Meet Jess Balko '16

Watch out, Notre Dame, Jess Balko has just arrived home from a semester in Rome and is ready to take on senior year! Jess is talented at almost everything you could think of. She’s a photographer, singer, guitarist, runner and more. She has one of the most packed schedules of anyone I know, but she is passionate about everything she does. If you haven’t met Jess yet, try to track her down before she graduates. You’ll definitely have your work cut out for you, but I promise it’ll be worth it. 

Name:  Jessica Marie Balko

Hometown:  Mishawaka, IN

Dorm:  Pangborn Hall

Major: Music History and Peace Studies with a minor in Studio Art

Year: Senior

What activities are you involved with on campus?

Liturgical Choir, volunteer tutoring, and Baraka Bouts

What drew you to some of these activities?

I’ve always loved singing and Liturgical Choir seemed to be a great fit. I’ve been truly blessed to be part of such an amazing group on campus. Liturgical Choir has shaped my college experience in numerous ways and I am extremely grateful for that. 

I began tutoring because I love kids. I’ve been tutoring the same girl since she was in 4th grade and now she is going into 6th grade. We have a lot of fun and it’s been an awesome experience to work with her over a length of time. It’s been truly eye opening.

I was drawn to Baraka Bouts because of the mission. I’ve been involved in athletics, but what is unique about Baraka Bouts is that we work towards a greater goal. Sometimes practices can be tough and knowing why we fight is a great motivation. The funds we raise go towards Holy Cross Missions in East Africa. 

When did you start singing/playing guitar and how did you learn?

I’ve been singing for as long as I can remember.  My parents joke that I breathe by singing! I sang in church choir, school choir, and different ensembles. My greatest claim to fame is singing in hotel showers. People tell me they’ve heard me down the hall (so sorry if you’ve ever been my neighbor!).

I began playing guitar by following a DVD and a little songbook until I began taking lessons.  I’ve also learned a lot from people I play guitar with.  We can just be messing around and having fun, but I really do learn a lot in those moments.

Any upcoming gigs?

Yes! The Acorn Theatre in Three Oaks, Michigan has an open mic night every Tuesday. It’s an awesome venue and I love hearing other artists. It is also one of my favorite places to see concerts.

What do you like about photography and what are your favorite things to photograph?

In a photograph you capture a moment that anyone around you is experiencing, but the photographer selects what the viewer is able to see from all that is going on. There is a lot of responsibility and opportunity in that. I aim to capture emotion in my photographs; hopefully something that a viewer will think twice about.

During my study abroad experience I loved capturing each city I visited and various experiences. I wanted to share what was going on in my life with others who were not physically with me. Throughout my college experience, I’ve found that I love working in the studio as well because there are many elements in which I can control and have the ability to create an image.

What were some highlights of your time abroad in Rome this past spring?

My roommates in Rome were fantastic. I loved experiencing the city with such amazing people. One of my roommates from the past semester is from Naples, so she invited us to her home.  I think that is one of my favorite weekends I spent abroad. I didn’t know it was possible to eat so much. It was a physical effort towards the end, but the food was so amazing that I couldn’t refuse. Italian hospitality is overwhelmingly welcoming and wonderful.

Another weekend I traveled with my roommate to Cinque Terre and we hiked between the five cities in one day. We were really proud of the accomplishment and took full advantage of the bragging rights. That trip was unlike any other I’d experienced up to that point. I think it is one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been.

I also really enjoyed writing in cafes, reading in the park, and going for walks through the city. I love doing all of those things and I think Rome enhanced the possibilities and incentive to do them frequently. I felt constantly inspired by and in Rome.

What three places would you recommend people visit in Rome if they ever visit?

Piazza Garibaldi on top of Janiculum Hill, the Roman Forum, and the Pyramid of Caius Cestius.

What advice do you have for students studying abroad or thinking of studying abroad?

Do it. I was skeptical prior to my departure of everyone’s, “Oh my gosh, it will change your life” statements, but I really found that to be true. It is difficult to describe my experience without using cliché statements, but I strongly encourage anyone with an inkling of interest to pursue a study abroad or an abroad experience of any kind. I’ve met so many amazing people who challenged me to think and act differently. My experiences abroad revealed things about myself I had not realized. Being abroad challenges the norms that might have seemed inevitable prior to experiencing another way of life. On top of all that, it really is a lot of fun.

Favorite foods eaten abroad?

Cappuccino! I think I drank at least one a day. I also ate a lot of gelato…and pizza…and pasta. Oh man, and Nutella. I ate SO much Nutella. I ate it with and on everything. Sometimes I ate it with nothing else (that might seem a little embarrassing, but I am honestly not ashamed.  It was worth every bite.) I became very adventurous with the food I tried by the end of the semester.  I love pasta with seafood, and gnocchi.

Favorite spot on campus?

The grotto.

What advice would you give to incoming freshman?

Embrace it all and don’t feel pressure to hide any flaws. There are many ups and downs, but there are a lot of people around you to help out during the tougher times. Don’t be afraid to ask for it. Vulnerability isn’t a sign of weakness by any means, but sometimes it is easy to forget that when caught up in the stress and pressure we face during the school year. People with whom I’ve shared my greatest struggles with, I’ve also shared the highlights of my college career with.

What are your plans for the summer?

This summer I am working and taking a class. I hope to spend as much time as possible at the beach, visiting friends, traveling, hiking, and running.

Future goals/dreams?

My goal used to be to graduate from the University of Notre Dame. So far, I’m on the right track! After school I am excited to see how and where music and art fit into my life.  I’m not sure what that will look like for me yet, but my goal is to keep both a priority even if they are not part of my career.  In addition, my goal is to live a life that allows me to travel.


Thanks Jess!! HCND XO.


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Images: provided by interviewee