The materials were in our mailbox when we returned home from our last official family spring-break vacation. Our oldest child will be entering college this fall, and none of his final college choices have the same spring break as his three younger sisters. Trust me, I have already checked this out. The materials read in big bold letters “Welcome Home to Notre Dame.”
Welcome Home to Notre Dame. Now, at age 44, it had been 22 years since I had been “home.” I graduated from Notre Dame twice, once in 1983 and again a year later, an MBA, in 1984. I loved it there. Loved it. It really was a home away from home for me. A place where I fit in and I belonged. But since 1984 I had never come “home.” I am not sure why. Maybe it had something to do with a busy career, marriage, giving birth to four kids and living 3,000 miles away from my parents and siblings. Most of the time our travel involved visits with the kids to see my family. Or maybe it was the fact that my husband, who I met as a grad student at Notre Dame at one of the three jobs he held while a full-time student, did not share the same fond memories of time spent under the Golden Dome. Coming back was never on the top of his must-do list.
But here we were—with the Welcome Home papers spread out on our kitchen table. It was April 4th. Our oldest son had been accepted to our alma mater. The same alma mater that we had never visited, never took our beloved firstborn to see and experience. By May 1st he had to decide where he belonged, where he found the best fit to spend the next four years of his life. Arguably, four of the most memorable, maturing and life-changing years a person experiences.
Of the 11 colleges our son applied to, he’d been accepted to seven. He was never one of those kids who yearned to go to a specific place. He was open. Over the course of the next few days several were ruled out—too far, too urban, too small, not prestigious enough. Seven then was narrowed to three, and we decided to visit them all in whirlwind time to give him the best possible take to base his decision. One college paid for his trip, the other was a quick two-hour flight from our home in Portland, Oregon, and the third, Notre Dame, was actually made possible through frequent-flyer miles. As crazy as this sounds, we read in the Wall Street Journal that thousands of parents and college-bound children were engaged in the same cross-country trek this April. We joined them.
Ross and I arrived on campus on a Friday afternoon. A huge line of cars was entering campus, so we asked what was going on. The reply was that they were releasing the “new shirt.” Okay. Notre Dame does love its football, and we gathered that the new shirt was cause for celebration. Students and fans were out in full force to purchase the 2006 football T-shirt. After 22 years, it was obvious to me that Notre Dame is still corny, lovably and traditionally so, but corny nonetheless. Caught up in the new shirt frenzy, we bought five.
I’d heard that there were so many new buildings that I wouldn’t recognize the place. With so many new academic buildings and dormitories, it truly it is hard to situate yourself. But once you are at the Rock headed toward the Golden Dome, all seems right. The Huddle is no longer a place that merely offers coffee, sandwiches and ice cream cones, but The Grotto, Sacred Heart, the Library and the old dining halls seem relatively unchanged. The new buildings fit right in and are fabulous additions to what has always been a beautiful campus. After going to the campus Starbucks, I sat on a bench outside of LaFortune. On the bench was this inscription:
JOHN HUETHER—CHARLES HUETHER
Their dream and sacrifice in 1917 introduced our family to Notre
Dame’s life transforming imprint. Those they enrolled and the
generations who followed celebrate their memory and vision.
I’m not going to lie. Sitting there in the spring sunshine with my latte and the church bells ringing, I cried. I have no idea who the Huethers were, but I do know that my experience at Notre Dame was transforming. I arrived an insecure girl, and four years later left as a confident young woman. My experience at Notre Dame is what I hope for all college-bound young people. Of course I got my degrees and acquired the knowledge that came from my coursework. But, more important, it was here that I developed independence, the ability to question my thoughts and the thoughts of others. It was at Notre Dame that I developed lifelong friendships, and it is where I met my husband.
While I rest at the Morris Inn, my son is at a party somewhere on campus. Later tonight he’ll sleep in a sleeping bag on a high school friend’s floor in Dillon. His college experience is just about to unfold. He has just a week to decide where he sees himself spending the next four years. Part of me really and truly hopes he’s “at home” here at Notre Dame. But I know my college days are long over and his are just beginning. Wherever he chooses, I know it will be right for him, just as Notre Dame was right for me. Whoever said you can’t come home again didn’t go to Notre Dame.
Laurie Cuffe Kelley may be contacted via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.