Ed Hums recalls a conversation years ago with the late Rev. Theodore M. Hesburgh, CSC, in the former University president’s storied office.
“Father Ted told me, ‘The most important interaction on this campus is between a teacher and a student, period,’” recalls Hums (ACCT ’75), accountancy teaching professor.
Isn’t that obvious? After all, isn’t that why kids go to college — to be taught by teachers?
But college is never that simple. There’s dorm life and roommates and new friends. Schedules and dining halls, clubs and concerts, crazy events like Muddy Sunday and the Polar Bear Plunge. And, of course, the studies — exams, projects, speeches and an assignment sheet rivaling a NASA countdown checklist.
It can be easy to lose sight of the fact that the most essential and defining experience is the most straightforward: the relationship between a student and a professor.
Here are a few ways that both groups at Mendoza have taken Father Ted’s words to heart to strengthen bonds, improve access and simply have a little fun. The effects can be profound — often unexpectedly — for both sides.
As a title, “Dinner with Professors” has a similar somewhat puzzling ring to it as “Dancing with the Stars.” How do these two things go together, exactly?
Quite well, as it turns out. A few years ago the Mendoza Student Leadership Association was kicking around ideas for bringing faculty members and students together outside of the classroom.
“Notre Dame has some of the greatest professors in the entire world,” said senior Charlie Russell (FIN ’16). “It’s gold to receive life guidance from such an esteemed group.”
The goal was to get students and professors to meet over dinner and talk about just about anything, said Russell, who currently serves as the MSLA chief financial officer. “These professors have lives outside the classroom and they’re interesting to engage with. When you go back to class after something new like that, it’s much easier to engage in a meaningful conversation.”
Thus, Dinner with Professors was launched.
Nearly a dozen professors have signed up since spring 2014. One of them was Karen Slaggert, associate director for the Gigot Center for Entrepreneurship. She and her husband, Paul (BBA ’74), director of the Stayer Center for Executive Education, have now hosted several dinners with various groups of business students.
Before the program, she thought about having students over for dinner, but was unsure. “I hesitated because I know how busy our students are, and I honestly wasn’t sure what to expect,” she said.
But she found out after the first dinner that the students who had not signed up were disappointed they didn’t get to be there, so the couple hosted more dinners on their own.
“It was a great experience,” Slaggert said. “We just had a boatload of fun. They seem to really enjoy getting off campus and getting dinner with the faculty members.”
Colleen Wade (ITM ’15) said the dinners gave students a feeling of home. Wade, whose hometown of Stafford, Va., is 12 hours from South Bend, appreciated that experience. “Being welcomed into homes that felt like my own, with family pictures framed on the walls and furniture that didn’t look like it belonged in a college dorm room, was a huge comfort and escape from the sometimes overwhelming nature of ND life,” she said.
Todd Hill (MBA ’11, FIN ’91), a senior director at the Notre Dame Office of Information Technology who also teaches at Mendoza, remembers his family welcoming six students to his South Bend home last winter. They ate takeout from Papa Vino’s, played a few games and talked.
It was truly a family affair. Hill’s wife, Mary, and their children, Anna and Brody, joined in for a round of Magic Carpet. Soon there were two adults, two children and six college students who fell somewhere in between, choosing up teams, sitting on rugs and scooting across the floor like 5-year-olds. Win or lose, each student received a box of Valentine’s candy.
The Hills realized the visit with students meant a lot to their own kids. “They still talk about that evening,” Hill said. “In their eyes, the Notre Dame students are rock stars, and this only helped cement that status. The students were kind, gracious, thoughtful and inclusive, all the behaviors you want to be modeled for your children.”
Their Dinner with Professors night closed with a sundae bar, the idea of his daughter.
In all, his kids only had one complaint at the end of the night.
“My son got a little upset and teary-eyed when he learned it was time for the students to go home,” Hill recalled. “When we asked him why he was so sad, he said, ‘I thought they were going to have a sleepover with us.’”
Sometimes, meeting students in a neutral space even helps the profs, as they, too, can be stressed out about excelling.
“I get very focused on class prep,” said Brian Levey (FIN ’84), an accountancy teaching professor who along with his wife, Alison (FIN ’84), the assistant director of Undergraduate Studies at Mendoza, began taking their office hours to the dining hall once a week as a way to reach out to the students. Bringing the office to the dining hall “gets you out of your routine,” Levey says. “This sort of hits the reset button.”
“You get to the dining hall and you see a little bit more of the whole person,” added Levey, who worked mainly in the area of setting up ethics and compliance programs for companies such as WorldCom and Fannie Mae after the scandals, before returning to Notre Dame eight years ago.
“The students are so smart and such good people from such nice families,” he said. “And you find out, well, they are not only smart enough to get into Notre Dame, but they are a tremendous athlete or they’re in the band or in the play or doing this amazing service. You find out they are doing all these other things.”
And, hearkening back to Father Ted’s words, “finding out” is what college is truly about.
Ed Hums only needs to step outside his door to meet with students. He and his wife Shirley already live on campus in an apartment in the dorm Lyons Hall. But Hums also has a long-time habit of meeting with students at 7:30 a.m. on Tuesdays and Thursdays at LaFortune Student Center to watch and discuss stock market results, and really converse about anything.
“You make it a very relaxed environment,” said Hums. “It’s not like you are visiting a student in your office where it’s kind of like ‘professor space,’ you are visiting students in student space.”
Jim Fuehrmeyer is the academic director for the Master of Science in Accountancy (MSA). He’s a busy guy. But he creates the opportunity to meet with students by inviting them to share part of his daily routine: breakfast at Reckers.
Specifically, eggs at Reckers. Fuehrmeyer works out, then meets up with any takers. He orders his eggs, then sits down to chat with students who most likely are starting the day earlier than their normal roll-out-of-bed-and-get-to-class routine. He has found the breakfast meetings help him to better appreciate the students and their challenges.
Fuehrmeyer said students often ask him about marriage and how to balance family life with their career. Budgeting, debt and major purchases planned for the future also come up often at the meetings.
“These are young professionals, potentially at least, who have a lot more going on in their lives than I might see in a classroom on a given day,” he said. “It helps me as a faculty member appreciate that they do have other things that impact their time or their perceived or intended goals.”
He’s always happy to talk about anything students share with him.
“You don’t see this in class, but they are really trying to sort out what life is going to be like when they leave the womb here,” he said. “And I think a lot of times we underestimate how scary that is for them.”
Just before the 2015 ND Football home opener, the Amato family gathered at the Log Chapel to celebrate Mass in honor of wife and mother Nancy, who passed away in April 2015 after battling pancreatic cancer. The family founded Pants Off Racing in her honor to raise awareness for pancreatic cancer. (See page 37 for story.)
Up jogged Carl Ackermann, soaked through from a sudden downpour. After a round of hugs and a quick change into a matching T-shirt the family had made especially for the gathering, Ackermann took a place in the middle of them for a photoshoot.
Ackermann has become one of the Amato family. He previously ran two races to fundraise for pancreatic cancer, including a 200-mile relay race with 23 “teammates.” “He came all the way to Toledo, Ohio, on the Friday after Thanksgiving to give my mom a jersey that ND football player David Grimes had given him,” said Patrick Amato (ACCT ’03). He went home the same night. He even bought one of the silent auction items, which was to have dinner with my parents. Classic Carl, always going out of his way to help others.”
Bowling, mini golf, pick-up basketball, fierce pingpong games in the dorms, paintball, coffee at the bookstore, breakfast, lunch, dinner. When it comes to making a personal connection with students outside the classroom, Ackermann is the unofficial ND goodwill ambassador to hundreds of business students, athletes, alums and a great many more people. And he will go to virtually any length to forge the connection.
Ackermann teaches Introduction to Finance, which means that in any given semester, he might have close to 600 students. Which means close to 600 new names and faces to learn, as well as personal facts such as favorite foods, sports and hobbies, hometowns and family members. Ackermann asks students to jot down the facts on the first day of class. Then, he doesn’t so much memorize them as live them.
On about any day, you can walk through one of the campus’ cafes or nearby restaurants and spot Ackermann chatting with a student over coffee. “The venues that work best are the ones that allow for an activity, but also a natural conversation,” he said.
Often he makes it a point to have the student’s favorite food or some little gift item there. Even a small gesture like that says to a student — who may be thousands of miles away from home and feeling every inch — someone at Notre Dame is paying attention and cares.
“I feel like I’ve failed in a lot of things,” said Ackermann, who was a former professional soccer referee and high school teacher — background experiences that surely provided a lot of opportunity to learn how to listen and share. “So I feel like I’ve learned a lot along the way, not only about the subject matter but about life experiences.”