Leaving the Garden

No one wants to graduate from Notre Dame less than a Notre Dame student. We may arrive as freshmen with dreams of how a Notre Dame degree will enhance our career prospects, and yet, in the midst of dorm life, football, exciting intellectual challenges, and awesome friendships, we start to realize we don’t really want to leave at all. Life on campus becomes infinitely more valuable than the degree.

At least, that was my experience. I’m an alumni now, having just graduated this past May. I know many in the Class of 2017 are missing Notre Dame a lot like I am. Most of these classmates have jobs in the real world now and are seemingly missing undergrad life for obvious reasons. But I actually don’t think being in the real world is the true reason for why graduates miss being a student at Notre Dame so much.

Take me as an example by contrast. I am now a first year law student at the University of Virginia, so the real world hasn’t arrived at my doorstep yet. While I have truly enjoyed being a law student at UVA, it is undeniable that nothing really seems to be the same as undergrad. The tables have turned; the degree is now far more valuable than the experience. Why is this?

Well, for starters, life as a graduate student obviously differs in many ways from the life of an undergrad. I live off campus now, which is a dramatic difference from living among my best friends and having outstanding meals catered for me every day. Law school is certainly more intellectually challenging and time-consuming than undergrad was, and my classmates are on average several years older than I am. Essentially, it seems by comparison like attending a commuter school where you don’t necessarily have a lot in common with your classmates.

But interestingly, a lot of my UVA classmates are enjoying this new experience just as much if not more than undergrad. This shouldn’t come as a surprise as UVA Law boasts one of the highest overall satisfaction rates among law schools and Charlottesville is consistently rated one of the happiest cities in America.

So why would the Notre Dame grad prefer the flat, grayness of northern Indiana to the sunny, mountainous, and cheerful graduate school, especially since many of his new classmates would beg to differ? Perhaps you’d suggest the difference between going from a Catholic university to a secular one, but I still think there’s more to the story than this explanation. While UVA is not committed to Catholicism institutionally, many of the faculty and students at the law school tend to be very engaged in their faith. The St. Thomas More Society, Law and Christian Fellowship, the vibrant Dominican parish in Charlottesville, and so many more organizations enrich Christianity here just as much as Campus Ministry or any of the other Catholic organizations at Notre Dame. There may not be a chapel down the hall or a crucifix hanging in the classroom anymore, but I don’t have to go much further to find models of faith at UVA.

All this narrowing down is to make the conclusion that when you graduate from Notre Dame, you won’t miss it merely because your new life involves a job, detached student life, or an established secular culture. You’ll miss it quite simply because your new life isn’t at Notre Dame, and no other institution of education or employment can match it.

What is it that makes Notre Dame one of the most special (if not the most special) places of education, breathtaking beauty, athletics, and religion in all of America? Precisely because it is the nexus of all those good things. We might say that the people are what make Notre Dame so special to us, and on a case-by-case basis, this is certainly true. But unlike almost any other institution, there is something sacred about the place itself, and everyone who sets foot on campus immediately detects it. When the most ardent atheist is stirred by God quad, when the most apathetic sports fan perceives and appreciates the history around Notre Dame Stadium, and when the most committed modernist is struck by the classical architecture, you know that you’re in a truly extraordinary place.

I frequently tell people that Notre Dame is the greatest institution of higher education in America. This shouldn’t make you (or me) feel too pretentious for earning a Notre Dame degree, but rather to recognize that you are tremendously fortunate and blessed. If there is a semblance of the Garden of Eden here on Earth today, I think there’s a good chance that you are living in it on an otherwise ordinary 1,200 acre plot in South Bend, Indiana. It’s a place that’s been touched by God and has been home to us in a way that nowhere else ever will be.

When you graduate one day, sadness, uncertainty, and maybe even bitterness (if you’re like me) will be some of the first symptoms you experience. August will roll around, and despite the excitement that comes with a new adventure, you’ll inevitably be upset that you aren’t going back. But when that moment comes, I urge you to remember this important fact: almost no one on Earth gets to experience Notre Dame like you did. We don’t know why we received this blessing, but we did. And all we can offer in response is gratitude to the God who created this blessing, protects it, and shared it with us individually.

One day, it will be your time to leave the Garden, and when you do, carry forth the mission of that sacred place by sharing the joy, wisdom, and faith that you were given there. Notre Dame student life may be in my past, but the blessing lives on in me. All I can do now is offer thanks for the opportunity to have lived in the Garden, one of God’s greatest creations.

Henry Dickman is a first year law student at the University of Virginia and a 2017 graduate of Notre Dame. The highlight of his adult life so far is grocery shopping; email him at hjd5nc@virginia.edu to learn more.

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