Getting to know the woman who makes things happen

On a mission from above, I searched the halls of O’Shaughnessy for a lovely young woman named Jen Smith.  Overwhelmed by the unending passageways and posters that lined the first-floor walls, I became downtrodden.  After reaching the second floor, I was virtually defeated.

“Where could I find Jen Smith within these walls?” I thought.  But lo and behold, another staircase appeared and beckoned me upward. Regaining stamina, I pushed “leg day” to the limit and surmounted the obstacle that was the third-floor stairs.  Once I planted my feet on solid, third-floor ground, I found a curious plaque pointing the way to the Constitutional Studies Department.  I was drawn in. Soon, I found myself inside a pristine little office decorated on one wall with an extensive color-coordinated calendar of events.  Indeed, my quest was nearly complete: for where all such organized elements resided, so too did Jen Smith.

Jen Smith is the Administrative Assistant for the Constitutional Studies Program and the Tocqueville Program for Inquiry into Religion and Public Life, as well as the Program Coordinator for the Rooney Center for the Study of American Democracy.

This past week, I had the opportunity to interview Smith about her former study, current work, family, and future aspirations.

An International Studies major at Bethel College in Mishawaka, Smith initially had no connection to the realm of political science.  She did, however, have opportunities throughout high school and college relating to her passion for International Studies.

Smith said, “When I was sixteen, I had the chance to visit New Zealand … there is no greater place to travel and get the bug in you.” This marked the beginning of Smith’s realization of the “beautiful yet hurting places” that surround us, her love for travel to foreign lands, and her desire to help the people who reside there.

Smith met her future husband as a student at Bethel during the summer before their senior year.  They participated in a mission trip to the small town of Keystone, South Dakota, in which they lived and worked with Eastern European students performing necessary duties for the town.

“There were three hotels, one gas station, and only a few restaurants in the area.  We were assigned to fulfill the jobs of all these places amidst several Romanian, Czech, Bulgarian and Slovenian students. It was a wholly new experience,” she said.  It was only a short time later that Smith took her husband’s name.

Smith and her husband lived overseas for one year in the city of Seoul, South Korea.  “I taught English to four-year-olds and middle-aged men alike, so the range was wide,” Smith explained.  Although they deeply appreciated the culture and people of South Korea, Smith and her husband felt that many things that they loved about South Bend were missing.

Her family had a major impact on where she and her husband decided to live and work.  “My family and friends are mostly all here [in South Bend].  I have lived here for over 18 years.  People always talk about southern hospitality, but of all the places I have travelled to, I feel like the Midwest has hospitality,” she added.

I asked how living around the Notre Dame campus feels compared to her original plans of living abroad, to which Smith responded, “It’s definitely different from where I expected to be.  I always thought that I would always live overseas.  It’s funny how it all plays out, but everything just depends on what career you have, how much debt you have from school, and everything like that.”

After college, Smith worked as a Volunteer Coordinator at Habitat for Humanity, where she got involved in projects in the marketing and communication fields.  “I knew my role was to help people, but I recognized during my professional experience at Habitat the power of bureaucracy which, more often than not, meant we had to turn people down,” she said.

When asked how she became involved with her current work at Notre Dame, Smith proffered, “I have never been career-driven; God has always provided me with jobs that keep my interest.”  Smith quit a higher-paying job when the opportunity arose to work part-time for the Rooney Center and Constitutional Studies Program.  The university now employs her full-time.  With respect to making career decisions, Smith advises to “deeply weigh your plans and pursue your interests,” and in that way “you will find your job more meaningful.”

Smith then described her typical day as the sole staff member in the Constitutional Studies department: “I do all the behind-the-scenes planning and executing.  Before event days, I plan for speakers, organize panels, design posters, and create newsletters.  During the events, I execute and troubleshoot logistics.”

Recognizing my wide-eyed expression, Smith assured me, “I love the events and variety of work that I do behind the scenes; that’s where I like to be.”

After all that work, what does Smith do with her free time?  “I stopped having free time once I had Reuben,” Smith said of her first child.  “I love being with my family, so I think that the time spent with Reuben and my husband is well spent.”

I next asked Smith about the challenges of balancing work and home life on a daily basis, and she responded, “As the seasons of life change with the introduction of young children, home is busy.  Balancing work and home is a constant battle.”  Smith is expecting another boy in the winter, so this particular battle will not get easier in ensuing months.

If she had more free time in addition to that spent with Reuben and her husband, Smith would bake.  “I enjoy being creative.  Baking is therapeutic, even though I’ve been gluten-free after I had Reuben two years ago,” she said.  Smith laughed and added that gluten-free cookies are not the same as the real deal.  “You can really taste the chocolate chips, but the rest of the cookie tastes like, ‘eh.’”

As we parted, Jen remarked that is a privilege it is to work for the Rooney Center and the Constitutional Studies and Tocqueville Programs.  Despite having no background in political science, she loves to learn from the faculty, staff, and students whom she encounters through the various programs at the university. Reflecting on her experience thus far at Notre Dame, Smith concluded, “I pay attention to things I wouldn’t have otherwise encountered; I have found my niche that keeps my attention day after day, allowing me to be both behind-the-scenes and hospitable.”

Tierney Vrdolyak is a sophomore allegedly studying Marketing and the Program of Liberal Studies who, in her free-spirited time, enjoys playing a multitude of sports and board games, singing, wearing patterned socks, and rolling her roommate around the halls of Breen-Phillips in a wheel-equipped laundry hamper.  If you enjoy playing pick-up or being wheeled about spontaneously, contact Tierney at