Love Thee, Notre Dame

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.

Administration Building aka “The Golden Dome”, Central Quad

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.

O’Shaughnessy Hall, South Quad

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.

Stairway to The Grotto and St. Mary’s Lake

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.

“In Celebration of Family”

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.

Education Opulence

At New York City’s exclusive Trinity School on the Upper West Side, kindergartners look forward to a year of “…building self-confidence, independence, and responsibility”, coupled with “forming friendships, dealing with a variety of social situations, and discovering the joy and excitement of learning…” Sounds like a solid choice for early schooling, until you consider the daunting application process and the need for financial aid. Your child’s chances of acceptance are only 1 in 5, and a year of Trinity grade-school will cost you $50,000.

Trinity isn’t in a class(room) of its own with its hefty private-school tuition.  At least forty-five other independents in Manhattan carry a similar price tag, according to a recent Wall Street Journal article.  Perhaps Trinity boasts of its 300-year history, evolving from noble roots “providing free education for the poor in the New Colony”.  Certainly, Trinity basks in its high enrollment of graduates into Ivy League-caliber universities.  But history and performance are not prerequisites for the high costs.  The Upper East Side’s Wetherby-Pembridge School opened just two weeks ago with no tangible credentials.  The cost of a year at W-P for a three-year old?  $45,500.

Remarkably, fifty grand in tuition doesn’t even cover the full cost of a year of education.  Many of NYC’s independent schools fund-raise and conduct aggressive capital campaigns.  Without state-of-the-art facilities and salaries befitting doctorate-level educators, private schools risk losing students to the more “affordable” options in town.

Elite K-12 academies also find themselves in a moral dilemma.  While their tuition costs rise faster than the rate of inflation (23% in just the last five years), their enrollment becomes inevitably less reflective of the society around them.  The Bank Street School for Children “views diversity as essential to its academic program”, but struggles to deliver on that value when virtually all its students come from the top 1% of incomes.  Even the rich are forced to compromise to keep up with tuition payments.  Many forego vacations, club memberships, and expensive hobbies for the sake of their child’s top-dollar education.

When our kids were born in the San Francisco Bay Area almost thirty years ago, my wife and I had differing opinions on the best options for K-12 education.  My wife graduated from a private Catholic high school in Chicago, while I graduated from public schools in Los Angeles.  We had good reason to consider either option with our own kids.  Our research included several independent schools, including the prestigious Menlo School in Atherton, and the (Catholic) Woodside Priory School in Portola Valley.  Even then private-school tuition was beyond our reach, not to mention the implied commitments (tithing, volunteering).  We moved to Colorado before we gave Bay Area schools a chance (and our kids graduated from Colorado’s public schools), but it’s safe to say they would’ve gone to public schools no matter where we lived.  Today, Menlo and Priory cost $45,000/year.

With another nod to Manhattan’s Upper East Side, our daughter recently talked us into watching the television series “Gossip Girl”, which ran from 2007-2012 on The CW network.  Gossip Girl explores the lives of New York’s upper-class adolescents, with most of the drama taking place in and around the “Constance Billard School for Girls” and “St. Jude’s School for Boys”.  Gossip Girl’s story lines are hit or miss, but the characters’ appetites for the uber-wealthy lifestyle are on full display.  Stretch limousines, lavish parties, jet-set European vacations, and top-dollar wardrobes would imply $50,000 for a year of K-12 tuition is a drop in the bucket.  Gossip Girl may be a fictional world, but opulent education is real, and a gold ring lying beyond most of our grasps.

Manhattan’s private-school world is a little too ostentatious for my tastes.  I received a perfectly good education in public schools, after all.  Trinity School’s website includes a welcome from the “Head of School” who proudly claims, “students and teachers work together to create a dazzlingly dynamic mosaic of human excellence”.  With that glittering generality, no wonder the five-figure price tag.

penchant

This week I attended a conference at my alma mater; the University of Notre Dame.  The days were busy with leadership sessions, guest speakers, and networking, but there was ample time to walk the campus and experience the sights of times gone by.  It is a place where pride, sentiment, and fondness combine to where I am unquestionably drawn to it. In a word, I have a penchant for Notre Dame.

ND Dome

What is immediately apparent about Notre Dame these days is its physical expansion.  The entire campus of my undergraduate experience – now thirty years ago – is surrounded by new buildings, longer quads, and grander athletic facilities.  As a whole it is breathtakingly impressive, even for those who have visited many times before.  But when I cross the proverbial threshold from the new to the old; from the present to the past, to arrive in the sub-campus of my day, there comes a sense of calm and familiarity that can only come from experiences that leave a permanent imprint.

ND Quad 1

My walking tour took me past my academic and social haunts.  I passed several buildings where I experienced the triumphs and tragedies of the classroom.  I passed several dorms – including my own – where the memories of friends and roommates and dates and parties came back to me as if yesterday.  It was easy to get wrapped up in the blanket of yesteryear.

Students were everywhere during my walk.  I was delighted to see some of the same habits and activities.  Frisbee on the quad.  Boyfriend/girlfriend walking hand-in-hand.  Dozens of undergraduates desperate for the spring sunshine relaxing in shorts and t-shirts.  In that moment I wanted to be one of them again.

I captured my walk with a lot of photos.  Every turn – whether for beauty or nostalgia – had me pausing and clicking.  It was as if I was trying to capture the essence of my past and trap it inside of my phone.  Which I realized, in hindsight, was simply not possible.

ND Crowley

Notre Dame has some very special places.  There are two lakes in the middle of campus with quiet walking paths around them.  There is the Grotto – perhaps the most special of those places – where one can light a candle and say a prayer in the shadow of Notre Dame’s cathedral: the Basilica of Sacred Heart.  And there are dozens of corners where you disappear behind a building or down a walkway, and suddenly realize you are alone in the peace and quiet of the moment.

ND Lake

I walked past one of the lakes for several minutes trying to recapture the moments and voices of my years.  I sat at the Grotto trying to summon the spirits of such a significant time in my life.  Even at the bookstore – where Notre Dame’s name or logo is imprinted on everything imaginable, I wandered the aisles in search of… in search of… I’m not sure what.  Did I really believe I could purchase my memories in a shirt?  Or a book?  Or a photo?

Thirty years can change a place forever.  New buildings, new students, and the personality of a new generation dissolve the images of what once was.  And so, as I completed my journey down memory lane, I realized that what I sought, I already had with me.  My years at Notre Dame; my experience that was like no other, rests proudly and permanently in my memories.  No photograph or keepsake or paragraph will ever do it justice.