A hand-signed letter with a personal note from a recruiter in the admissions office drew one young woman to Notre Dame.
Mari Fuentes-Martin ’89, ’94MSA grew up near Brownsville, Texas. She never visited Notre Dame before she arrived as a freshman.
The signed letter from a recruiter named Rosie Courtney was enough. “That note made me apply,” Fuentes-Martin said. “For all of us, I think it’s about having a connection.”
Such bonds pave the way for success in college, careers and life, five alumni panelists said during a forum on systemic inclusion held June 4 during reunion weekend. The event was organized by members of the Class of 1972.
The panelists discussed their own experiences as students at Notre Dame, and offered advice on ways the University and alumni can help build a more inclusive community.
The panel was moderated by Mark A. Sanders, a professor of English and Africana studies and director of the Notre Dame Initiative on Race and Resilience. Founded in 2021, it’s an interdisciplinary program focusing on the redress of systemic racism and support of communities of color both within and beyond the Notre Dame campus.
As a Notre Dame undergraduate and a second-generation college student, “I tended to be the Hispanic representative for a lot of Black student organizations,” said Fuentes-Martin, vice president of student success and engagement at Texas A&M San Antonio. “I learned about leadership on this campus from my Black friends, because they were organized, they were vocal, they had a way of making things happen.”
Fuentes-Martin recalled a pivotal conversation as a student with Roland B. Smith Jr., who was a sociology professor and executive assistant to University President Rev. John I. Jenkins, C.S.C., ’76, ’78M.A. Smith told her that, as a Latina and a leader, she had much to offer higher education and she should pursue master’s and doctoral degrees.
She followed his advice and has made a long career in higher education, holding top administrative positions at institutions that serve large numbers of Hispanic students — many of whom are first-generation college students. “That conversation changed my whole life. . . . I found the work of my heart,” she said.
Bill Hurd M.D. ’69 is a retired ophthalmologist who was a star sprinter as an undergraduate on the varsity track team. He said he chose to attend Notre Dame because of the combination of academics and athletics, and because head track coach Alex Wilson ’32 was the only college coach who traveled to watch him compete during high school.
Hurd grew up in Memphis, Tennessee, graduated from an all-Black high school and earned an electrical engineering degree at Notre Dame.
As a freshman, Hurd was assigned a white roommate from a conservative region in southern Ohio. It was a learning experience for both of them. “They knew what they were doing,” he said of the housing office.
“The first few weeks were kind of rough because he’d listen to hillbilly music and he’d sleep with the window wide open. After the first semester, though, he started listening to Marvin Gaye,” he said, referencing the famed Motown singer and songwriter, drawing laughter from the audience. “It worked out.”
Hurd said he found a support system among his track teammates. “My whole experience here was positive,” Hurd said. His two sons followed in his footsteps to Notre Dame, with one son graduating in 2005. “My oldest son, interestingly, came here for two years and didn’t like the racial climate. He finished up at Xavier in New Orleans,” he said.
“Notre Dame is a special place. I think Notre Dame learned a lot from me and I learned a lot from being here,” Hurd said, while acknowledging there much work still to be done to achieve true inclusion.
“The best part of Notre Dame for me was my friends in chemical engineering,” said Katlyn Turner ’12. She earned a bachelor’s degree in chemical and biomolecular engineering, then master’s and doctoral degrees at other institutions.
She’s now a research scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and technology director of the Antiracism, Design and Technology Initiative at the MIT Media Lab. She works on inclusive innovation practices and principles of anti-racist technology design.
Turner — who is of African American, Italian and Irish ancestry — grew up in South Bend, where her mother worked as an administrative assistant at Notre Dame.
Turner didn’t come from a wealthy family, but she is Catholic and said her faith has always been an important part of her identity. She said she was lucky in her Notre Dame experience. She arrived already familiar with campus, met an important mentor during the first week of classes and was a student employee in the provost’s office.
Most of her undergraduate friends were also female minority engineering majors. “Many of us were told we should not be in engineering by professors — by Notre Dame professors. And we all became engineers,” she said. Notre Dame wasn’t the best four years of her life, but she said she succeeded largely because of the support of peers and several mentors.
Notre Dame and other institutions need to make it as easy as possible for undergraduates — including those from modest economic backgrounds — to apply for and participate in laboratory research internships and summer jobs that could shape their future careers, she said.
“Internships, undergrad experiences, research experience — they’re kind of like train tickets,” she said. “You need to make it the job of the university to make it easy for your students to accumulate those train tickets so that they can get on the train to whatever their next stop is.”
As an undergraduate, Turner said she often attended a campus Rejoice! Mass — a Catholic Mass rooted in the African-American tradition, featuring African-inspired music. She said there were complaints by some that the music was too different and didn’t fit into the traditional Catholic nature of campus.
“I love Notre Dame. I think it's a special space. It’s been good to me and my family. When I love a place, that means I like to try and make it better,” she said.
“I came (to Notre Dame) with one goal: To build something of importance back in my homeland in the Navajo nation,” said Deswood Etsitty ’93, who earned a Notre Dame architecture degree. He’s now healthcare facilities planning director for Indian Health Service, an agency within the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services.
Growing up in a cattle-ranching family on part of the Navajo nation in Arizona, Etsitty experienced life with little infrastructure, health care or educational services. “It’s up to me — it’s up to us — to do for ourselves,” is the lesson he learned.
He arrived at Notre Dame not looking to tackle racism or fight for social justice. On campus, he said he found a family — individuals who supported indigenous people from the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi, the Miami tribe and other native groups.
During childhood and while attending Notre Dame, Etsitty said he learned to build relationships to achieve goals. That has been important during his career in handling design, construction and project planning. He’s now applying those skills in developing medical facilities for tribes across the Southwest.
Etsitty said he’s hopeful that Notre Dame will continue to further its Native American initiatives, and serve as a partner and a voice for indigenous people.
Shelene Baiyee ’20 grew up in a diverse neighborhood in Indianapolis. Her mother is from St. Croix, part of the U.S. Virgin Islands, and her father immigrated from Cameroon.
She enrolled at Notre Dame expecting it to be a happy place where everyone was working for the common good. “It was a place where a lot of people could be happy, but at times I felt lost,” she recalled. As a Black freshman, she came to a realization. “The world is not necessarily created for people that look like me and that come from backgrounds like I do.”
She said a professor at one point suggested she should drop her Africana studies major in order to focus more on her biological sciences major. She refused and she’s never regretted it. She joined the rowing team, where she found some of her closest college friends. Mentors helped her succeed on campus and beyond.
Baiyee now works as a chemistry teacher at KIPP Indy Legacy High School, a public charter school in Indianapolis.
Baiyee said minority students sometimes are urged to navigate the Notre Dame alumni network to find internship and job opportunities. That network doesn’t always work in favor of people of color, particularly women, she said. “Just being a man changes a lot of things,” she said.
Although at times as an undergraduate she felt misunderstood, she grew to love Notre Dame. Her student experience included travel, both domestic and international, which helped her to better appreciate her own background.
Students can complete a Notre Dame education and still not be aware of the true nature of the world, she said. “You can exit Notre Dame and still be ignorant. The (number) of people who graduate from Notre Dame and don’t realize that the world is not all wealthy — it’s problematic,” she said.
“Diversity is being invited to the party and inclusion is being asked to dance,” audience member Lisa Boykin ’88 told the panelists. She said many issues discussed during the session were the same ones students of color faced when she was an undergraduate.
She noted that a lower percentage of alumni of color return to campus for reunions than white alumni. Incentives can be put in place and administrators should be held accountable for the number of diverse faculty members who are recruited and retained, Boykin said.
It shouldn’t be only some faculty and staff members who feel a responsibility to mentor minority students and welcome them into the University family, Boykins said. “The white people have to be engaged and accountable and vested in creating an inclusive environment here at Notre Dame.”
Margaret Fosmoe is an associate editor of this magazine. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or @mfosmoe.