I remember sliding into the back of my dad’s navy blue Ford Edge five and a half years ago. The trunk was packed, and as I climbed into the back seat of the car with the rest of my belongings, an ewok, an owl named Hedwig, and a stuffed lion, I was terrified. I felt sick to my stomach and as much as some part of me was excited, another part of me was terrified. It was time to move to Notre Dame and start college. I was leaving all my friends behind, the only town I’d ever lived in, and the people I loved. I might have cried a little in the car behind my sunglasses.
And then I got here and the terror abated in a whirlwind of Frosh-O activities. My room in BP had view of the dome out our window. It felt like a sign of good things to come. I became friends with the sports-loving blonde girl from St. Louis down the hall, the proud Texan from Houston, the former soccer player from Farmington Hills, Michigan, and later the clarinet player in the homemade Weasley sweater. Soon I knew the names that went with the faces of the girls in my dorm, and I began making friends across campus. Classes were hard, but I adjusted quickly.
I want to tell you that every moment I spent at Notre Dame was wonderful, but it wasn’t. There were late nights, too-little sleep, too-much homework, fights with friends, break-ups, weeks of being sick, and times that I felt lonely, brokenhearted, and sad. There were even days at the beginning when I wanted to leave. I made a lot of homesick phone calls, but one day I called my mom and told her that I knew I was where I meant to be; that I was so happy here; that there was nowhere else I wanted to be. I was home at last.
My four years passed quickly in a flurry of football seasons (one of which included the National Championship game in 2012), more papers than I want to remember, conversations with some of the most incredible people I have ever known, walks around the lakes, nights lighting candles at the grotto, basketball games, dancing on air conditioners in Keough, Wednesdays at Finnie’s, the walk to Carroll, the beginning and continuation of my Starbucks addiction, a semester in London, giving tours, falling in love, moving off campus, Thirsty Thursdays, themed parties, exploring South Bend, Spring Break in Gulf Shores, going to the Kentucky Derby, the turret room in Sorin, walking past the dome, and then graduattion…the menial and extraordinary moments that were my Notre Dame experience.
I had every intention of leaving Notre Dame after 4 years; I wanted to leave. But then there was a full-graduate tuition offer on the table for me to get my Masters in English at Notre Dame. For a moment I was conflicted, and then I looked around. I was sitting on the cold, hard ground staring up at the dome trying to photograph it for my Photo 1 class. If that wasn’t a sign, I don’t know what is.
I stayed. I was glad, but I learned the truth of “You only get 4 years.” The Notre Dame I loved graduated. Almost all of my favorite people left and grad school was a whole lot less fun than undergrad, and so much more work. I was in the same place, but I had to adjust again. And I did. And it was hard. And some days I felt like a freshman all over again trying to figure it all out. Gradually the imposter syndrome wore off, football was just as fun as ever, and all fall my favorite people pilgrimaged back to the Bend. I learned how to write a graduate paper, and somewhere along the way, I even got good at it.
In a week, I’ll hand in my last graduate paper and my final project will be completed. I had my last day of classes on Wednesday, and I think I walked into DeBart for the final time as a student. Part of me is terribly sad to be leaving Notre Dame, especially after all this time. But I have found that what was true at the end of senior year, is true once again: when the time comes for you to leave, you’ll be ready. To quote Rudy, “I’ve been ready for this my whole life.” Okay, maybe I’m still not ready to be a real adult, but it’s coming ready or not, and I’m going to embrace it.
I will miss getting to walk past the golden dome all the time. And I’ll have to learn how to pray without the Grotto. I know I will feel just like Tom Dooley did in his letter: “But just now . . . and just so many times, how I long for the Grotto. Away from the Grotto Dooley just prays. But at the Grotto, especially now when there must be snow everywhere and the lake is ice glass and that triangular fountain on the left is frozen solid and all the priests are bundled in their too-large too-long old black coats and the students wear snow boots . . . if I could go to the Grotto now then I think I could sing inside. I could be full of faith and poetry and loveliness and know more beauty, tenderness and compassion.”
I have loved my time at Notre Dame and as it comes to an end, I am simply grateful, infinitely grateful for my 4 years of undergrad, and for my extra time here. At the end of senior year, I fretted that Notre Dame didn’t have anything left to teach me. In hindsight, that was silly. I have learned so much in the last year and a half. Sure, my classes taught me more than I ever could have imagined, but more importantly I learned how important passion is and the value of hard work (and that I didn’t actually want to get my PhD). I learned that true love is not broken by a distance in time and place, and that your real friends will still be your friends even when they’re on the other side of the country or across the pond. I learned how to be alone with myself, and how to challenge myself. I even learned that you can go from only being able to run 3 miles to completing the Holy Half if you want to finish that half marathon badly enough.
So as I’m once again on the brink of loading up my car and leaving home, I’m trying to remind myself that I can do this. That ready or not, it’s happening. And that “it’s better to leave too soon, than too late” as one of my best friends reminded me. I will cry when I leave, as I do every year, but this time it will be unabashedly, because this is truly the end. And that makes me sad, even as I am so excited for my next big adventure. My last days will have more stress than I had hoped, but I’ve promised myself one last walk around the lakes, a last trip to the Grotto, a few more dome pictures, and some time to just be infinitely grateful. Because at the end of the day, if you’re lucky enough to be Irish, you’re lucky enough.
Here’s to my next month of adventures in the Bend, Buffalo, London, Oxford, Edinburgh, and finally Denver. I may be leaving campus, but to quote Harry Potter, “I’m not going home, not really.” After all, Notre Dame will always be there to welcome us home.
All images provided by author.