Editor’s Note: The following is an excerpt from Black Domers: Seventy Years at Notre Dame, published by Corby Books. It is available for purchase on Amazon.
There’s something about the fall that makes me think of Notre Dame. Year after year the colorful trees and the brisk and sunny mornings make me smile and remember what it felt like to walk across South Quad. I think about those beautiful old trees that shaded the path between the quad and the basilica — so rich and full of history. I can recall stopping under the canopy of neighboring trees on my way to Crowley Music Hall as if it happened only last week.
Occasionally I just take a break from my busy days, close my eyes, and silently wish that I were walking up Notre Dame Avenue, catching a glimpse of a sparkling dome between the trees. For just a moment it feels so real that I can almost smell the familiar scent of ethanol in the air. Without fail, I begin to reminisce about the excitement of football weekends on campus and, before I know it, my heart lets out a great big “Go Irish!”
Yes, indeed, it seems that every fall I take a moment to think of Notre Dame and acknowledge proudly that I am a Domer.
Although I now have such pleasant memories of my alma mater, the truth is that I have not always felt so well-connected to Notre Dame. In fact, there were many times when I wished to be almost anywhere other than South Bend. When I enrolled in the fall of 2000, there was not much to connect me to Notre Dame other than my hopes for a great academic future.
Determined to overcome the challenges of my circumstances, I was by all means a fighter, but I certainly wasn’t Irish. My black Baptist heritage stood in stark contrast to that of most Irish Catholics. I was a product of an inner-city school system in a blue-collar town. So, as you can imagine, my life experiences were quite different from those of my Notre Dame peers.
Unlike most of my classmates, no one in my family had attended Notre Dame before me and there was no legacy for me to follow. In fact, while most parents would be thrilled to have a child attend Notre Dame, my mom resisted right up until the first day of frosh orientation. It was my choice to attend Notre Dame and I chose the University because I wanted the opportunity to be considered among the world’s brightest scholars. Yet, in such an environment, I faced the enormous challenge of discovering my individuality within the confines of unfamiliar and overwhelmingly homogeneous surroundings. I wanted to be known as more than just “the black girl” in class, but I felt the need to hold onto my “blackness” so that I didn’t lose my identity.
Although most students were making a lot of social adjustments to transition into young adulthood, it was difficult for me to engage in social activities that aligned with my interests when I first came to Notre Dame. I bought football tickets in the fall, but I ultimately spent every weekend of my freshman year visiting with my high school sweetheart in Ohio. And when I was on campus, I found myself intentionally gravitating toward students of color in hopes that there would be some familiarity and welcoming acknowledgment of how our differences unified us among the majority. As a Balfour-Hesburgh Scholar, I was fortunate to enter the University with a handful of minority friends. Once the fall semester began, however, we became overwhelmingly concerned with our individual pursuits and the extent of our socializing was soon diluted to occasional Friday night mafia games in Zahm Hall and chance meetings at the “black table” in South Dining Hall.
Being one of only a handful of black engineering students made my transition to Notre Dame even more challenging. With few exceptions, my instructors never gave the impression that they genuinely cared about my progress as a student and I experienced more than one case of unfair or unkind treatment in my department. I wanted to quit several times and I have a vivid recollection of breaking down in tears of frustration in front of South Dining Hall. I’ll never forget how my advisor all but laughed in my face when she explained that — simply put — I wasn’t smart enough to go to graduate school. (I am really looking forward to mailing her a copy of my Ph.D. thesis). Academically, there were numerous gloomy days on campus. Sometimes it seemed that even those big, leafy trees were mocking me and waiting for me to fail.
Gratefully, I soon encountered brighter days and reached a turning point in my career at Notre Dame when, having access to a vehicle, I discovered a local church during the fall of my sophomore year. The familiarity and support of the church helped me cope with student life just a few blocks away on campus. My faith sustained me and I found a sense of balance — becoming more confident of my identity. The church members saw me as part of Notre Dame and, without realizing it, I began to embody that role.
As I adapted to life at Notre Dame, I began to notice how other black students were acclimating as well. All around me, Notre Dame’s black students were treading down new paths and setting new precedents. Naturally I saw great athletes, but I was also privileged to know the first black leprechaun, the first black female drum major, and a black member of the Irish Guard. With the inspiration of these trailblazers in mind, I found the courage to pursue my interest in cheerleading and to try out for the squad. I barely made the cut, but I was delighted nonetheless. Even though I cheered before only a few fans at the soccer games in the fall, I presented to them a part of Notre Dame that was often overlooked.
As a Notre Dame cheerleader, I sensed a definite connection to the University. When in uniform, I became the University’s ambassador and formed a bridge of familiarity to the community at large. And as I became more comfortable with my own identity and my deserved place within the University, I slowly embraced the notion of the Notre Dame family — a concept I had heard so much about.
Now, I have tried to explain the Notre Dame “family” to those without ties to the University, but they struggle to understand it, much as I did at first. Ironically, however, my experience shows that it’s the outsider’s perspective of the privileges and challenges of experiencing life at Notre Dame that somehow unites us into one of the world’s most notable alumni networks. Truly, no matter how different our circumstances, we are Notre Dame to the outside world. By default, we’re expected to stick together and look out for one another. Hence, we begin to operate as a family, held together by our love for Notre Dame.
Because the latter half of my student career was so unusual, I experienced and grew to appreciate the strength of my Notre Dame family shortly thereafter. My dormmates in McGlinn Hall rejoiced with me when my high school sweetheart proposed on a bright fall day at the start of junior year. Fellow members of Voices of Faith Gospel Choir celebrated our union by traveling to sing at our wedding. And although it was very challenging to finish my senior year while carrying our first child, my engineering peers were overwhelmingly supportive and accommodating.
When I think of my years at Notre Dame, there is no denying that they were challenging. Yet I somehow manage to think about them fondly. The sights and sounds of campus are bright memories and I remember them with warmth. Now, my family makes it a point to visit campus nearly every fall. As we stroll beneath those tall trees on the quads, I can only hope that our four children will experience the privilege and challenge of attending Notre Dame. While there are many things I would love to change about the University to make it more inviting for future generations of black students, I am grateful for my own experiences there. These experiences helped me become the woman I am today. I can honestly say that, if given the choice to reconsider, I would still choose to do it all over again…beginning in the fall, of course.
Jamie L. Austin came to Notre Dame in autumn 2000 from Youngstown, Ohio. She majored in chemical engineering and theology and was a Notre Dame cheerleader. After graduation, she earned master’s degrees at Johns Hopkins University and the University of Michigan, where she is a Ph.D. candidate. She is a regulatory affairs professional in the pharmaceutical industry. She and her husband have four children and live in Illinois.