-renowned multi-campus university of today. My Notre Dame was an intimate cluster of buildings surrounding just three quads, one end of campus seemingly a stone’s throw from the other. The student union was as small as a cracker box. Two dining halls offered the modest sort of food – cafeteria style – I recognized from elementary school. Diplomas were issued in just twenty fields of study. Four percent of the student body claimed a faith other than Catholic. The clear majority of students came from Midwestern states, and only a handful chose to study abroad.
Thirty years later, my Notre Dame of yesteryear has been consumed by a property twice the size. New quads and facilities cover the open fields that once hosted tailgaters before football games. Another one hundred buildings have been added to the eighty or so of my day. The new student union – opening just weeks ago – is the length of a football field (and in fact, co-located with the football stadium). Today’s undergraduates choose from countless degree programs, with another fifty masters, doctoral, and professional programs to follow. Add to the options, fifty foreign study-abroad opportunities in forty countries.
“Only” 80% of students are Catholic now (diverse by Notre Dame’s standards), and – speaking of diverse – almost 20% of the student body comes from outside the U.S. Visiting one of the dining halls for lunch, it wasn’t the broad choice of foods (organic, ethnic, made-to-order) that impressed me, but rather the students themselves. I witnessed a pretty good slice of the global pie at the tables around me.
Notre Dame’s mission statement includes the following: “In all dimensions of the University, Notre Dame pursues its objectives through the formation of a human community graced by the Spirit of Christ.” Clearly that objective is reflected in the Notre Dame of today. A school once known for little more than football is now an academic behemoth, built on an unwavering foundation of faith and service to God and fellow man.
Notre Dame’s alma mater concludes with the following sentence: “…and our hearts forever, love thee Notre Dame.” There may be a lot of “new” on campus today, but I still find the pathways of “my” years. The Golden Dome, the Basilica of the Sacred Heart, and the Grotto will always form the heart of campus. I maintain ties with only a handful of those who were in school with me, but we’ll always be proud members of the Fighting Irish family. And every time I set foot on campus, I never fail to sense the memories of old, the encouragement of new, and the presence of the Spirit. Indeed, Notre Dame is in my heart forever.