Graduates find Notre Dame degree informs careers in nation’s capital
Published: Wednesday, January 23, 2013
Updated: Wednesday, January 23, 2013 12:01
WASHINGTON — The night before Indiana Sen. Joe Donnelly, then a member of the House of Representatives, was set to cast a ballot on the Affordable Care Act in 2010, he received a phone call from one of his constituents.
The voice on the other end of the line was University President Emeritus Fr. Theodore Hesburgh, and he wanted to advise Donnelly on health care reform, the senator’s communications director Elizabeth Shappell said in an email Tuesday.
But Hesburgh didn’t tell Donnelly, a 1977 alumnus and a 1981 graduate of the Law School, how to vote.
“Fr. Ted simply told then-Congressman Donnelly to vote his conscience,” Shappell said.
Donnelly cast his ballot in favor of the legislation that next day.
Hundreds of thousands congregated on the National Mall on Monday to watch President Barack Obama swear his oath of office and begin a second term as America’s commander in chief. Now, as the tourists leave, those who work in and around the federal government remain to walk the halls of the White House, the floors of the House and Senate and the streets of the nation’s capital.
Among them are a number of Notre Dame graduates who have chosen to pursue careers in public service at the federal level. Their presence in the capital and government is one that reflects the call of a Notre Dame degree — a call to devote one’s life to serving others.
Donnelly began his career on Capitol Hill in 2006 in the House of Representatives. As he builds relationships with other legislators, he said there is a certain respect associated with his Notre Dame education.
“Primarily so much of what we do here is based on the relationships you have with one another,” Donnelly told The Observer in an interview. “When you work with other legislators, your word is your bond. So those are the kinds of things that when people look at you, they say, ‘Can I count on them to be great partners in this? Will they work hard to make sure it all works?’ And Notre Dame teaches you all those things.”
A government undergraduate and a law school graduate at Notre Dame, Donnelly lost his first race for the House in 2004. He was successful in 2006 and began his career in Washington, a city he said he had only visited a handful of times before on school trips with his children.
When Donnelly was a student at Notre Dame in 1976, Republican Sen. Dick Lugar was elected to his seat to represent Indiana. Thirty-six years later, Donnelly is succeeding Lugar, stepping into the senator’s highly contested seat as a Democrat.
“The reason I ran was I thought that by doing it, I could make a difference for our country, and that’s what we’re taught at Notre Dame, is to try to make a difference,” he said. “And that’s what I try to do.”
Donnelly began his term in the Senate as fiscal cliff negotiations rattled Capitol Hill. His background at Notre Dame has prompted him to again approach the country’s woes with his conscience, just as Hesburgh recommended to him years ago.
“In regard to fiscal issues, part of the approach I have is that we have a moral obligation to my children, to the grandchildren we may have someday, to the younger people in this country that we should not be permitted to burden you with debt that we’ve run up,” Donnelly said. “This is a moral issue. … This is intergenerational theft if we don’t do this right.”
In the whirlwind of the new term, Donnelly is finally almost done with the process of setting up his office in the basement of the Russell Senate Office Building. He joked that his office has always been a “way station” for Notre Dame students and graduates away from South Bend.
Among them is 2007 alumna Elizabeth Shappell, who was once student body president and played flag football with Donnelly’s daughter. She now runs media communications for his office.
Shappell said the student interns and other workers that enter their office from Notre Dame bring a certain level of energy and leadership. They are often required to spend hours taking calls from the senator’s constituents, answering their questions and passing their needs to his staff.
“They bring not only a fantastic work ethic and a high intelligence level and the capacity to get work done in a very efficient way, but a great attitude and a high intelligence level that you know they’re in it for the right reasons,” she said.
These volunteers often move farther in politics and join the ranks of others from Notre Dame in government, Donnelly said. And those ranks include some important names. Four graduates were elected to the House in November — Democrat Peter Visclosky in Indiana and Republicans Peter King in New York, Michael Kelly and Keith Rothfus in Pennsylvania. 1993 graduate Rob Nabors works as White House director of legislative affairs and is Obama’s chief congressional liaison.
These names, the high-profile elected officials and government members, are not the only Notre Dame names in Washington. But they are the tip of a legacy Notre Dame is paving for itself among American leadership, bringing the values of one dome to another.
John Sturm has a firm handshake and a knack for storytelling. He should — he was the manager of the Notre Dame student radio stations when he was an undergraduate in 1969 and a member of the Blue Circle Honors Society, a service club comprised of student leaders across campus.
Sturm has been in Washington for years and did work in government as a lawyer for the Federal Communications Commission briefly after he graduated law school at Indiana University. But he spent the majority of his career with the Newspaper Association of America (NAA), serving as its president for 16 years and lobbying Congress on behalf of the newspaper industry until he retired in 2012.
He is now the associate vice president of federal and Washington relations at the University, a new position created this past summer. Sturm, a registered lobbyist, represents Notre Dame’s interests in Washington by trying to share with elected officials that the school is “so much more than Saturday afternoons.”
“The great thing about working with the government, around the government, is the chance to have an affect on public policy,” Sturm said. “The most important thing is to represent the interest of your client or your employer to the best of your ability.”
While he is not a politician by trade, Sturm “works the Hill” to help find grants and funding through for University research through the National Science Foundation, the Department of Defense and other agencies. He is also active on other higher education issues and policies in student aid, tax policies related to charitable deductions to the University and other legislative debates that affect Notre Dame.
“When you represent Notre Dame, it’s a marvelous opportunity to present to the elected officials what Notre Dame really stands for, the notion of doing good as well as providing a great education and great research activities and efforts.”
Sturm said Hesburgh offered “a voice of moderation and good sense,” as well as an example for Notre Dame graduates who become involved in any kind of political or government work in Washington.
“The old line was, ‘Fr. Hesburgh is everywhere except Notre Dame,’” he said. “That’s not a criticism. It’s just that he was very busy here in Washington and a lot of other places around the world because he was … not only Notre Dame’s president but an ambassador for the Catholic faith, for the University, and the best known cleric there was in public service.”
“It’s thinking outwards instead of inwards,” he said.
Condoleezza Rice never wanted to be in politics. She wanted to be a pianist.
“I started my undergraduate years as a piano major but soon realized that I was good but not quite good enough for a concert career,” she told The Observer in an email interview. “I decided to change my major and wandered into a course at the University of Denver on international politics taught by Josef Korbel, who was [former Secretary of State] Madeleine Albright’s father. Through Dr. Korbel, I found my passion for the Soviet Union and my life’s work.”
When she graduated from Denver in 1974, Rice traveled to Notre Dame to pursue a graduate degree. Her experience in South Bend was key to cementing her growing love of international issues, she said.
“I decided to do my master’s degree at Notre Dame because the University had a very strong reputation in Soviet studies, economics and international politics,” she said. “It was the perfect combination for me.”
Even for a woman who would later serve as a Secretary of State, the idea of settling in a new and unfamiliar place was daunting to Rice.
“I landed very late at the airport and was frankly a little unnerved,” she said. “It was my first time away from home. Then, driving into campus, I saw the Golden Dome and, from that moment on, I knew that I was in the right place.”
As a student in the 1970s, Rice came to Notre Dame as the University began to integrate women into its campus. Female graduate students at the time lived in Lewis Hall with the Sisters of the Holy Cross — the dorm doubled as a convent and a residence hall.
“I also remember something rather silly,” she said. “The women’s dorms had laundry facilities in the basement. The men had their laundry picked up and done each week. At the time, I don’t remember wanting to comment on it but I certainly would have now.”
Despite the challenges of integration, Rice said the University made “rapid progress” toward successful coeducation.
“I’ve been particularly impressed at the extraordinary success of women’s athletics — basketball, soccer and other sports,” Rice said. “I cheer loudly for both the sons and daughters of Notre Dame.”
Rice graduated from Notre Dame in 1975 and then pursued a doctoral degree from the University of Denver’s Graduate School of International Studies. She taught political science at Stanford University, and her work eventually brought her to Washington.
In 1989, she became director of Soviet and East European affairs with the National Security Council, later serving in a number of advisory positions for both President George H.W. Bush and President George W. Bush, including National Security Advisor. She became the first woman appointed as Secretary of State in 2004, and she served from January 2005 to 2009.
Rice, who has returned to her teaching post at Stanford, said her Notre Dame education has continued to stay with her throughout her work in government.
“The further I have progressed in my career, the more opportunity I have had to champion causes and shed light on humanitarian issues,” she said. “This sense of duty comes from numerous points in my life, one being that Notre Dame stressed the importance of religious integrity and the philanthropic spirit.”
Like other Notre Dame graduates, Rice cited Hesburgh, who was University president while she was a student, as an example for her work in international affairs. Hesburgh himself championed humanitarian issues on an international level and served on numerous government committees.
“Father Hesburgh encouraged us to think about those who were less fortunate,” she said. “In fact, we had a day of fasting and donated the money to good causes. This experience reminded me to think not just about high politics but about the good that can be done if we are focused not on ourselves but on those who are truly in need.”
Junior Wendy Hatch is not yet a graduate of the University, but she too is in Washington right now. She is a student in the Washington Program, a semester-long experience working, studying and living in Washington D.C. The alternative study abroad program is designed for students with an interest in politics or journalism.
Hatch, a political science and Chinese double major, wants to work in international politics. She stood in the crowd in front of the Capitol on Monday, watching from a distance as the president swore his oath of office.
She was far from the Capitol steps, and a tree blocked her view of the nearest big-screen TV. But she, like many Notre Dame students before her, could still see something meaningful in Washington — a future.
“In four years, we could be one of those people sitting in one of those chairs … next to President Obama,” Hatch said after the ceremony. “We could be senators, representatives, in Congress, in someone’s cabinet. We’re smart, we’re capable.
“If we wanted that position, if we wanted to be that person, we could be.”