“No, of course, Mr. Huot, I completely understand. You should definitely pick up your wife from her bridge class. I’ll call you back tomorrow… Yes! I promise to look at the maple tree… Alright. Have a good day, Mr. Huot… You too. Go Irish!”
I have trouble keeping the smile off my face as I hang up the phone. Without even realizing it, I’d been on the phone for half an hour with Mr. Huot, who is the second in a four-generation Notre Dame family. I’m constantly impressed by how easily calls can flow - even when the only obvious connection I have with the person on the other end is a love of Notre Dame.
And therein lies the beauty of ND Listens, the student engagement center where I work. ND Listens was created by the Division of University Relations to engage members of the Notre Dame family—to listen, learn, and love, as our motto goes. At ND Listens, students chat with members of the ND Family about recent campus events, thank donors for gifts to the University, wish alumni happy birthdays, pray at the Grotto for suffering loved ones—anything to help Notre Dame alumni, parents, and friends connect with the school. The true magic of ND Listens, though, the true success of the operation, stems from the unique strength of the Notre Dame family, which makes our job of fostering connections so easy.
At one time, students working in the phone center called alumni to ask for donations. As more donors turned to online giving, though, these conversations gradually shifted from taking gifts to trading stories. Three years ago, the University made the switch official, emphasized by the phone center’s new name: ND Listens.
Through ND Listens, the University ensures that real connections are made between the University and its alumni, parents, and friends. Student callers are instructed to focus on making each call as meaningful as possible, rather than burning through a call list in an attempt to make quotas. Answering questions about current student life or listening to stories from an alumnus or alumna’s past, ND Listens strengthens the bonds of the Notre Dame family, allowing relationships to flourish, even as community members may be geographically distant.
Oftentimes, callers find themselves unlocking cherished memories of campus stories, listening with eager ears to recollections of hitchhiking trips from New York to South Bend or bathroom stalls packed with late-night studiers because a 10 p.m lights out policy was enforced. During one of my first shifts as a caller, Mike Jack ‘72 regaled me with tales from his days as one of the Sorin “Basement Boys.” He explained the Basement Boys installed a full bar in one of their rooms, replaced their campus-issued beds with fold-out couches to maximize space, “borrowed” architecture drafting stools from Bond Hall (which they returned at the end of the year), and bought three-foot tall speakers. When I quipped it must have been hard to get work done, Jack deadpanned, “If you want to study, go to the library. Bar 31 was for a good time!”
In many ways, ND Listens is a beautiful example of the University’s long-term commitment to all members of the Notre Dame Family. In the sacred space of the phone center, ND Listens employees are privileged to provide a trusted shoulder to lean on. When an alumna answered the call in tears because her husband was in hospice, we were right alongside her, promising to light candles at the Grotto and providing a sympathetic ear to her worries, her troubles, her fears. Emma Daniels ‘20 discussed her story as a student of color with African American alumnus Gus ‘99, allowing him to open up about the pressures and limitations he experienced as a student of color. Science-business major Maryna Chuma ‘23 listened as alumna Patricia Burger ‘74 described the obstacles and prejudice she faced as a woman studying mathematics in the first coed graduating class at Notre Dame; at the end of the call, Chuma thanked Burger after for paving the way for future women in STEM like herself.
During the quarantine, callers reached out to alumni to check in on their wellbeing and let them know their Notre Dame family was thinking of them. Helton Rodriguez ‘22 called one woman who had recently lost her father and just received news her mother was diagnosed with COVID-19. Having lost his own mother in his youth, Rodriguez immediately related to her story. “I decided to be real with her. I said, ‘I’m so sorry. I know how much pain you’re in, and I wish there was more a 20-year-old boy can do to help over the phone.’” To Rodriguez’s shock, the woman replied, “You’d be surprised by how much you actually can.” For the next five minutes, Rodriguez stayed on the phone, telling jokes and doing whatever he could to ease the woman’s mind.
Not all of these vulnerable moments are somber in nature, though. We often have the opportunity to celebrate with alumni, parents, and friends. By chance, I called an alumnus to thank him for a recent gift and had the honor of celebrating his finding a match for his kidney transplant earlier that day. Claire Stein ‘22 experienced the privilege of helping another alumnus practice his conversational skills after a serious illness impaired his speaking ability. Seven students visited the nearby Holy Cross Village Senior Living Community to surprise an alumnus, Stan Severyn ‘49 for his 100th birthday. Kierston Klidonas ‘23 connected widowed Antoinette Amberg with her local Notre Dame Club so the woman would have fellow Fighting Irish fans with whom to watch football games, filling a void in her life after her husband’s passing.
ND Listens makes the idea of the Fighting Irish family more than a cliché admissions counselors’ trot out at recruiting events. It turns the concept into a reality. Families aren't just a part of shiny, happy moments like football games. They're along for the whole ride. Reaching out to alumni for birthdays, for thank yous, for quarantine check-ins, ND Listens allows Notre Dame to be a part of lives. By calling at ND Listens, we are trusted to provide a strong shoulder on the bad days, but we are privileged to be the first cheerleader on good days, too.
Three years in, ND Listens is still evolving. Constantly brainstorming new ways to broaden its net and reach more alumni, ND Listens has developed a podcast, personalized video messages, and perhaps most notably, Domers On A Bench, ND Listens’ Facebook and Instagram platform which has already amassed over 3,000 followers. Domers on a Bench showcases different members of the Notre Dame community, posting portraits of students and faculty along with brief blurbs that shed light on each student’s unique identity.
No matter the form of communication, ND Listens is dedicated to fostering a human-to-human connection. It’s committed to reminding the Notre Dame family that we are a network composed of real people with real stories. Even after alumni stop picking up their phones, after podcasts go out of vogue, after Instagram is obsolete, a reminder of our shared humanity will always be needed.
There’s something special about feeling heard, about knowing there’s another living, breathing human being out there who knows your story. Who cares enough to light a candle, who truly wants to listen and learn and love. Working at ND Listens, we get to provide that feeling. We get to tell people that they matter, that in a great big world where it’s easy to feel small, they will always have a home, a family, a support system in Notre Dame.
So, the next time you see a call from the 574 area code, take a second to answer; tell your Notre Dame story! We’d love to hear how you are doing.
Story by Julianna Conley, Notre Dame Class of 2022