Transformational Leaders Program: Staff and faculty shape student experience through personal accompaniment

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It’s a wide-open room, filled with study tables and comfy chairs with colorful pillows. There are snacks in baskets beneath inspirational signs and plenty of outlets for phone and laptop charging. The wall art is eclectic, yet intentional— chosen to represent diverse cultures and the beauty of the human race. A local coffee shop? That’s not far off, at least in terms of ambience. This space has seriously good vibes that embrace you as soon as you walk through the open doorway. 

And that’s exactly the point.

“In life, you need to find people and places where you feel safe and loved and seen and heard for all your gifts. Everyone here knows that our  mission is to accompany students along their academic journey to develop into the fullest, best versions of themselves so they can go out and do transformational things in the world,” Maria McKenna says.

McKenna, a professor of the practice in Africana studies and the Institute for Educational Initiatives, serves as director for the AnBryce Scholars Initiative and the Transformational Leaders Program (TLP). She and seven other full-time colleagues represent varied experiences  and expertise from across the Notre Dame campus. Together, they’re building a concept centered on investing in students as the University’s most important and precious resource, while acknowledging that not all students come to higher education with the same preparation or resources.

Working with the Enrollment Division, Undergraduate Education and scholars’ programs  across campus, McKenna’s team identifies and invites first-generation, under-resourced or differently prepared students to join. The program, which started in 2021 with about 250 students, has grown to almost 400. TLP is on track to double that number in the coming years. The goal: to help each scholar reach their full academic and personal potential, while staying healthy, grounded and connected.

“Whether that’s a chance to have a funded internship, to do a global professional experience or to make a connection more easily to the first-generation community within the career center, or to find just that perfect mentor or faculty member or staff member to provide a little bit of extra support along the way, we hope that our students find their people and their spaces more easily,” McKenna adds.

What personal accompaniment looks like 

The support each person receives can be as unique as the students themselves. TLP provides access to mentoring, academic support, education and outreach specialists, as well as community building activities. It works alongside academic advising and in collaboration with academic advisers across campus, the Office of Student Enrichment, and the Center for Student Support and Care to help students navigate the resources that exist in different corners of campus. Support might also look like a potluck for students who can’t go home for a holiday or transportation for a future leader with an off-campus internship.

For Program Manager Tracy Nissley, it feels like building bridges.

“I was a first-generation, under-resourced, minority student at IU in Bloomington. I had no idea what the higher education world looked like. I just knew I wanted to graduate in four years to reduce my debt,” Nissley shares. “I didn’t have a program [like this]. This is a full-circle  moment for me to be able to serve the student that I was, and to use the resources and  connections that I’ve made at Notre Dame and with the community to serve the students better.”

Nissley recalls a community-building exercise during which TLP students shared their journeys with each other.

“It’s meaningful to hear pieces of their stories that are pieces of my story and pieces of each other’s stories, and [know that] there can be community around painful moments that turn into healing and resilience,” she says. “The things I went through — you usually hope that there’s a reason for it, right? And for me to be able to identify with the students in a capacity, it’s just so fulfilling.”

Finding community

Rev. Joe Corpora, C.S.C., serves as associate director of education and outreach for the Transformational Leaders Program, but much prefers to think of himself as a grandfather figure. “We see each person as an image of God,” he says. It’s the lens through which Father Joe frames his life and his work, as he gives words to the energy that’s present, yet hard to describe, in the room occupied by TLP.

“I think part of the energy is that the students know how to find each other. They have all had difficulties, but they just find each other, and they’re totally at home with each other, and there’s nothing to defend,” he says. “I think about that a lot, because, to be honest, it should not have worked so well, so fast. We have to attribute that to God, but also to them.”

At home with each other, students gather and build community in this inviting space that’s  situated in the most iconic building on campus. “A gift,” according to McKenna, to be given a place in the Main Building, a visible representation of the University’s commitment to first-generation and under-resourced students. The program is located inside the Office of Institutional Transformation on the Main Building’s second floor, furnished with unique, eye-catching pieces that, just like the students, have their own story to tell. Collected from departments and buildings all across campus, they’ve found a new home and a new purpose.

The same could be said for the program’s passionate leaders. 

“The thing I love most about my job is when a student pops their head in my door or knocks on my door and they ask, ‘Do you have a minute?’” McKenna says. “When they ask if you have a minute, the answer always needs to be yes, because they’re about to show you a drawing that they just completed for the first time for an architecture class, or they’re about to tell you about an opportunity they got to shadow a physician at Cleveland Clinic. Or they close the door and the tears start to come because they had something happen back home that they need somebody to talk through [with them]. So the best parts of my day are when a student  knocks on my door and says, ‘Do you have a minute?’ Because I get to say yes.”

The vision

Vice President and Associate Provost for Undergraduate Education

“The Transformational Leaders Program has created for underrepresented students a place in which they receive personal accompaniment along their journey to become the kind of leader their unique experiences have cultivated them to be. I am passionate about that principle, because Notre Dame exists to prepare young people for the world, and each student deserves to have an environment in which they feel they can become the person they want to be and the person God created them to be.”

Vice President for Institutional Transformation and Advisor to the President 

“The Transformational Leaders Program (TLP) is the result of critical reflection, discussion with colleagues and research on best practices focused on creating nurturing communities of learning for students from various backgrounds. We looked at similar efforts across the country, and at programs already in existence at Notre Dame, to create a synergistic  framework capable of connecting emerging leaders with the resources and people needed for them to make the most of their Notre Dame experience. I am delighted to see the remarkable growth of TLP under the leadership of Dr. Maria McKenna and her team; and Fr. Daniel Groody's creative incorporation of it into his exciting and holistic vision for undergraduate education.”

The impact

QuestBridge Scholar
Longview, Texas
Major: math and gender studies

“What I really value and appreciate is their constant unconditional support. It’s really unique here, I think. You just really do feel the support academically and emotionally, on all fronts. That’s really necessary here because being away from parents, family, you might be lacking in one form or the other and they can make up for it.”

QuestBridge Scholar
Chino, California
Major: political science, with minors in public policy and civil and human rights

“I definitely feel like I found my family. I would say that it’s transformed my vision of Notre Dame. Especially this year, I’ve been taking advantage of having those connections, and they helped with the transition to college.”

Monterey, California
Major: political science and psychology
“TLP is part of what made me feel more at home at Notre Dame, because it’s given me  opportunities and the ability to have some of the same experiences as my peers that I wouldn’t normally be able to have. Whether it be exposure to different events, or helping me financially or just helping me find those opportunities, it has definitely made it easier to call Notre Dame home.”

Read more about the student impact here.