The best advice about college I have received defines it in the following way: “a place to take yourself apart and put yourself back together.” The more time I spend at Notre Dame, the more I realize how true this statement is. College is a time of great change, challenge, and discovery—and if we respond to that time well, we can launch a great process of growth and happiness. Notre Dame, I’ve found, provides a prime opportunity for this kind of deep, fulfilling growth. So, for those of you who have just set foot on campus as new Domers, I am thrilled to say, Welcome!
My favorite part about Notre Dame is the layers of friendships I have discovered. The network of people I have met forms something like a set of concentric circles. Closer to my center, I have bonded with friends who share my core values, friends with whom I can speak intimately and lean on. At the same time, I have met people from various backgrounds who hold different opinions than I do on certain subjects. With these friends, I can still bond by celebrating common interests (anything from musical tastes to the love of Notre Dame football) and by exchanging questions and ideas about our lives.
As a graduate from a small high school, this exposure to different personal connections served as a prime next step for me in life. With concentric circles of friends, you learn how to ground yourself in your own values, discover more about your strengths and weaknesses, and empathize with others. Those abilities, I believe, matter in every age and circumstance, but particularly in today’s society, which we often find fraught with confusion, anger, and fear.
The importance of knowing myself and connecting with others became even clearer to me one evening this summer. I worked at an academic and leadership-based summer program for girls living in the inner city of Washington, D.C. About halfway through the program, several other teachers and I attended an evening parent seminar, whose focus was the recent violent events involving black men and police officers. Parents had the opportunity to express their emotions, a former president of an NAACP chapter described his experiences, and a local police officer shared his own perspectives. For the first time, I encountered firsthand the challenges and anxieties of each person, and I learned more deeply why they felt the way they did. Since I have grown up largely removed from such painful experiences, I was grateful for the exposure, and I began asking myself questions. What is proper justice? How should we enact it? How can I help spread a positive change?
After thinking, listening, and talking with others, I began to gather some kernels of understanding. First, I sensed tension and even bitterness in the desire for immediate change. Of course, urgency is vital—without it, nothing would get done—but I think that urgency must be paired with something deeper. This leads me to my second understanding, which the program’s director highlighted in the seminar: we must each work to put our best selves forward at all times. In the context of such a frustrated atmosphere, it seemed like a cop-out happy ending to the discussion—at least at first. But after taking the time to discuss it with others and let it sink in, I found great wisdom in the thought. If I want to establish justice in society, I have to look at my own inner self and my own life first. Peace cannot be a superficial blanket that keeps the alarm bells of society quiet; it must be a natural overflow of the peace within each person. Certainly, we must be urgent. But without well-grounded, peaceful, and empathetic minds and hearts, our urgent actions may not be the most productive; they may in fact be rash or even harmful.
The endeavor toward individual peace, of course, is not a very attractive solution; it may come off as as too idealistic or too slow. However, I do not think having high ideals or a long-term vision should be disregarded. On the contrary, this path highlights the value of the little things and of patience. Over time, the painstaking, daily effort we make to improve ourselves and to assist others will promote goodness and justice—the full effects of which we may or may not see. Over time, the good we put forward will drown out the evil in our surroundings.
Along the way, bigger projects—such as protests, organized events, or governmental actions—serve as important catalysts and encouragements. Even so, our outward actions have to reach into our inner beings, into what we are thinking and doing when we are not in the public square. Otherwise, we might be changing policies or news stories, but we won’t be changing people.
With all this in mind, how do these big social, political, and life issues translate into your time at the University of Notre Dame? I don’t have a complete answer, but from what I have learned, I would again cite my program director’s advice: try to be your best self at all times. When you are getting to know a friend, focus fully on that person. When you are completing an assignment, put in your finest work. When you are contemplating or praying, open yourself in perseverant silence. Then, whether or not you bond immediately with that friend, get the highest grade, or reach a peak of inner peace, you will have put in your best effort and become stronger because of it. I can’t say I have reached perfection in any of these areas; what I can say is that every day brings an opportunity to begin again.
The more we keep trying in these little ways, the more we will build the habit of motivation, attention, and peace within ourselves, among others, and throughout society. Our lives will be simpler and more transparent, both in moments of success and in moments of failure.
I hope that with this mindset of personal growth and connections, in your time of “taking yourself apart” here in college, you will find yourself readily able to put yourself back together as an even better person than you were before.
Sophia Buono is a junior majoring in the Program of Liberal Studies and minoring in Education, Schooling, and Society. She looks forward to another great year on campus—especially given that her younger brother has just come as a freshman. To share in her joy, email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.