Making Their Way

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Author: Lisa Moore '77

Alumnae; alumni: Even the words are different—to sticklers. Since 1972, when the first women undergraduates enrolled at Notre Dame, the numbers of alumnae have steadily grown. For the 2007-08 school year, Notre Dame’s student body was 44 percent female. Today, about 28 percent of all alumni are women.

The pioneers had to be tough and self-sufficient. In the words of Helen Wathen, class of 1979, “We learned to create our own way.” Through the decades since, gender roles throughout the culture have shifted, their boundaries have become less defined and women have more choices. Here are the paths eight Notre Dame women are walking.

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Helen Wathen ’79 (business management)
“Be tenacious and chip away.”

When Helen Wathen left Notre Dame, she says she was “ready to break through and looking for ways to do it.” The former Kentucky resident soon moved to Texas and found herself in pioneer mode again. Wathen was the first woman hired by Merrill Lynch in Dallas to be a stockbroker.

Wathen says she built relationships with investors by “listening . . . to gain an understanding of what is important to them and then helping them plan how to get where they want to go.” In 1986, she became a certified financial planner—and gave birth to her first child.

“A Merrill Lynch broker in Dallas had never taken a maternity leave before,” she says of her seven-week break. That same year, she began cultivating what she calls “centers of influence,” a marketing strategy that involves partnering with other professional advisors. Wathen left for more than a year to join a small financial advisory firm but returned to Merrill Lynch in 1988, pregnant with her second son. “My time away from Merrill Lynch provided an invaluable opportunity for growth,” she says, “and they were very happy to have me back.” This time around, she took an eight-week leave.

Wathen divorced in 1990. “We were on different paths and it wasn’t fair to either of us to stay together,” she says. “Although it was difficult, we both know now it was right.”

Two years later, Wathen met and eventually married Micky Holmes, a “funny, salt of the earth” engineer whom she met country dancing (“my exercise and my relief”). Their partnership would support her through the monumental step to come: Wathen participated in a class action suit against Merrill Lynch.

In the suit, more than 900 female brokers challenged policies around wages, promotions, maternity leave and the allocation of various accounts, which they claimed went disproportionately to men. This suit, and others like it in the late 1990s, got the attention of Wall Street and forced change.

The critical mass created by the women on Wall Street has laid the groundwork for fair and transparent allocation of resources, and, Wathen says, “my business continues to grow to new levels.” Today, the 50-year-old is one of the top wealth managers in Dallas and a member of the firm’s Diversity Advisory Council to Management.

Wathen criticizes Saint Augustine as the Church’s influence in the Middle Ages who “clamped down tight on women and portrayed them as the origin of sin,” and says she has overcome the repressive nature of the Catholic Church of her childhood. You can hear the smile in her drawl when she credits her professional challenges as impetus for her personal spiritual transformation: “Merrill Lynch has been a wonderful teaching angel for me. We’ve been good for each other.”

Her mission now is to empower women about money. “Ninety percent of women will be in charge of their own financial independence at some point in their lives, and their investment needs are different than those of men. They want to be educated, not sold to.” She teaches classes about financial responsibility and accompanies women to file taxes, buy cars and apply for mortgages. She hopes to see more websites, blogs and books that promote financial health for women in transitions: divorce, widowhood, retirement, blended families, or caring for aging parents. For her, financial freedom is the new threshold: “Honey, the power of the purse is very persuasive.”

After years of being a “trudging soldier,” Wathen says she is lightening up. She and Holmes recently bought a lake house where they can relax with their four adult children. “We’ve paid our dues as parents and are enjoying the payoff now.”

Off to a slumber party with high school buddies from Kentucky, Wathen says, “What am I going to do with the second half of my life? Continue to pursue what I love and play as much as possible!”

The comparisons between Merrill Lynch in the 1990s and Notre Dame in the ’70s are obvious. Wathen credits the courage of both patriarchies to break through the gender barriers. Now, she says with pride, “Merrill Lynch is the best place for women on Wall Street: way ahead on the gender equality curve. This is because women stood up for themselves and worked hard to make change happen.”

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Liz Boo ’81 (government)
“Women live in so many worlds. The challenge is to integrate and not compartmentalize.”

In their Saint Paul, Minnesota, home, Liz Boo’s family hosted several foreign exchange students. At age 13, Boo went to Mexico for a summer to stay with one of the student’s families. “I was shy in grade school, and this certainly made me more independent,” she says. “Now, I’m amazed that my parents let me do this.”

She carried her love of languages, cultural histories and all things international to Notre Dame and spent her sophomore year in France. From the University she learned a lesson: “We all have a role in this world.”

As many of her friends pursued high-powered jobs, Boo heeded the University’s “go and serve” message by volunteering at an orphanage in Guadalajara, Mexico. She then earned a master’s degree in international affairs at George Washington University. “Washington, D.C., was the perfect city for me at that time; I needed to get bigger after being in smaller places.”

In 1986, Boo accepted a job at the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) as project manager in the Latin American program. “The concept of ecotourism was just beginning to gel,” she says. “Conservationists were seeing that managing natural resources was more than just managing wildlife and parks—it also meant finding sources of living for native people.”

In her work, Boo traveled to Mexico, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Panama and Jamaica as well as to Tanzania, Kenya and Rwanda to apply that new idea to WWF programs. She became director of the Ecotourism Program in Latin America as the idea went from concept to “boom.” Because of the fast-growing popularity of the concept, a “quiet study” she was writing for USAID about ecotourism instead was published in 1990 as a book by WWF. Ecotourism: Potentials and Pitfalls went through three printings, one in Spanish.

Also while in D.C., Boo met her husband, Joe Neuberger, a Minnesotan like her. “The third time I invited him to a dinner party, he finally showed.” They married in 1989; Michael was born in 1991 and Sarah in 1994.

They moved back to Minnesota in 1995 to be near their families; Boo has four sisters who all live nearby. In 1996, along came third child, John Henry. “I was at a point where I could do what I do as a consultant,” Boo says. "I wanted to be home-based for awhile. " Plus, an idea was brewing: an eco-adventure novel for young readers about two siblings from Minnesota who go to Costa Rica.

“Looking back, I see how my professional and family experiences have alternated between expanding and contracting. Just out of school, I greatly expanded my global perspective. When children arrived, my professional world shrank and my family and community life ballooned.”

Writing the book, she says, “brings me back to the international world I love, while letting me have a big presence at home.”

Boo, 48, credits Notre Dame for its support of both an international career and her choice to work from home. “Notre Dame gave me the confidence and the peace of mind to stay home,” she says. “I can do it because I have this amazing thing in my pocket—this education.”

She also describes a strong, “nearly familial” kinship with other Notre Dame graduates. And she retains the University’s mandate for social action.

“We have a responsibility to do something because of being at Notre Dame. I think: They gave me a spot in that freshman class, so I better do something with it. Today, I have the perspective and I know what an exceptional place it is. Having gone there still motivates me after all these years.”

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Molly Ryan Callahan ’83 (chemical engineering)
“My education gave me the ability to stand on my own two feet.”

Like many ND women, Molly Callahan followed family footsteps to South Bend. “We have a photograph of my grandfather on the 1927 varsity football team with Knute Rockne. My father went there, too, and my mom went to Saint Mary’s. My aunt graduated in ’73, one of the first women to earn a Notre Dame degree, and later, my sister in ’98.”

Even though Callahan was the valedictorian of her high school class in Columbus, Ohio, she was shocked by the challenge of Notre Dame academics. “I got kicked in the teeth by chemical engineering,” she says. “I thought about changing majors when I realized how hard it would be. I could have gotten better grades in another discipline, but I decided to stick with it.” That decision, she says now, was one of her best.

Callahan married two weeks after graduation at Sacred Heart Church. Her husband, a finance major, soon became a self-made millionaire. The couple followed his career to Europe, where Callahan earned a master’s degree in biochemistry from King’s College London, and then moved to New York City, where they lived high-speed lives.

Things changed when the couple moved to a wealthy Chicago suburb in 1990. “We went from the Manhattan penthouse to the 100-year-old fixer-upper overlooking Lake Michigan,” she says. Daughter Kelsey was born that year; Shannon Maureen in 1992; Connor in 1993. “I went from the business suit and briefcase to the double stroller and backpack.”

When her youngest went off to kindergarten, Callahan says, she caught her breath and looked at her life. “A close friend died on Mother’s Day of breast cancer, and it prompted me to admit ours had become a loveless marriage. I did not want my children to see this as a model, and so I left.” In what she calls a “horrible” process that lasted nearly a decade, Callahan lost custody of her two younger children, had joint custody of the oldest and fought a deep clinical depression.

During this time, Callahan attended just about every institution of higher learning in Chicago. “I had always kept up with my education, even when my kids were little,” she says, “and computers became my hobby and my passion.”

She finished another master’s in biotechnology at Northwestern. “My education, beginning with my Notre Dame degree, was my saving factor. Without it, I never could have walked away.”

Today, Callahan, 47, works as a product development chemist for Stepan Company (yes, the Notre Dame family). Callahan says her strength is in lab work: new formulations and method development. “My job is the best mix of creativity and high technology—and I love it.”

Her silver lining, she says, is that her children appreciate and respect her more for having seen her walk this path. Her oldest lives with her now—by choice—and Callahan is proud of the way they have grown.

Another success is overcoming her depression. That was, she says, “victorious for me and for my kids to see.” This year, she plans to attend the ND reunion, a special year that marks her 25th, her father’s 50th, and her sister’s 10th.

She describes her apartment as “shabby chic.” No two touching walls are painted the same color, and they hold portraits of Einstein, John Lennon and Marty Feldman. “I’m so surprised that I’m happy being alone. I’m from a big Catholic family, lived in a quad at ND and had three kids close together. I didn’t have to focus on myself and things I needed to work on. When I first got this job and my apartment, I learned, finally, that’s it’s okay to be without a man. I’m finally allowing myself to be happy and independent.”

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Julia Merkel ’88 (fine arts)
“Besides Mike as my bedrock, the circles of women in my life sustain me. Humor helps too—but there are days that are so hard.”

Julia Merkel knew she was an artist when she was 3. She remembers passing a painting of a dragon back and forth with her grandmother, each adding new details of power and color, and knowing it would be her life’s work.

While at Notre Dame, Merkel says, she loved working three-dimensionally and was influenced by such teachers as Fathers Austin Collins, CSC, and Jim Flanagan, CSC. “I was encouraged to work big. One project was a 7-foot stylized abstract of the risen Christ dubbed ‘Rocket Man.’”

By senior year, Merkel started planning to study painting in graduate school. “I like to think that I found a voice with painting,” she says. Today, at 42, she paints almost entirely with palette knives, carving through layers of paint instead of wood or stone.

After graduation, Merkel lived in a L’Arche community in Spokane, Washington, where she ran a craft workshop for developmentally disabled adults. She returned to her home state of Virginia to earn a master’s of fine arts in painting from James Madison University (JMU). Her thesis focused on cattle as a metaphor for the human condition. “They are wonderful subjects with absolute mass and pendulous flesh. In the field, they will look up as if to ask a question or seem so desperate or even complacent in a truck crammed on the way to the stockyards—so very different from their pastoral beginnings.”

For a while, she taught as an adjunct professor at JMU and at Virginia Military Institute while living in a log cabin with her dog, Jacob. She credits Jacob with helping choose her husband, Mike Williams, an electrician who played fiddle in a contra dance band. The couple, who were married in 1997, live in a passive solar home.

“I was poised to start a national job search and land a faculty position, but my heart wasn’t in it,” she says. “I fell in love with a local guy and fell in love with this area, an extremely beautiful agricultural community nestled between two mountain ranges, so rich in history.” In addition to teaching, Merkel became a curator for the Madison Art Collection in 1994.

In 2002, she took a full-time position running the preservation unit of the JMU Libraries. Today, this work conserving books and manuscripts is her quiet haven, a break from her high-pressure family dynamics.

Son Jack was born in 1999 and Nathalie in 2001. “For the first few years, we were in denial,” Merkel says. “We told ourselves that Jack was just a bouncy baby boy, very stubborn and strong.” When Jack was 2, he said, “Mommy, can I have wings? I want to fly like a bird.” At 3, he was pitching a ball or a block so hard and fast that his parents had visions of the major leagues. But by 4, Jack had been asked to leave several preschools because of violent meltdowns.

At 5, Merkel says, Jack told his kindergarten teacher he wanted to kill himself to be with his dog, Jacob, in heaven. As he began first grade, doctors diagnosed him with Autism Spectrum Disorder, more specifically, Asperger Syndrome.

“Having the diagnosis is a mixed blessing,” Merkel says. “We no longer think of ourselves as bad parents. Now we are simply parents who are trying to find the right mix of medications and therapy and IEP [individualized education program] goals.”

Merkel sounds frustrated. “We’ve had to drive an hour and a half to see a psychiatrist and over two hours to a hospital with a pediatric psychiatric unit,” she says. Still, bright spots exist. “I’m amazed at what we’ve been able to find from word of mouth. We’re currently in an Asperger support group in which siblings and parents are also supported.”

Recently an EEG showed seizure activity in Jack’s brain, a fact that opens other treatment options. “It’s a roller coaster trying to get everyone on the same page—schools, therapists, doctors—and all the driving in between,” Merkel says.

The school calls when Jack melts down, often in reaction to surprises such as a substitute teacher or loud noise, and Merkel wonders if a smaller private-school setting might better serve his needs. “Did I mention that the police have been called to school? Now, there is humility.”

Merkel returned to Notre Dame for her five-year reunion, and every few years the Alvin Social Club convenes. “Alison Macor had Alvin [the Chipmunk] slippers our freshman year, and the name just stuck.” The six Badin women have met at beach houses in Florida and North Carolina and celebrated a 35th birthday in Chicago. “Years pass, and we pick up exactly where we left off, even though our paths have been so varied.”

Amid it all, Merkel plays old-time fiddle music, canoes, enjoys a weekly mother-daughter night and, when she can, runs 5Ks. She hasn’t had any solo shows in the last few years.

“Right now, it’s just not a priority. I need sleep.” Her most recent canvases are colorful explorations of mares and foals. The animals graze together, painted “in relation to each other so it’s difficult to discern where one begins and the other ends.”

Dawn Overstreet ’93 (business management)
“Attending Notre Dame is the single most influential decision of my life.”

You could say that Dawn Overstreet never really left Notre Dame. She did, of course, for many years. But she found herself drawn back—twice.

Overstreet began her college years at the University of Idaho, five minutes from home. After two years, she knew it was time for her to fly, and Notre Dame—some 2,000 miles east—was the only school to which she applied. “I went from a university where most students were from Idaho to a place where my best friend was a native of El Salvador,” she says.

A resident assistant during her senior year, she cites her friendship with Maria Fleming, her assistant rector, as particularly influential. “Maria clearly defined herself as a feminist,” Overstreet says. Their late nights talks about theology, social justice and community were formative to her faith, she says, and influenced her decision to apply for post-graduate service programs. “I transferred to Notre Dame as a business major, but along the way I discovered a love of theology and a vocation in Catholic higher education.”

Out of the Notre Dame gate, Overstreet’s service project work sent her to a Jesuit parish in Seattle. She helped organize and run parish events, children’s liturgies, young adult activities and social justice efforts. That work prompted her to apply to a Jesuit university for graduate studies. At Boston College, she completed her master’s in higher education administration in 1996—and fell in love with Boston. She returned to Notre Dame as an academic advisor in the First Year of Studies, but soon returned to Boston College to work full time and complete her doctorate. In 2006, she defended her dissertation, “Spiritual vs. Religious: A Study of Undergraduate Catholics’ Beliefs and Practices.”

Last July it was back to Notre Dame, which had offered her a post-doctoral fellowship.

“Here at Notre Dame, I do a combination of teaching, writing, special initiatives and advising.” Among her many duties, the 37-year-old teaches a first-year seminar on the history of liberal education and coordinates Lectio Live, a program that brings students and faculty for open readings in a coffee house atmosphere.

She’s also editing her dissertation, which will be published by Notre Dame’s ACE (Alliance for Catholic Education) Press. Her initiative, “Telling HERstory,” features a series of lectures by women in leadership positions across campus.

Overstreet chuckles about her returns to Notre Dame. “I remember driving away after graduation, looking back at the Golden Dome and crying my eyes out because I didn’t want to leave. Little did I know that I’d be back. It’s been very rewarding to see it from the other side and to be able to contribute to the mission of the University.”

Education, Overstreet believes, draws us closer to God. “The more we know about what it means to be human, the more we know about Christ, and, therefore, the more we come to know God,” she says. “I often wake up in the middle of night grinding my teeth over the big questions. What kind of human being do I want to be? What do I want the future to look like for me? For others? For the Earth? How am I complicit in patterns of injustice? . . . How has what I once believed changed?”

She is not all intellect. Overstreet is also an avid athlete who enjoys anything that gets her blood pumping and allows laughter and conversation. “I’ve run the Boston Marathon five times, but I’ve had to switch to activities a little less hard on my joints, things like cycling and yoga,” she says.

After living a fast-paced, high-tech life in Boston, Overstreet has developed an appreciation for silence. “When I moved to South Bend last July, I decided not to hook up a TV or Internet at home, so I could create a place with less noise and distraction. I’ve found that the silence heightens my senses to what’s going on inside of me.”

She would, however, welcome a couple of distractions to her life. “I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that I dream about meeting the love of my life and having children. Oh, and if the love of my life can change a bike tire, that would be a bonus.”

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Bridgette Carr ’98 (psychology)
“I came to Notre Dame thinking I could change the world; I left knowing I could.”

Indiana native Bridgette Carr, 31, was the first in her family to graduate from college—and when she did, she wasn’t quite sure what was next. She knew she wanted to help people, so she began by completing a year of service with AmeriCorps and then entered Indiana University School of Medicine.

“I was doing rounds with doctors one Friday,” she says, “when we entered the room of a woman who didn’t speak any English. My first thought was, ‘Oh no, this is going to take forever. Hurry up! Hurry up! I have so much to do!’ Driving home afterwards, I thought, ‘If this is who I’ve become after only a few weeks, who will I become in six years?’” This question, and the self-awareness behind it, led to a marathon phone call with a close friend.

Soon, Carr broke the news to her parents that she’d decided to leave medical school. She was afraid they’d be disappointed.

“Instead, they were completely supportive,” she recalls with gratitude. She then returned to work for AmeriCorps and “fell in love with working with immigrants.”

After completing a second round of service, she chose to go to the University of Michigan Law School because of its acclaimed Refugee and Asylum Law program. While in law school, Carr volunteered at the Freedom House in Detroit, a shelter for refugees, where she currently serves on the board of directors. After graduation in 2002, she spent a year at an Ann Arbor firm, but something was missing.

Ave Maria Law School in Ann Arbor was starting a clinical program to provide free legal services to poor clients. It was a perfect opportunity. In 2004, Carr was hired to run the Ave Maria Asylum and Immigrant Rights Clinic. Under her supervision, students represented asylum seekers, battered immigrants and victims of human trafficking.

Among Carr’s human trafficking clients were several women who came from the Ukraine to study English abroad. They were told that they would work as waitresses in Virginia Beach, but they were met at the airport, driven to Detroit and forced to work 12-hour shifts in strip clubs. Between shifts, they were locked in apartments and threatened with violence if they did not cooperate.

Carr appeared with “Katya,” one such victim, on the MSNBC documentary “Sex Slaves in America.” As part of the interview, Carr stated, “I know of women who have been bought for $300, $400, $500. Once I started looking into the issue and realizing that I wanted to be an advocate for victims of human trafficking, it seemed like I couldn’t turn around without trafficking hitting me in the face.”

Carr resists using the word “prostitute” because she believes that word connotes choice, and these women have no choices. In fact, she says, a shift in language is key to progress.

“As soon as we talk about us and them or legals and illegals, the dialogue is implicitly nonproductive. Our language needs to center around concepts of humanity and dignity as self-definition for all people.”

In 2007, Carr accepted a position as an associate clinical professor of law at the Notre Dame Legal Aid Clinic, where she continued her work on asylum and human trafficking as part of the Immigrant Rights Project. Recently, however, she resigned to take a visiting professor position in Michigan to be with her husband.

Her voice still shakes with the difficulty of that decision. “This year was a reminder about the need to have a balance between family and work even when your work is justice based.”

She describes her husband’s acknowledgment in his dissertation that credits the “awesome ride” they’ve taken together and laughs when she says, “I’m jumping, but I’m not jumping alone.”

But her work will continue. Conscientious lawyers can win battles for human rights, justice and fairness, the attorney says, and she puts this faith into daily practice.

In fact, she may well be positioned to make an even greater difference in the lives of many noncitizens. Carr was recently awarded a Marshall Memorial Fellowship, so she will spend four weeks in Europe to foster trans-Atlantic cooperation on forced migration.

In April, she served as a featured speaker in a human trafficking symposium at the University of Denver.

“We laugh that when someone Googles ‘sex slave,’ my name pops up,” she says of her family, “and for my work on that issue, they are proud as can be.”

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Joanna Angelides ’02J.D. (law)
“I knew I wasn’t going the traditional lawyer route, that mine was a different path.”

Born in Greece, Joanna Angelides moved around a lot, but grew up mostly in Utah. In 1995, she earned a degree in government and history from Georgetown. She spent a year on a sugar plantation in Brazil, teaching English to the children of a professor’s friend and learning Portuguese by immersion. That experience foreshadowed a life of international travel and analysis.

After college, Angelides went to Boston and worked as an editorial staff assistant at The Christian Science Monitor and helped run conferences and forums at the David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies at Harvard. She chose law school as her next step, envisioning work in which justice, law and government would overlap.

Angelides narrowed her choices to Boston College and Notre Dame, and her choice became clear at a welcome reception for accepted BC applicants. The new law school dean, John Garvey, asked her what she cared about most. When she replied “international law,” he advised her to attend Notre Dame, where he had been a law professor. Notre Dame had been doing it longer and was “less locally affiliated,” Angelides recalls him saying.

She took his generous advice. She had never been to Indiana, but when she saw all the “healthy looking people” and heard the marching band playing the fight song, she says, she felt good about her choice. Her father, also a lawyer, “loves the whole football thing.”

Her second year involved more travel, this time studying international law in the London program. Angelides recalls winning “Best Brief” in the International Moot Court, the first time Domers had participated in this event. She returned to Indiana for her third year in 2001.

“I was there when 9/11 happened, and the undergraduate government department responded quickly. They organized a survey course for hundreds of students called ‘Terrorism, War, and Peace after September 11.’ They solicited graduate student TAs, and I was hired. It was a super cool experience . . . and I learned that this was the direction I wanted to go.”

Angelides took the bar in New York and worked as a staff attorney for six months, but she was restless. At Notre Dame, she had talked to a representative of the Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS) and took an entrance exam. “They have agents and analysts. Agents are like police officers; their work is focused and specific. Analysts provide broad assessments of possible threats.” The Navy called her in the spring of 2003; she interviewed, was hired, and moved to Washington, D.C., as an NCIS analyst.

The office that hired Angelides was created by the Navy after the USS Cole bombing in 2000. Its mission is to “prevent terrorism, protect secrets and reduce crime.” She works in the Multiple Threat Alert Center (MTAC), the indications and warning/analysis shop. Agents work in ports to understand local customs, terrorist activity and security.

Analysts such as Angelides synthesize information and assess danger before ships go into ports. “My job extends from broad political concerns to very specific advice, such as ’Don’t go onto this street or into this bar.’”

Where she goes and what she does constitute a real-life action drama (yes, the kind that inspires the CBS show NCIS). Angelides has met ships in Greece and Croatia and was once on a two-week deployment from Italy to Spain to Senegal.

“The most thrilling thing I’ve done is landing on the aircraft carrier Enterprise. In Norfolk, we got into one of those teeny propeller planes, in life jackets and helmets, all strapped in. You ride backwards, and there are no windows, so you have no sense of where you are going. We missed the landing twice. When you land, they open the back of the plane and there you are—out on the ocean, just like in Top Gun. We briefed the admiral and the commander and left the next day.”

Angelides, 35, muses about her future, admitting to some wanderlust, vaguely citing “interesting issues afoot.” She cares deeply about how this war on terrorism fits into international law yet is unsure where this will take her. For now, she enjoys living in D.C.’s Adams Morgan neighborhood, with its many ethnic restaurants, but admits that D.C. is a transient and narrowly focused city.

For fun, Angelides travels. She and a couple of law school buddies venture “a little off the beaten path” to such places as Iceland, Morocco and Portugal on shoestring budgets. And what about the big questions, the ones about happiness and fulfillment?

“I’m Greek, and to say ‘I am fulfilled’ might invite the evil eye. Besides, even if it were true, to say I am fulfilled despite the troubles of others and the troubles of the world—I’m not an island unto myself enough to make the claim.”

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Michele Sexton Dorvil ’02MNA (nonprofit administration)
“I could never do my job unless I had been to Haiti.”

By 24, Michele Sexton Dorvil was married, had three children and worked part time in a South Bend hospital—all while earning an undergraduate degree at Indiana University. In 1996, she took a job in the executive education office at Notre Dame, moved to the MBA office a year later, and soon became director of MBA Student Services.

After a divorce in 1999, Dorvil applied to Notre Dame to earn a master’s of nonprofit administration. “I saw great people doing impactful things,” the 42-year-old says, “and I wanted to be part of it.”

When Dorvil met Father Tom Streit, CSC, ‘80, ’85M.Div., research assistant professor of biology and founder of Notre Dame’s Haiti Program, her thirst for Haiti began. “I must have had seven interviews, even though the ‘sane me’ was saying ‘this is nuts,’” she says with a laugh. She learned French in six months, kissed three teenagers goodbye as their father took over their care and headed for Haiti in June 2002.

Dorvil recalls her first hot, crowded, three-hour drive from Port-au-Prince to the hospital in Léogâne. “The country was absolute chaos. The car is crawling along on a dirt road. Vendors line either side, along with mountains of trash.”

When she finally arrived at the hospital, which is gated, she felt safer. Then, “At 2 in the morning, I bolt awake to gunshots and screaming. I pack my bag and sit on my bed until the sun comes up. The next morning, I learn that Haitians love Brazilian soccer, and they were playing in the World Cup that night.”

Dorvil’s job was reporting back to the Gates Foundation, which dispensed millions of doses of parasite-killing drugs to prevent lymphatic filariasis, a crippling disease that affects tens of thousands of Haitians. She lived in a guesthouse built for the project and worked closely with a young man named Jean Joseph Dorvil, also a student in the Notre Dame MNA program, who became her mentor for understanding the culture. “He was the Haitian half of me,” she says.

In a year and a half, Dorvil traveled to Haiti 13 times and saw violence move from the capital city outward. “The smell of burning tires lingered everywhere. Sometimes we couldn’t go to Port-au-Prince because of a barricade across the road. Other times, we had to stay there rather than leave. If I wasn’t back in Léogâne by dark, my boss would be livid, calling drivers, worried about me.”

In December 2003 she traveled to Haiti for Joseph’s wedding. She suspected it might be her last visit. The violence grew worse by the month. Anti-Aristide protests led to violent clashes, and headlines read, “Haiti is burning.”

In contrast, Dorvil experienced a year of success back home. She accepted a position at the University of Illinois (UIC) at Chicago and was promoted to associate director of finance and operations in April 2004. That same year she married Joseph’s brother, Jean Serge Dorvil, who was in the states on a finance visa.

On December 11, 2004, Jean Joseph Dorvil, Michele’s mentor and now her brother-in-law, was murdered by an armed gang in Port-au-Prince.

Michele and Jean Serge returned to Haiti on December 13. They comforted Joseph’s wife and tried in vain to retrieve Joseph’s body. Since then, the Gates Foundation has established a fund to support the family and the Jean Joseph Dorvil Award to support students of Haitian descent seeking Notre Dame degrees. And the disease-fighting work Michele and Jean Joseph shared continues.

When Dorvil returned to UIC in January 2005, she had been promoted to assistant dean for the Liautaud Graduate School of Business to manage admissions, programs and student services for nearly 600 students. “I was overjoyed. It is a fabulous job. I completed my master’s degree so that I could do this kind of work.”

That March, she learned she was pregnant. When a son was born on Thanksgiving Day, his parents named him Joseph.

Today, Dorvil’s first three children are nearly grown. However, Jean Serge “never recovered from his brother’s death,” she says, and the couple is separating. Joseph is 2, and Dorvil is adopting Mika, now 8, her stepdaughter from Haiti.

“It all brings me perspective and humility,” she says of her experiences.

As Dorvil tells her story, her voice expresses both sadness and joy. She credits such mentors as Professor Bill Nichols in the Mendoza College of Business and Father Streit for her self-confidence. “My children couldn’t believe I was going to Haiti. Even I couldn’t believe it. I’m not sure why I had to go, but I did, and I am grateful. Bill, Father Tom and the University gave me the confidence to go where I had to go. And now, today, I could never do my job unless I had been there.”


Lisa Moore is a poet, teacher, freelance writer of educational materials, wife and the mother of two sons. She lives on the Crooked River in the Maine woods.

_Wathen photo by Andrew R. Slaton
Boo photo by Lee Prohofsky
Callahan, Overstreet, Carr and Sexton-Dorvil photos by Matt Cashore
Merkel photo by Kevin Blackburn
Angelides photo by Jonathan Ernst
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