I’ve been wanting to write about what it feels like to graduate from Notre Dame for the better part of the last year that I’ve been away from it. And I’ve tried, but things were too close to be able to see correctly, they were too much the water I was still swimming in.
At Notre Dame, one of my most impactful professors taught us something important about telling personal stories: before you tell your story, make sure the emotions around it are at least mostly healed. In other words, make sure you have reckoned with it, lived in it, breathed it, and know what you think about it— all this while understanding that inherent flux of life, memories, emotion. I am just now getting there.
It’s been a year now since I’ve left the place that my dad, previous to my freshman year, liked to call “Catholic Disney World”. The place where two of my older siblings also studied, prayed, celebrated, and lived. The place that shaped them so entirely and so lovingly (and sometimes not so gently), that any time they could, they reminded me to appreciate the best four years of my life while I was in them.
A year out, I’m still living into what it means to have so fully and purposefully drank the Kool Aid that is loving your college experience, family, and traditions. Because, admittedly, the thought that your best four years are behind you is rather depressing. Yet, at the same time, dorm mass and football weekends and the Backer and cinnamon rolls at Waddick’s with best friends while the always-present snow falls outside—these years were deep years, shaping years, joyful years. How do you deal with both of these truths simultaneously? What do you do when, a year later, watching Notre Dame transform for football weekends from a few states away brings not only the old excitement, but a new and breath-taking nostalgia?
I did not go to the Michigan game this past weekend, and it physically pained me to stay away. I am in my second year of medical school, we have tests in a week, and I am not smart enough to be able to not study for a whole weekend and still pull a good grade. I watched the game and it was good, but not the heart stopping, emotionally-wrenching, all-senses experience that is being there. I didn’t get to see everyone who went who I haven’t seen in a year—people who were your favorite person to find in the dining hall or walking across South Quad on a Friday morning, but whom, miles apart, you may not feel close enough to to schedule a FaceTime session or visit with. (As an aside: TELL THESE PEOPLE YOU MISS THEM. Even if they won’t be in your wedding. Life is short, love is large. That is all). The people who made ND welcoming, warm, home.
For me, to go to the game would have meant choosing my old life rather than my current one. Not because visiting ND is not a beautiful and connected thing that keeps us ensconced in a wonderful community, but because it would have meant screwing myself over for tests and coming back exhausted when I needed to take care of myself. It would mean choosing a couple days to get to re-immerse myself in the beautifully built world of my old college life—one that made sense to me and is already a finished product—instead of staying in the still new-to-me place of St. Louis and medical school that was demanding and needing my attention.
The hardest part of your “freshman year of adulting” (as my rector at ND called it), is that everything is your choice. When you wake up, what you do, what you value, who you’re with—it’s all up to you in a wide, wide way that I, at least, never dealt with in college. I made some decisions— roommates, clubs, dining hall, abroad or no, Backer or Finnie’s (…Backer.). But now, all the decisions are mine, and they don’t read like a multiple choice test with only, say, four viable options. They read like the number of tulips on campus at Easter, or the candles in the Grotto—countless.
This is Terrifying. This is Hopeful. This is New.
This is going to be, without a doubt, ugly for a WHILE.
And it is empowering.
The first time I watched a game from my couch instead of from the House that Rockne Built, I wept. Real, fat, tears—and I don’t even like football that much (a sin, I realize). As lame as it sounds, I had real grief, a real crater in my chest that my college home previously occupied. How do you move on from that?
This strange and ridiculous grief lives and crawls around like any grief—which means you won’t move on from it. You will carry it with you, and it teaches you. Perhaps this is rationalization, or comforting and untruthful optimism. Or perhaps, this is what is real.
On the day of the Michigan game, I had a lazy morning reading poetry and writing. The poetry was recommended by my best friend from Notre Dame, who was the one watching snow and sharing cinnamon rolls with me. I met with a couple friends for brunch, and gave advice that had been instilled into me during my time working for a summer program for Notre Dame. I studied outside on the balcony I share with my roommate, one of my best friends from medical school. When I first met her, I was not the scared or shy person I had tendencies toward in high school, because many aspects of Notre Dame loved me into being myself.
The worst part of sallying forth from college is that you have to become more of your own person. The best part of sallying forth from college is that you get to choose who that person is. Believe me when I say Notre Dame has not left me alone, not for one second or one day, because who we are made into there is the person we bring out into the real world.
This is where graduating is hopeful and exciting. We saw beauty. We were loved into ourselves in community. We were taught to work intentionally. We, all of us missing our university, found and fell in love with some form of beauty there. Whether you know it or not, you were educated by that beauty you now miss. The hole in your chest is painful, but it is also a call to go out and build. The call is not to rebuild or regress to your college experience, nor to have the most powerful Notre Dame Club in the Nation (Chicago will always be the largest). The call is to work from the nostalgia for the beauty you were invited into, and build something new from your longing in the place you are now.
This is not easy. We have never built. We have never had to choose. We were dumped in a treasure chest of wonderful things that already knew what they were doing, and we never had to learn how it all came together. That’s okay—we will make junk first, and again, it will be an ugly mess. Then we will try again, and again, and it won’t look the same as our first experience of that beauty, but it will be deep and meaningful and different and *yours*. That being, yours to share like you yourself were shared with.
This is long and rambly, but that is okay— it is from the place of longing that misses what ND represented while I was there. It is my junky first draft. It is an attempt to go out and create and be where I am now, being changed by ND as I was.
Graduating sucks. You will always miss ND.
Go build from that.
Note: I don’t think that this is true for only ND. I think this is true of any beloved alma mater, but my experiences are with that one school in South Bend. Carry on!