Alicia Lachiondo’s Widening Circle of Influence

Author: Ryan Millbern

(Editor’s note: The premise was simple: Select a student who could talk about his or her Notre Dame experience and the people most influential to him or her. Bring them together for a conversation that would reveal something about the student and the character of the institution. This “Circles of Influence” approach was proposed to the magazine by Rick Bailey, who teaches in the Mendoza College of Business and heads Richard Harrison Bailey/The Agency, a marketing communication firm that has done this for clients from coast to coast. The student emerged when we sought someone to represent the kind of educational experience to be fostered in the new Jordan Hall of Science.)


It is 10 days before graduation, and Alicia Lachiondo ’06, an honors student at Notre Dame and a Boise, Idaho, native, is at one of the 14 seats in a room wedged between a bustling kitchen and a cafeteria full of students. As they snack on cookies, Lachiondo and her friends, as well as a couple of her mentors and professors, talk about what post-college life has in store for some of them.

This is no ordinary gathering of college students. They are not readying themselves for a lifelong ascent up the corporate ladder. Instead, the students here hope to make positive changes in the world. They have internalized Notre Dame’s mission to “create a sense of human solidarity and concern for the common good.”

Lachiondo tells the group how a high school teacher and a touch of the flu helped steer her in the direction of Notre Dame. “My freshman math teacher was a Notre Dame alum, and he led a service trip to Mexico the summer after my sophomore year. I got really sick there and had to ride with him on the way back home.”

On the trip, the two talked about colleges for three hours. “He said that Notre Dame had a million Christian service programs and that I should check it out. I came to visit and saw the campus, the Center for Social Concerns, the football game. . . . Those things pretty much sealed the deal for me.”

The group members laugh and exchange knowing glances. As they introduce themselves and explain how they’ve come into contact with Lachiondo during her undergraduate years at Notre Dame, it becomes apparent that Lachiondo’s involvement with the Center for Social Concerns and her fondness for Fighting Irish football are two things that, even five years after her initial visit to campus, continue to define her multifaceted Notre Dame experience. Those two passions, coupled with an insatiable curiosity and a strong drive, have left lasting impressions on all of the members of Lachiondo’s circle of friends and mentors, most of whom speak of Lachiondo’s energy and intellectual curiosity as infectious and inspiring. Molly Kelley ’06, a political science major and Lachiondo’s roommate during her senior year, cites Lachiondo as a major influence in shaping the person she’s become: “She’s curious about everything in the world, and she’s making me that kind of person. I’m so happy about that.”

Kathy Brannock ’97, ’01J.D., assistant director of Residence Life and Housing, and Lachiondo’s rector in Howard during her first two years at Notre Dame, echoes Kelley’s sentiment: “For a first-year student she had such a strong sense of self—but not to the exclusion of being open to learn more. She wanted to learn about everything and find out how her gifts and talents could influence everything she came into contact with.”

One of the people definitely influenced by Lachiondo is Joe Boyle ’06, a philosophy major whom Lachiondo cites as her “most constant friend” during her four years at Notre Dame. Boyle and Lachiondo shared several classes during their freshman year and came up through the Honors Program together, often participating in service projects through the Center for Social Concerns or the residence halls. “I sort of bask in Alicia’s glow,” Boyle says with a laugh. “Coming here, I can’t say that I really had much of an eye on service and serving the community, but I’ve been influenced by this place and people like Alicia.”

Those experiences, he says, “shaped my vision for my future. After graduation, I plan to work as a tutor at this charter high school in Boston. The school’s mission is to accept the lowest 10 percent of the city’s students in terms of testing scores and attempt to prepare them for college. I guess they have a pretty good success rate.”

As the group members nod in approval, the talk of future plans continues. Most center on service learning in one form or another. Lachiondo, who majored in anthropology, plans to serve in the Jesuit Volunteer Corps in Yakima, Washington, where she will work as a medical assistant in a health clinic that serves a primarily Spanish-speaking farming community. Kamaria Porter ’06, a friend and fellow activist, will be a community organizer for the Industrial Areas Foundation in Chicago, an organization that specializes in forming social activist groups and training leaders to sustain those groups. Kelley, Lachiodo’s roommate, will be working as a paralegal in the Department of Justice’s Antitrust division in Washington D.C.—a job she found through the Notre Dame Career Center.

While Lachiondo and the students gathered here have lofty aspirations for the future, some of them have already been involved in more service work in their early 20s than most people can claim in a lifetime. The conversation naturally shifts to what will become one of the major themes of this gathering: social activism.

Joining a boycott
Kamaria Porter is the founder of CLAP (Campus Labor Action Project). “Everything pretty much comes back to Kamaria,” Lachiondo says. Inspired by Porter’s research on a migrant worker boycott in Florida and the intense discussions that followed, Lachiondo went to Immokalee, Florida, during her freshman year for a seminar on migrant labor. There she witnessed the unfolding of the boycott by the Coalition of Immokalee Farm Workers, who were demanding one penny more per pound of tomatoes they harvested. One of the major buyers of their tomatoes was fast-food giant Taco Bell. The coalition wanted the extra penny per pound to be passed to the farm workers in the form of direct wages, a plan that would only affect the cost of Taco Bell’s products by fractions of pennies. Porter, Lachiondo and other students were so moved by the plight of the workers that they decided to join the boycott.

Upon Lachiondo’s return to Notre Dame for the 2003 spring semester, she and Porter orchestrated a 150-person hunger strike as part of their “Boot the Bell” campaign protesting the Taco Bell-sponsored show that took place after Notre Dame football games. In 2004 the duo took their protest as far as the restaurant’s headquarters in Louisville, Kentucky, and in the words of Porter, “took over” a rally. “We brought our own fliers and got those copied and distributed and spread the word about why we were protesting. We were speakers, and we spoke.”

The hunger strikes and lobbying worked, and Notre Dame ended its contract with Taco Bell. Porter remembers receiving the news from Lachiondo: “It was spring break 2005, and I was sitting on a bus, checking my voicemail, and there’s a message from Alicia, who sounds very serious. She says that the Taco Bell boycott is over, and I remember saying out loud on the bus, ‘Hell, no.’” As everyone in the room laughs, Porter ends her story: “But when I realized that it was good news—that we’d actually won—I was happy.”

The implications of the victory reached further than Notre Dame’s termination of its contract at the local level. Taco Bell’s parent company, Yum! Brands, implemented a suppliers’ code of conduct that defines “socially responsible” wages and working conditions. This tangible victory also helped reinforce the possibilities of social activism and service in both young women’s eyes. “The work of the students in general really helped the movement succeed,” Lachiondo says. “It was a historic victory.”

Although Porter’s name is synonymous with the Campus Labor Action Project, the organization established in conjunction with the Taco Bell boycott, she reinforces the role Lachiondo played in taking the protest to the next level. “She brought professionalism to the entire process. I think a lot of people who do this kind of protest work can learn a lot from Alicia—I know I have.”

Investigating a startling statistic
Protests weren’t the only items on Lachiondo’s undergraduate agenda. Margaret McKinney-Arnold, a registered nurse at Memorial Hospital in South Bend and director of the African American Women in Touch organization, was Lachiondo’s community adviser on her senior thesis project. Lachiondo has a “bulldozer” mentality, says McKinney-Arnold, and that drive came in handy during her thesis work.

In summer 2005, Lachiondo interviewed 15 African-American women in the South Bend community. The intimate and revealing interviews took place in the women’s living rooms and kitchens, their churches and beauty salons. Her goal was to investigate the implications behind a startling statistic: While African-American women are less likely to develop breast cancer, they are more likely to die from it. Lachiondo’s research led to her paper in medical anthropology on “Socio-cultural barriers to breast cancer screening in African-American women in South Bend.”

What happened that summer was more than the completion of an undergraduate research requirement, however. It was a discovery that contributed to the common good of a very real community, and a testament to the type of research that can come to fruition when the resources of a major university meet a student who is willing to exhaust them.

Lachiondo’s project was executed through the Center for Social Concerns. The center works in cooperation with faculty across campus to develop individualized, community-based service-learning projects for interested students. Opened in 1983, the CSC is rooted in the principles of Catholic social thought and strives to encourage students, faculty, staff and alumni to explore their responsibility to address complex social issues. “About 700 students take core courses through the CSC in a given year, and we also support the development of courses across the campus that take students into the local community,” says Mary Beckman ’75, ’84M.A., ’86Ph.D., associate director of the center.

As Lachiondo says of the center, “When I was visiting colleges I wanted to see how students got involved with the community and what kinds of things they did. Notre Dame was the only place where it was all under one roof.”

Also under that roof are financial resources. Lachiondo’s thesis project was funded by a $5,000 grant offered by the Center for Social Concerns that promotes joint research among Notre Dame faculty, students and community organizations. Part of the grant’s purpose is to address a specific social concern voiced by the community organization involved in the partnership. In the case of Lachiondo’s study, that concern was articulated by the African American Women in Touch organization, which provides breast cancer education and resources to minority women.

“I was so impressed by Margaret and the work that she did,” says Lachiondo. “She was doing things above and beyond just making screening financially viable, and I was interested in exploring those other factors.” Some of those services included providing patients with wigs and prostheses, transportation to treatment and, perhaps most important, offering an atmosphere where women could feel safe confronting the fear and anxiety that accompany breast-cancer examinations.

It was McKinney-Arnold’s conscious effort to address those fears and anxieties that helped focus Lachiondo’s research. Mutual respect grew between the two as McKinney-Arnold discovered that she was working with a dedicated, professional student who had a clear vision for her project. “She knew what she wanted to do, and she wasn’t intimidated. With Alicia, I felt like I had a partner.”

Despite what existing research in the medical field suggested, Lachiondo discovered that an increased accessibility of breast-cancer screening and education did not naturally lead to an increased participation on the part of community members. “What I found through my discussions with Margaret and other women in the African-American community was that, when it came to matters of the human body, things were not that simple. There are a lot of experiences, emotional attachments and fears encoded in the body,” she says. “It’s not like taking your car in to get it fixed.” Part of the project’s aim, she says, was to determine how medical professionals can better address these complexities.

The result of Lachiondo’s interviews and observations was more than a 35-page paper and a fulfillment of an honors degree requirement. “Because of Alicia and what she did with her research,” McKinney-Arnold says, “our program has now moved to another level.”

Mary Beckman reinforces the importance of Lachiondo’s research: “Alicia’s research is not an ivory-tower research. It’s research that contributes to a better world. . . . Alicia was fulfilling a real need in the community.”

Her thesis faculty advisor, Daniel Lende, assistant professor of anthropology, was pleased that Lachiondo moved the project beyond a written report. “That’s been very gratifying as her teacher,” he says.

Joe Boyle, who’s been quiet for the majority of the discussion surrounding Lachiodo’s Women in Touch research, sits up in his chair. “I know we’ve been focusing a lot on service, and that’s great, but I don’t want a lot of Alicia’s personality to get lost in that one dimension. Her personality and her influence on others is the driving force behind all of these accomplishments.”

It would be easy to lose a sense of the individual behind a list of accomplishments as long as Lachiondo’s. Aside from the successful Taco Bell boycott and the Women in Touch research project, Lachiondo has spent a semester abroad in Mexico, participated in service-learning projects in Florida and San Diego, and has also been a peer tutor on campus. However, nearly every participant in the gathering spoke to her compassionate personality and intellectual curiosity as the driving forces behind her accomplishments.

Alexander Hahn ’68M.S., ’70Ph.D., professor of mathematics and director of the Honors Program, witnessed Lachiondo’s style firsthand when she worked as a math tutor for one of his classes. “Alicia’s combination of sense of humor, charm and the supremely confident way in which she responded stood out in my mind.”

Kathy Brannock says that Alicia’s accomplishments are not merely the result of “resume building. She’s passionate about everything—in a great way.”

“She’s multitalented and compassionate,” McKinney-Arnold chimes in. “She’s like a sponge, and she gets charged by the things she absorbs.”

And yes, there is that obsession with Notre Dame football, particularly statistics. “My dad was always a stat-man and knows more useless information than anyone ever needs to know,” says Lachiondo. “I’ve always been into the statistics and the mental strategy behind them.”

“Don’t let her fool you,” Boyle says. “It’s not all about intellectual strategy. We’ve also accosted plenty of freshman recruits together.”

There is plenty of laughter as different members of the group share their favorite Notre Dame football stories. As the gathering winds down, Lachiondo gets the final word with a Notre Dame football story of her own, detailing a scene from a study-abroad experience in Mexico in which she tried to explain to her host mother a series of Fighting Irish football rituals and stadium cheers. “Imagine trying to teach someone these things in Spanish when there’s really no word for mascot.”

As Lachiondo, her friends and her professors begin to clear out of the room, some of them linger by the doorway, still talking about their future plans or their impending graduation. Others, like Kamaria Porter, scurry off to other engagements. Eventually they are all gone.

While the influence of Lachiondo’s professors, mentors and friends on her Notre Dame experience was apparent, her influence on others also was clear. Lachiondo will leave the University with a bachelor’s degree, but she will leave behind a reputation hard to match.

Sister Susan Dunn, O.P., recently appointed assistant vice president of student affairs, previously conducted exit interviews with students following their eight-week summer service projects. It was during a follow-up interview with Lachiondo after her summer 2004 stay in Saint Vincent DePaul Village, a homeless complex in San Diego, that Dunn discovered Lachiondo’s passion for service. “In my four years of having done that follow-up,” says Dunn, “she stands out most in my mind.”

Ryan Millbern works in the Indianapolis office of Richard Harrison Bailey/The Agency.