I hope this message finds you well as you enter into reading days and prepare for your last exams of the semester. Congratulations as we approach the end of a wonderful year!
In my messages to you this year, I invited us all to focus our attention on reflection in community, a theme I hoped would help us to grow both in our self-understanding and in our relationships with one another and with God. From one-on-one conversations to large group discussions, student retreats and residence hall events, I’m encouraged by the many ways you sought to incorporate this idea into your campus activities. I’m also inspired not only by your willingness to engage this theme in your interactions with one another, but for taking the time to discuss your thoughts, ideas, and personal experiences with me whether in more formal meetings or during my office hours and Fireside Chats.
This theme also informed my own work and engagement with students this academic year, and I write to share with you a few of my own takeaways from a year spent on reflection in community.
Faith and Formation
I had opportunities to speak with many of you about your hopes, frustrations, perceptions, and beliefs surrounding matters of faith, and these conversations were among the most personally fulfilling moments of my year. Your insights have helped me appreciate even more deeply the ways you bring such varied backgrounds and experiences into your lives of faith, which contribute to your intentionality toward faith and spirituality. I am particularly grateful for the conversations I shared with students who are not Catholic but who have found a home at Notre Dame due in large part to the sincerity with which we approach faith as an indispensable part of a holistic education. As a Catholic university committed to the formation of both mind and heart, questions of faith are an essential part of all that we do.
A number of themes have surfaced from these conversations. I have appreciated hearing from students about the hopes so many of you have to better integrate faith with social justice and the Catholic social tradition, especially when it comes to caring for the most vulnerable among us. We have also discussed the ways polarization can harm our ability to form authentic community, particularly when it comes to the intersection of religious and political points of view. Finally, I would also like to highlight the importance so many students place on finding time for prayer and reflection, and the appreciation you have for the spaces on campus that allow for more intentional engagement, including residence hall chapels, the Basilica, the Grotto, and even the paths that surround our campus lakes. As I’ve said many times before, while finding space and time amid busy schedules can be difficult, our willingness to reflect and pray, together and apart, is essential.
Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion
Another point of reflection for me this year has been how we are called to cultivate a campus community grounded in the recognition of the sacred dignity of each individual. In doing so, we seek to provide a sense of belonging to all students, paying particular attention to those who do not always feel a part of our community. In the fall I shared with you the results of the 2022 Inclusive Campus Student Survey, which informs the University’s efforts to nurture a campus climate that honors diversity of background, thought, and experience; supports the belonging and full participation of underrepresented students; and engages and values the authentic voice of every person.
The results showed that while many students (89%) feel a sense of belonging on campus, others do not. As we work to address our shortcomings while ensuring every student feels like they belong, I hope we can find encouragement in the fact that the vast majority of students expressed an interest in confronting and discussing issues of diversity inside and outside the classroom.
I am truly heartened by both this statistic and the robust and meaningful conversations that followed throughout the year as we have engaged these realities in a variety of settings. I also look forward to the important work ahead. Thank you to those of you who have and will continue to show and act on your interest in engaging others who may differ from you to ensure all students feel they are part of a supportive community. It is through this important and sometimes difficult work when we cultivate our most authentic relationships and encounter the best versions of ourselves. Our Catholic mission calls us to a profound sense of unity even in our diversity, and I end this academic year incredibly grateful for the ways each of you enriches and enlivens our academic community.
Health and Well-being
The final reflection I will offer involves the ways in which we care for our own health and well-being and that of those around us, especially when it comes to mental health. This topic has been an important conversation both campus-wide and nationally, and a true highlight of my year has been the many conversations I have had around mental health with students, colleagues and professors, parents, families, and alumni. I know this issue is personal for so many of you, and touches on your own experiences or that of loved ones.
As the Division of Student Affairs continues to focus our efforts on promoting healthy lifestyles, increasing access to resources, and connecting students to support services at earlier stages of need, we also recognize the changing realities of student well-being and the barriers you may face as you care for your wellness at Notre Dame.
I am personally grateful to our students, staff, and faculty for their investment in this area, and particularly for the conversations, insights, and support provided through my student advisory committees, the Campus Life Council, Student Government, and our valued student leaders. Our collective commitment to identifying, developing, and reimagining strategies to best address the mental health needs of our students is imperative to the coordination of appropriate care and resources in the months and years ahead.
Moving forward, I also encourage you to look out for one another and develop and maintain healthy daily habits. Many factors affect our overall health, including a sense of belonging to a larger community; meaningful connections with and support from peers and mentors; rest, reflection, and prayer; and hope and belief in a reality and life that is greater than one's own. It is my hope, too, that you are able to recognize the ways these issues are deeply intertwined, especially when it comes to our engagement of faith, our ability to cultivate meaningful connections and community, and our attentiveness to our mental and physical health. Please continue to grow in these areas, and know we are here to support you along the way.
Thank you again for your invaluable thoughts, ideas, conversations, candor, and counsel throughout this academic year. I hope the summer is an opportunity for you to enjoy new experiences and partake in continued growth in the areas I mentioned above and so many others. As we look ahead to next year and prepare to welcome many new students to campus, I hope we can continue to grow as a community in our willingness and ability to engage, encounter, and accompany all who call Notre Dame home.
Finally, to our graduating students, please know of our prayers and best wishes as you close one chapter in your lives and begin the next. We hope you visit us often and know of our excitement for the incredible ways each of you will be a “force for good” in our world in the years to come. I and all of us at the University look forward to celebrating your accomplishments alongside you in these coming weeks.
In Notre Dame,
Fr. Gerry Olinger, C.S.C.
Vice President for Student Affairs