I hope this message finds you enjoying your first day of classes! I am thrilled to write today to welcome you to another academic year at the University of Notre Dame.
As some of you may know, this is my first year as the University’s Vice President for Student Affairs. If you are not familiar with the work of Student Affairs, it comprises more than 250 professional staff who work in a variety of departments dedicated to helping you integrate what you learn in the classroom or the lab with other aspects of your life. Or, as we like to say at Notre Dame, we are committed to helping form your heart and mind. Having spent my entire ministry as a Holy Cross priest living and working alongside students, I could not be more excited to do my part to contribute to the intellectual, spiritual, and moral formation we seek to provide to you at Notre Dame.
As I shared with you when I introduced myself earlier this summer, my own role in this work begins with listening. This is one of my first priorities this fall, as I actively seek to listen deeply and broadly to those who have a vested interest in our work, and especially to students and those in particular who may not always feel like a part of our community. This summer, I began meeting with students, undergraduate and graduate leaders, professional staff within Student Affairs, and others within the University with a passion for you and for your formation. We will continue these conversations in formal and informal ways this fall and spring, but let me share with you some of what I have heard thus far and how we might begin to move forward together.
Returning to campus and finding community. Many of you have shared how excited you are to return to campus, and how hopeful you are that we can return to many of our pre-pandemic practices and traditions while also remaining vigilant toward the risks to the health and safety of our community. I’ve also learned, though, that students are concerned about their health and well-being and are eager to form connections and find authentic community at Notre Dame―this is especially pronounced after experiences of loneliness and isolation that often characterized students’ lives this past year and a half. If you think you are alone in feeling this way, I assure you that you are not.
We plan to support you in this by creating intentional and meaningful ways for you to build community and help you stay connected to others. We understand many students were unable to establish relationships in clubs, organizations, ministries, and academic groups last year. Most were also unable to participate in normal Game Days, dances, and annual signature hall programs, too. Recognizing the importance of the connections created through these events, one of the ways we plan to address this need is by again inviting off-campus students to participate in all hall activities moving forward, with first priority given to residents living within the residence halls. The University has no plans to return to the on- and off-campus differentiation policy, and we look forward to undergraduate students connecting with students who live both on- and off-campus in the years ahead.
Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion. As Father Jenkins shared with you last week, I’ve seen how important issues of diversity, inclusion, and belonging are to our students, both in our country and world as well as here at Notre Dame. You long both to make an impact and to be impacted by God and by others. I’ve appreciated the ways you care and advocate for each other and for those who do not necessarily feel a part of our community. I also admire your willingness to work together to create a vibrant and inclusive community rooted in our Catholic and Holy Cross mission. Rest assured, these topics are also at the forefront of my mind, and I plan to continue unpacking them alongside you in the year ahead. I commit to doing so both informally in one-on-one conversations and through our existing climate advisory committees on Race and Ethnicity and LGBTQ experiences, which advise me and Student Affairs leadership on topics specific to diversity and inclusion. I will also continue to convene the Student Advisory Group to gather important feedback that helps to shape decisions and policies that impact student life. Additionally, I look forward to engaging students as we begin to think through the development and construction of the new diversity and inclusion center that will soon be located inside the LaFortune Student Center. Let us continue to dialogue with and support one another in our shared goal of building a vibrant and inclusive community where each member is known and loved as a beloved child of God.
Meaning, Fulfillment, and Deepest Desires. Lastly, both from my experience as an in-residence priest and from initial conversations this summer, I can already recognize in so many of you a profound desire to find meaning, purpose, and fulfillment in your life. I like to think you chose Notre Dame, in part, because we very sincerely want this for you, too. As we begin this new year, I urge you to take time to identify what you desire and need most as a Notre Dame student. Ask yourself, how do I want to spend my time outside the classroom? What is most important to me? How can I get involved, and where am I most needed? Where and with what people can I find the most meaning? Who can I learn from? What kinds of relationships (with God, mentors, friends, and those in need) are missing from my life that I’d like to cultivate in the coming year? Your professors, your hall staff, and other mentors you will meet will help you ask these questions. I’ve found one of the great gifts of studying at a faith-based institution like Notre Dame is that we do not close ourselves off from these and other questions arising from our souls’ deeper search for meaning, connection, and peace. I hope you will join me in actively discerning these questions, and making healthy and prudent decisions that will lead us to authentic, life-giving, and spiritually-enriching relationships with ourselves, with one another, and with God. As your peers in Student Government have already encouraged you to do, I invite you to move onward toward tradition, connection, and reflection this academic year.
While we in Student Affairs and the University were incredibly grateful to have students on campus last year, we recognize it was far from typical and there is much rebuilding to be done to ensure all students feel a sense of belonging, connection, and home. Please know your mental, emotional, spiritual, social, and physical well-being are a collective University priority after such a tumultuous and difficult year. I look forward to working with you to renew our community after this past year, in an effort to realize the hope of the founder of Holy Cross– Blessed Basil Moreau – that a Notre Dame education could truly be a “work of resurrection” which brings new life to us as individuals and to our community and world.
In Notre Dame,
Fr. Gerry Olinger, C.S.C.
Vice President for Student Affairs