Rob Rucki ’24, center, and George Bednar ’23, right, enjoy a visit to the Montalbano home on a recent weeknight. They are in Notre Dame’s Naval ROTC program, or NROTC, and will be commissioned as Marine Corps officers. Rucki and Bednar are quoted in this article. (Photos by Matt Cashore/University of Notre Dame)
As Regan Jones knows all too well, there’s nothing like a little taste of home when you’re away from your family.
Jones, the director of the Office of Military and Veterans Affairs (OMVA) at Notre Dame, provides strategic direction on behalf of the provost for the University’s veteran and military-related programs. This includes working closely with faculty, administrators and staff to create, manage and coordinate initiatives in support of military-connected students and their families. Jones, a lieutenant colonel in the United States Marine Corps Reserves, completed combat deployments to Iraq and non-combat deployments to Japan, Thailand and the Philippines. When not deployed overseas, he was involved in all aspects of Marine Corps training and education, including the development and execution of both tactical and technical curricula.
“I know what it’s like to be part of the military and to be far away from my family,” Jones said. “College students experience this every day, but when you’re a student veteran, child of a service member or part of one of our ROTC programs — the feeling of missing home can be even stronger.”
Because of his time with the military, Jones was aware that the country’s service academies offered programs through which families host students while they are away from home.
“I would meet graduates who would talk about their sponsor families and what they meant to them while they were at school,” Jones said. “I felt this was something that Notre Dame could offer and that the wider community would support.”
So last fall, OMVA unveiled its Host Family Program. It’s designed to help establish a support system for military-connected students at Notre Dame. The goal is to provide a warm, comfortable and welcoming environment for student veterans, ROTC and military service members and their families, as well as establish strong, mutually beneficial relationships between students and the South Bend community. Faculty and staff are welcome to serve as host families, as are members of the South Bend community.
“We began to put the word out that this program was available, and so far we have had 57 students registered and 26 host families,” Jones said.
The only requirement of a host family is that they live relatively close to campus, as to not make travel time between students and host families too big of a burden.
“We want the relationship to be a meaningful one,” Jones said, “but we also don’t want host families to feel like expectations are too high. Maybe they take a student out to eat before finals, have them over for dinner or store some items for them during the summer. We don’t want to create any ‘Mom, where’s the meatloaf?’ situations.”
Jones and his family currently serve as host family for three students.
“Students are the reason Notre Dame exists,” Jones said. “We’re trying to fill them with all of these gifts so that they can spend the rest of their lives giving them away. As a family, we have loved being a part of this.”
Mike Montalbano, an adjunct assistant teaching professor in the Mendoza College of Business, and his wife, Sue, also signed on to be part of OMVA’s new program.
“We’re empty nesters,” said Montalbano, who moved to South Bend with Sue six years ago. “One of our sons had been in the Marine ROTC program when he was in college, and another son became a Marine officer after college, so when we heard Notre Dame was offering this program, we told them we’d be happy to take all of their Marines.”
As a teacher and the parent of Marines, Montalbano knows that semesters can be long for students, especially if you don’t live locally.
“Being in ROTC is a full-time job,” explained Montalbano. “A lot is required of these students to be part of this program. The six students we were matched with have enjoyed getting out of their residence halls and appreciate the little things like a home-cooked meal. And we love that they’re never rushing to get back to campus. We really enjoy our visits with them.”
The sentiment is mutual, as expressed by rising senior and member of Notre Dame’s Marine ROTC program George Bednar.
“I had heard from some of my friends that the Host Family Program was phenomenal, and they were not exaggerating,” Bednar said. “The Montalbanos are a great host family. It’s nice having a pseudo family nearby to feel at home if I ever need it. It’s incredible to have the opportunity to get off campus in the thick of the semester.”
Rob Rucki, another student matched with the Montalbanos, echoes those sentiments.
“Just the chance to get off campus for a couple dinners a semester has been amazing,” said Rucki, who just finished his sophomore year. “We have a great small group of Marine candidates, and Mr. and Mrs. Montalbano treat us so well. The food is incredible and we always end up having really great conversations about OCS and the Marine Corps. I especially like hearing about two of the Montalbanos’ sons who are/were both Marine officers.”
With word spreading about the positive experiences students and host families alike have had with the military-connected Host Family Program, Jones hopes to recruit a few more host families to sign on.
“We don’t want to turn any students away who want to be a part of this,” Jones said. “We look forward to more people in the Notre Dame and South Bend communities welcoming these students.”
To learn more about how you can become a host family or if you know of a military-connected student who would benefit from having a host family, please email email@example.com or call 574-631-9577.