While the University of Notre Dame has been coeducational for 50 years, the first female undergraduate student graduated one year before women were officially welcomed to the University. A pioneer at Notre Dame, Mary Davey Bliley ’72 continues to be recognized as someone who paves the way for others, defending and supporting them.
When Mary arrived at a Chicago train station in 1968, she was surrounded by disarray. Vietnam War protests and riots reverberated through the city, and a potential merger between St. Mary's and Notre Dame caused unrest on campus. In anticipation of the merger, she began to take classes through Notre Dame’s business school.
However, years later, during the Thanksgiving break of her senior year, Mary received a shock: the merger was off. She received a letter that she would not receive a degree from St. Mary's and was not to attend any graduation ceremonies. Distraught, she turned to Dean Raymond of Notre Dame. Many of her credits were from Notre Dame, and she was unsure what this would mean for her future.
Dean Raymond told her what he always did: “Stick with me, and we’re going to get you out of here.”
In April, Dean Raymond called her back into her office. “You’re going to graduate—and not only will you graduate, but you’ll be the first female undergraduate from the University of Notre Dame and the only female in your class.”
She recalls her graduation ceremony and how she was called up on stage to receive her diploma and a kiss on the cheek from Fr. Hesburgh, the University’s president at that time. She considers it to be one of the proudest moments of her life.
Since her graduation, Mary’s Notre Dame degree and the alumni network have taken her throughout the United States and Europe. However, she always strives to remember where she came from and the education that created these opportunities.
“The Notre Dame degree is a passport that creates opportunities throughout the financial world,” she said. “Whether in New York City negotiating Eastern European financing or working in Vienna, I was mindful that I was the person from a town that doesn’t have a stoplight to this day.”
Mary worked hard in investment banking on Wall Street for many years, a job she was offered once an employee heard about her degree from Notre Dame. However, she is most proud of how hard she worked to protect the dignity of the women around her, standing up to sexism within her offices and working as a guardian for others.
“All along, I knew that my Notre Dame degree had prepared me to do anything,” she says.
She later volunteered with a hospital in her city of Richmond, Virginia, raising hundreds of thousands of dollars for cancer research using the same marketing skills that she had learned back at Notre Dame.
For Mary, it was her mission to take what she had learned at Notre Dame and use it wherever she went, championing women worldwide and cancer patients in her community.
As the first undergraduate woman to graduate from Notre Dame, she set the stage for others to follow.
Rose Benas ’23 has always been interested in other countries and international relations. Now, she uses her skills as a researcher to create peace.
Rose makes a difference for good by utilizing her own unique experiences to inform and inspire her work. Having been adopted from China due to the One Child Policy, she is researching how the Chinese government’s rhetoric about this policy changed before its end in 2015 to better understand how authoritarian regimes use framing narratives.
“I’m very committed to preserving human dignity and am driven by wanting to understand the relationships between people and how those can lead to peace, cooperation, and more understanding,” she said.
As a student, she spends her time working at the Writing Center and working internships around the world to further this goal.
In the summer of 2021, she edited grant proposals, created curricular materials, worked with students, and more at the Vietnamese nonprofit Nghi Luc Song, which offers free resources to people with disabilities. The following winter, she researched civil law for a refugee legal and advocacy center in South Africa. She’s also worked with the Summer Service Learning Program, Alliance for Catholic Education, and Professor Karrie Kroesel as a research assistant on civic education in authoritarian regimes.
Her care for people and global connections inspires this research, and when she graduates, she wants to bring that to the classroom. Through the opportunities she’s found at Notre Dame, Rose has realized that she wants to teach children.
“I want to help my students understand that they’re capable of so many things, including exploring their passions, building confidence, and thinking about how they can impact the world and be a force for good,” she said.
She knows that her education in political science and global affairs will help her throughout her life, especially as a teacher, by fostering an openness to learning about other people and cultures.
In this way, she wants to imbue her experience teaching with the skills her Notre Dame education has taught her. For that same reason, she has also added another supplemental major: Education, Schooling, and Society.
Rose is inspired by a number of powerful things—her experience of adoption, her Catholic faith, her desire to understand others and bring peace—and she will continue to use the knowledge and skills she has obtained from her time at Notre Dame to bring about a change for good.
From the beginning of Notre Dame’s coeducational history to now, a certain consistency can be seen in Notre Dame through the stories of these two powerful women. Although Mary and Rose attended Notre Dame fifty years apart, they were both prepared to pursue their goals in international relations, working hard to create change for good.
“I truly believe that I will have a variety of careers during my life, and in all of those pursuits, I want to work for the protection of human rights, build meaningful relationships with those I encounter, and empower all people to pursue their passions,” said Rose Benas ’23.