Students voice concerns about restructured Welcome Week

The University of Notre Dame has rebranded their annual Welcome Week Committee as the St. Andre Committee, built upon the pillars of allyship and inclusion.

Despite renaming the committee after a saint of the Catholic Church, several student members of this committee expressed concerns that the Welcome Week programming will not properly introduce the incoming class of students to the Catholic identity of Notre Dame, and that it even goes expressly against Catholic teaching. Lauren Donahue and Andrew Whittington, co-directors of the committee, spoke with the Rover about these students’ concerns.

St Andre’s Witness of Welcoming

Every fall, incoming students and a volunteer group of returning students arrive on campus the week before classes begin for Welcome Week. In a May 2021 meeting, Lauren Donahue, the Program Director for New Student Engagement, explained the goals and plans for this fall’s Welcome Week to the volunteers.

Donahue encouraged those volunteering to embody the spirit of St Andre Bessette, the only canonized member of the Congregation of the Holy Cross and the committee’s namesake, stating, “The life that he lived expresses ideals that we all should live on a daily basis.” St Andre was the doorkeeper of his community of Holy Cross priests and brothers, Donahue explained, and the students of Notre Dame ought to strive to imitate the way he welcomed visitors to his community when encountering the Notre Dame Class of 2025.

“St Andre took on this ministry of welcoming people at the door, and he got to know the folks as they would come to this place—this church and the school that they were running there,” she continued. “He was able to have a very profound impact on people’s lives in the simplest ways which he engaged with people: in leading and taking on these small tasks with zeal, in creating a space that was inclusive and kind and welcoming for folks—a place where they felt safe and comfortable.”

Understanding the Pillars of “Allyship” and “Inclusion”

This introduction to the committee’s namesake preceded the main content of the meeting, which instructed students about how to embody this spirit of inclusion, kindness, and welcoming which St Andre was said to exemplify. However, several students at the meeting noted that the use of St Andre’s name was the only way in which Catholicism was a part of this discussion.

One student told the Rover, “I recognize the effort of the administration to invoke the Catholic identity of the school through the name of the committee, but unfortunately, from my perspective, that is as far as the committee goes to advocate for the Catholic mission. At the evening of training they had us attend a few weeks ago, I can’t recall one time when the word “Catholic” was said without a negative connotation […] Besides speaking on St. Andre, the majority of the time spent considering Catholicism was when dealing with how to make others not feel uncomfortable by the Catholic identity of Notre Dame.”

This student continued, “The only real goals that were laid out for us were to be inclusive (have inclusive thoughts, use inclusive language) and to be an “ally” towards others. Not only are these highly subjective words, but they also offer no real insight on how to welcome others to campus.”

On a slide which displayed the rainbow Pride flag, the presentation defined “Ally” as “a person within a given community who sits on the side of social power or privilege and works to create a space for the genuine voices of those who don’t have that privilege to come through.”  Donahue encouraged the students in the meeting to “think through tangible action items that you can even take beginning tonight and tomorrow to continue being an active ally to our students.”

In the context of Welcome Week itself, Donahue told the students how they could do this: “Using inclusive language—not assuming that all of our students are straight, not assuming the gender of our students or their identity in a variety of ways—so really being conscientious of the language that you use—I think is key and goes a long way.” She continued, “I would think about this in the way that you word icebreakers and team builders, to be sure that you’re not assuming an identity of someone or creating a space where someone might out themselves in particular ways of who they are.”

She later added, “I think it’s also having inclusive thoughts and not being like, ‘Oh my God this woman brought a whole moving truck of things,’ or thinking how this person brought nothing with them to college, or making assumptions in your mind. Be conscientious of even the thoughts that you have and really stick to our inherent values that we have articulated.”

Donahue told the Rover, “I view my work as honoring the inherent dignity that every individual has in the likeness and image of God, and I think conversations about allyship and inclusion go hand in hand to that for me. The characteristics of what it means to be an ally and what it means to be inclusive feels incredibly rooted in the way that I live out my Catholic faith, and I think it is one that the university strives for similarly—that all are welcome at the Eucharistic table. If you imagine the way that Jesus broke bread, who he was breaking bread with was just incredibly inclusive.”

Regarding allyship and inclusion, she continued, “[With] those two words in and of itself, I don’t feel that there’s a dissonance for me with the Catholic values that we were using in the meeting and seeking to foster for all of our students.”

Student Reactions

Several student members of the committee who were in attendance strongly disagreed. One such student informed the Rover via email, “The strongest concern I have is with the usage of words like “allyship” and “inclusion” as being our pillars. [These] words have originated out of a modern secular culture that has given them a lot of baggage to the point where I feel a Catholic institution should not use them as a foundation for a major programming event.”

This student continued, “The committee’s purpose has been presented to us as more of a “woke” collection of students who are meant to spread the message of our secular culture that embraces relativistic acceptance with no holds barred. Our training included an exhaustive list of rules, such as wearing BLM or ally pins and not assuming gender.”

Another member of the committee, Dorrian Cohen, told the Rover, “I believe the committee as a whole seeks to severely minimize the Catholic identity of the University in a well-intentioned yet destructive effort to preemptively pursue the comfort of non-Catholic new students.”

Rising sophomore Nicholas Schmitz concurred: “We were told to only plan events that were open to all religious traditions, and our breakout session focused on things we can do to make non-Catholic students feel welcome. These are good conversations to have and are not bad themselves; however, there was never any conversation on how the Faith and the Catholic mission of the school could be solutions to these problems, or any conversations on how to promote and uphold the Catholic mission of the school. At Notre Dame, especially when trying to display our values (which is the goal of the committee), we ought to celebrate the Catholic tradition and mission of the University, not ‘deal’ with it.”

Furthermore, one student added, “One of the best ways in which I found community and brotherhood in my dorm was through attending Mass and participating in faith formation groups. After hearing the language and goals of the St. Andre committee at the meeting a few weeks ago, I feel discouraged from trying to provide a similar experience for the freshman. It would not be ‘inclusive’ as a member of the St. Andre committee to encourage new students to go to Mass or to schedule events or groups grounded in the Faith.”

Responses From the Administration

In response to this last statement, Andrew Whittington, Program Director for First Year Student Engagement, told the Rover, “I think I speak for both Lauren [Donahue] and myself when I say, we constantly want to invite students into deeper relationship with God, deeper relationship with themselves, deeper knowledge of themselves, deeper relationship with the men and women around them. But whenever that invitation becomes an expectation that you do what I ask of you or that you conform to my idea of what you should be, I think that that dynamic changes. That’s no longer an invitation so much as a requirement. I would encourage all of our Andre Committee members to constantly invite students into what they are most passionate about, what they see are their most important aspects of their Notre Dame experience.”

Donahue elaborated, “I think it is an inclusive act to come to a Mass, to come to a faith sharing group. If a student feels that that is something that they can’t do or something that they shouldn’t be doing, then that is very opposite of the inclusive community we are trying to create […] what makes this place [Notre Dame] so beautiful is that we can honor a variety of faith traditions.”

Problematic Conclusions

One final student whom the Rover interviewed about the St. Andre Committee, however, further spoke to this concern which Donahue sought to reconcile. This student informed the Rover that the committee members were instructed that they were “not meant to assume religion, supposedly to prevent exclusion of our non-Catholic community members on campus.”

She expressed concerns that “this particularly seemed to present religion (including Catholicism) as merely an aspect of someone’s identity, instead of something greater. This suppresses any kind of conversation surrounding our Catholic identity and how students who attend Notre Dame are going to be engaging with Catholicism on some level. The training we received did offer a history lesson of the founding of Holy Cross and the holiness of St. Andre Bessette, but it immediately used this as a springboard into our two pillars of “allyship” and “inclusion” that had no visible anchoring in Catholic teachings, and instead advocated for inclusion seemingly at the expense of our identity as a Catholic institution. In my own committee, I feel little support for any programming that would introduce students to the Catholic character of the university. I’m being asked to wear visible signs of my allyship—not to Catholic teaching, but to an allyship with the LGBTQ+ movement, despite the numerous conflicting views between the two that have not been addressed.”

The members of the St. Andre Committee will receive further instructions and training for Welcome Week at a later date before arriving on campus during the third week of August. The Rover will report on any significant developments in the administration’s plans for introducing the incoming students to the Catholic identity of Notre Dame.

Joe DeReuil is a sophomore studying in the Program of Liberal Studies, Classics, and Constitutional Studies. This fall, he will be found on God Quad observing the construction on his beloved Sorin College. He is excited to meet the Class of 2025 and would love to hear from them or anyone else at wdereuil@nd.edu.