All in the ND familia? Famille? Familie?

Author: Meghan Thomassen '14

Saturday morning at South Bend airport. Lugging their suitcases, two young men, Enrique Pajuelo and Carlos Mendizabal, approach with hesitant smiles.the only people standing in the sleepy terminal.

“Are you from Notre Dame?”

It’s April 5, the first day of the seventh Hesburgh International Scholars Experience (HISE). More than 90 accepted students are arriving for a five-day visit to make their final college choice before the May 1 deadline. Few have visited the United States before, and for most of these newcomers, Notre Dame is yet a sight unseen.

Enrique, who left his home in Peru at 7 the night before, introduces himself and promptly asks his first of many questions: “Is Notre Dame one of the top schools for snow?”

He doesn’t seem fazed when this magazine reporter admits the winters can be brutal, and he still eagerly climbs onto the bus. He looks tired, but his wide-eyed expectancy grows the closer we get to campus.

Carlos channels his excitement into chatter. He talks about how his dad sent him to live in Detroit for a year to study, which gave him ample time to get accustomed to a Midwestern winter. Carlos is from Mexico, plays tennis, recently picked up robotics and loves the piano. He likes many of the schools that accepted him but says Notre Dame always stood out.

When we turn onto Notre Dame Avenue, conversation stops.

“Whoa,” Carlos says.

The Dome glitters in the cool April sunlight. A few students have ventured out onto the quads, playing soccer or catching rays. Both travelers eagerly eye the campus, and I get the sense that Carlos and Enrique’s “Welcome Home” letters have gathered new meaning.

The HISE program hosts overseas high school seniors who have demonstrated an impressive academic record and strong leadership skills. During their visit they live in the dorms with host students, eat in the dining halls, go to Mass in the basilica and attend classes. What they see helps them make their difficult choice between Notre Dame and competitors that include Vanderbilt, California, Yale, Duke, George Washington and Boston College.

On Sunday morning the visitors gather for the program’s opening luncheon in Carole Sandner Hall. Unlike every awkward freshman event I ever attended, where even the slightest eye contact could invite unwelcome interaction, here the strangers hug and talk like old friends.

A video about Father Hesburgh plays as a lunch catered by such popular off-campus restaurants as Parisi’s and Chicory Café begins. “I have so much to learn from him,” the student from Paraguay declares between bites of pasta.

My lunch companion informs me she wants to study international economics. She conveys the same certainty I had as a prospective student when I decided I would major in psychology. I’m about to tell her that I will graduate instead with a major in English, but she begins talking film studies with the student next to her, and I realize my point is superfluous.

It turns out the film fellow is from London and his parents want him to study business. It’s important for getting jobs, he says. Meanwhile, two students from Brazil are amazed at how their dorm hosts welcomed them with genuine joy and sage advice. “I already feel like I’m part of a family,” one says.

After lunch, the students tackle their first ND service project: making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for the Center for the Homeless.

The next three days are a whirlwind. After admissions director Robert Mundy ’76, ’81M.A. addresses the group at their dinner in the stadium press box Sunday evening, the students socialize in the LaFortune basement. On Monday, they choose the classes they want to attend and go to information sessions at each college throughout the afternoon. That night they walk to Compton Family Ice Arena for ice skating and dinner before settling in for a Rudy watch.

On Tuesday, the students meet faculty over breakfast in the Morris Inn ballroom and tour the Guglielmino Athletics Complex. They eat at O’Rourke’s on Eddy Street and then hike to the library to meet Father Hesburgh. They learn the emeritus University president has not only visited their countries but speaks the languages as well.

On their last night on campus, the scholars swarm Legends for the closing gala. At one table sit students from Belgium, Brazil, England, Germany, Ireland, Canada and Ecuador. They eagerly bandy aspirations for their majors and entertain ideas of joining club sports or walking onto varsity teams.

“This place has totally gone beyond my expectations,” says a young woman from Belgium. “I really applied because of the name — everyone knows Notre Dame. But it just keeps getting better and better.”

One student spoke with as many business students as possible during his visit. He’s considering the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania but says he appreciates the lack of a cutthroat atmosphere at Notre Dame. “Here, it’s not you versus me,” he says. “It’s you and me.”

I ask the student from Ireland how he will describe his trip when he gets home. In a word? “Convincing.”

Meghan Thomassen was this magazine’s autumn 2013 intern.