“Fighting for our Children’s Future,” the watchword emblazoned on the bus for ACE’s upcoming National Tour to celebrate Catholic schools, accentuates the call U.S. Senator Joe Donnelly issued recently to graduates at the 2013 ACE Commencement exercises.
Donnelly, a Notre Dame alumnus who represents Indiana in the U.S. Senate, addressed the 111 master’s degree recipients as their Commencement speaker, as a fellow advocate among the Fighting Irish, and as a policy-maker who has seen the high stakes in educating today’s young people.
“There’s no graduate program more important than what you have just finished,” said Donnelly at the July 13 event on campus. “This is the future of our country and our world that you’re going to be working with. You will be the face of Notre Dame, the face of our Church, the face of Jesus Christ, to people in some of the toughest areas we have in our country.”
He continued, “As principals and as teachers, part of being Fighting Irish is that you will fight for each child…. You will fight for an excellent education so that they have a chance.” Among many inner-city youths trapped in lives of turmoil and violence, a common thread is their disconnection from education.
“You provide hope, you provide [a] future, for many of these people,” Donnelly told the 85 graduates of the ACE Teaching Fellows program and the 26 graduates of ACE’s Mary Ann Remick Leadership Program. “You are the face of what they can achieve.”
The graduates and their families, convened in the Leighton Concert Hall of the DeBartolo Performing Arts Center, had joined ACE faculty and staff in welcoming Donnelly after ACE founder Rev. Timothy Scully, C.S.C., introduced the first-term U.S. Senator as “a tireless advocate for justice” and “a son of Notre Dame whose life and work stand as a powerful witness to the transforming power of education.”
Donnelly’s remarks invoked the graduates’ service to the Church, reflecting the “love and compassion” that Jesus taught, plus wise discernment between right and wrong. He also invoked service to the United States—“making our nation a stronger, better place.” School teachers and leaders in under-served areas are crucial in giving students a chance for success, he said, “so no pressure on any of you—but the future of our country is on your shoulders.”
Such a responsibility also brings satisfaction, especially from the students one serves, the Senator reminded his audience: There may be more glamorous jobs than teacher or principal, but nothing can beat “the reward you’ll get at the end of the day when these young people come up and say, you’ve changed my life.”
Following the ceremony, in response to questions, Senator Donnelly called himself “very fortunate” to be a product of Catholic grade school and Catholic high school. Catholic schools teach values and give a great education, he said, and they combine with the country’s public school system “to make sure every child has a chance” to be part of the range of educational opportunity.
We do have to fight together for our children’s future, Donnelly agreed. “So much of the challenges we face as a country—those challenges can be met if we’re able to get every child educated, have every child graduate from high school, have a chance for every child to gain the skills necessary to have a good job and great opportunity. So everything we aspire to as a country is directly related to how well we educate our people.”
Where does ACE fit into this effort? “One of the distinctive roles for ACE and Notre Dame is to be a backbone of the Catholic education system,” said Donnelly in response to the question. “When you look at this graduating class, they are going forth throughout not only our country but the whole world, in both teaching and administration…. As Catholic education continues on into the future, I think you will see the University of Notre Dame and the ACE program become an even more critical part of its future success.”