July 2021 Campus Conversations: Mimi Beck - Program Director, Graduate Student Life
Get to know Mimi Beck, Program Director of Graduate Student Life. Mimi shares her journey to Notre Dame, and the inspirations and challenges she’s been blessed with as she’s worked to help foster a vibrant, supportive community for Notre Dame’s graduate students.
Campus Conversations: Mimi Beck - Program Director, Graduate Student Life
By Maura Boston ‘17 and Jessie Wurzer ‘17
You’re someone who views their job as a true calling. Can you share a little bit more about that calling and how you view your role in the bigger picture of Notre Dame and its impact?
Six years ago, I got to be part of a group taking a pilgrimage to France to see the birthplace of the Congregation of Holy Cross. On that trip, we heard a story that profoundly affected me and made me feel so connected to what I’m doing now. Fr. Moreau, the founder of the Congregation of Holy Cross, watched sheep out in the field when he was young in France. One day, the parish priest came to talk to Fr. Moreau's father, and said, “I see something in your son that needs to be cultivated. I see curiosity, intellect, passion, a love of God, a desire to serve.” The priest asked for permission to tutor him in Latin and theology, and because of that Fr. Moreau went on to divinity school, became ordained, founded the Congregation of Holy Cross, and was sent over here to found Notre Dame.
Now, we have this incredible institution doing so much good in the world. People's lives are shaped and changed all the time because a priest in the middle of rural France, looked at a kid watching sheep and said “There's something here that we need to cultivate.” We don't know who this parish priest was, he didn't get any recognition or fame, and he wasn't the one who was brilliant, but he supported seeing greatness in others. That is how I see my role at Notre Dame - I’m like that priest. I'm not Fr. Moreau, but in the smallest ways of recognizing the work graduate students do, I support them in making that difference in the world. I love asking graduate students about the things that they're researching, the things that they love, and seeing their eyes light up. It deeply affects me every single time.
What brought you to Notre Dame?
The short answer is Divine Providence. God opened a door for me. I’ve been a Notre Dame fan my whole life. My grandfather was a lifelong Notre Dame fan, and my uncle came to Notre Dame, but I didn't even apply as an undergraduate because I knew I couldn't afford it. I got my undergraduate degree in religious studies and I worked in youth ministry and campus ministry for a few years, and then decided to pursue an advanced degree in theology. I saw an advertisement in a Catholic magazine, and it basically said if someone were admitted to Notre Dame master's program in theology, they could get a full scholarship. At that time it was a $35 application fee, so I figured I’d try. I got in and I will never forget when I got the email. I was actually taking a German class just for fun at my local community college. During the break in my evening class, I went to check my email and it was the “Welcome to Notre Dame” message. My very first phone call was to my grandfather.
You must have been so excited to start your program. What’s your favorite spot on-campus?
This is an unusual one - the rotunda of the math building where the giant globe is. I love that thing. The globe is gorgeous. I'm a singer, and the room itself has this wonderful vaulted ceiling and incredible acoustics, so you can stand there, looking at the globe and singing as if the whole world can hear you. It's the best. I love that spot and nobody knows it's there.
North quad or South quad?
South quad - it's so big, it's so beautiful, and there’s always that first good spring day when everybody’s out with their frisbees and soccer balls and beach towels when it's 45 degrees. That is one of the things I look forward to. I love the winter and I love snow, but that first pseudo–spring day, when the sun comes out and every single person’s on South Quad, it’s so great.
So what led you to the role you have now at Notre Dame?
Again, Divine Providence. I thought I wanted to be a professor of theology. Pretty much out of the gate, I realized that I was not a scholar. The hours of time that it takes, the years of study, the intense focus… I recognized that in some of my peers and colleagues, but I realized that wasn't me. Thankfully, I was also volunteering with campus ministry on their RCIA team. I was writing a prayer for the RCIA group a couple weeks before the Easter Vigil. I realized I was more called to do that than the three papers I should have been writing. There was something just beautiful and rewarding and I felt my gifts and talents were meeting a place of need. That’s the best definition of vocation. It was an epiphany. It was really a gift from God saying “you are not meant to be a scholar, you are meant to be with people, and you are meant to help people pray.”
After graduating, I went back to my hometown of San Antonio and worked in campus ministry for several years. Later, I got a call from a friend at Notre Dame about an open rector position for the graduate student residence, where I had lived, went to Mass, met my friends, worked, and formed community as a student. My time at Notre Dame was so incredibly shaped by my community. In addition to the world class theological education from top scholars, I had this equally enriching experience of living with, eating with, and praying with an incredibly diverse group of people. So for me that's what Notre Dame was, and when I had a chance to come back and help make that possible for other people, I said, “Sign me up!” Nothing but Notre Dame could pull me away from Texas, from my family, and the land of adequate sunshine and good tacos.
So I interviewed and was blessed to get the job of Rector of the Graduate Residence for five years, the best training ground in the world for all things Notre Dame, because you have to know everybody. You have to know how to find a solution to every problem. I had 500 graduate students that I was living and working with, helping to promote their success and their experience of community at Notre Dame. For five years, the answer to my question of “What about graduate students?” was always “no.” Eventually, Notre Dame asked me to conduct a study for a year. I did benchmarking, assessments and interviews with campus partners to get a sense of what we need, what we lack, and what are the top priorities in terms of supporting grad students, and I made some recommendations. Then, I was offered the role of the founding Program Director for Graduate Student Life.
Fr. John Jenkins really led the charge in increasing the research on our campus. That translated into increased opportunities, funding, enrollment and attention for the needs of graduate students. Sadly, it was also a time with a rise in school shootings on college campuses, with every one being perpetrated by a graduate or professional student. There was a rising awareness that it wasn’t good to put students in a pressure cooker and take away all forms of support. There was also a real focus on Notre Dame’s mission to be a place of learning for the heart and the mind, a place of holistic education where the entirety of the person is seen, valued and formed. It was really a moment of opportunity, and I was blessed to be there at that moment. I had the knowledge of the graduate student population, a passion for serving them and a real love of what they bring to our university community.
So, again, Divine Providence is what it came down to. I got to write my own job description, who gets to do that?
What’s one place in the South Bend area you wish more graduate students knew about?
The South Bend Farmer’s Market. It's amazing, especially this time of year in the spring and summer, with all the fresh food coming from people that grew it within a 50-mile radius of you.
How do you think that the graduate experience has changed in recent years?
I've been here for 14 years, and I have seen tremendous growth in that time. The institution is starting to recognize our graduate students as part of the community. I partner with so many people. I don't reinvent student affairs for graduate students. There is an incredible wealth of resources available to students at Notre Dame. We just had to take the blinders off because people saw students as 18 to 21 year olds. We are starting to broaden that view, so that when people think about Notre Dame students they don't just think about undergraduate students, they also think about law students, PhD students and others. People are starting to have a broader definition of what we mean when we say Notre Dame student and I think that's partly because I’ve had some incredibly gracious and willing partners. There really has been a huge shift on campus. Last year, we had graduate students in the Irish Guard and a dozen or so in the marching band, and 14 years ago that would never have happened. It's very exciting to see.
I give a lot of credit to our brand-new Provost. Time and time again she comes to the aid of graduate students. I also might be the biggest fan of our current Dean of the Graduate School, Laura Carlson. She's a psychologist by training and she spends a lot of energy looking at the holistic well-being of our graduate students, making sure that students have access to resources and personal and professional development opportunities, covering things like work-life balance and managing stress. To me, having senior administrators care about the well-being of a doctoral student is revolutionary in higher education and is something I've really seen grow and change over the last several years. I'm incredibly grateful because of course, my job is to make sure our graduate students are happy, well, and successful.
Is there anyone else in the Notre Dame Community whom you particularly admire?
Oh there's so many, but I would say Ann Firth. She's the Chief of Staff to President Fr. Jenkins, and I largely hold her responsible for my being in graduate student life. She's just so smart and so kind. She's in this incredibly important role, but she will stop and talk to everyone. Ann is the best. She is humble and down to earth while being an incredibly effective leader at the same time. I have great admiration for her.
What does a typical day look like for you?
My day to day depends a lot on the time of year. In the summer, it's all about getting ready for graduate orientation, as well as our summer soiree series, a calendar of fun social events to get people together since summer is a little lighter of a time for graduate students. Communication is a huge part of my role because I do a newsletter, website, blog, mobile app, and maintain our social media presence. Honestly, partnership is the number one word in my job. I wouldn't get anything done without my partners. I rely on them to care for our students. Building those relationships and helping others understand the needs of graduate students is a huge part of what I do.
We take certain things for granted for undergraduate students - they move in as a freshman to a residence hall and they have their hall staff, hall programming council, orientation team… all those people to help them navigate new surroundings. That didn't exist for graduate students, so we had to build it. There are infinite possibilities and resources that are available to graduate students, but nobody was telling them about them, so they weren't connecting to those things. I’m a “connect the dots” kind of person and that’s what I do on a daily basis. I connect people to people, people to resources, and offices to graduates. I also love the one-on-one interactions I get to have. Sometimes people will just seek me out since they are new here. They don't know anybody so they will come and say, “Can you help me figure out how to make friends and how to get connected to things that matter to me?” I get to sit down and have a great conversation about what matters to them, and then I get to introduce them to other people and connect them. It’s really wonderful, because every person that comes brings some unique experience, gift, or need that you get to explore and walk with them on.
Where would you point people if they're interested in learning more about the world of graduate students at Notre Dame and their work?
Here are some great links to explore:
Graduate School Mission: https://graduateschool.nd.edu/your-research-matters/
Graduate School News: https://graduateschool.nd.edu/news/
Graduate School Videos: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC_T_ym2qOBrxYJFJbHELJGg/videos
Notre Dame Research: https://research.nd.edu/
What do you think having your dedicated role and support means to students?
I often receive thank you notes and little gifts after graduation. There is one woman who basically credits me with saving the life of her now husband. I don't think I actually did that, but together we got him the help that he needed. Seeing students, appreciating their journey, understanding them and making them feel at home…that’s how I support them and that’s what I’m most proud of. Every student is different though. A lot of our graduate students don't need what I have to offer. They have a support system, a great relationship with their advisor, the financial support they need, and adequate housing, clothing, food and transportation. But they know where I am if they need me. I've had a number of graduate students tell me over the last several years, even those that I just knew very tangentially, “I get your newsletter every week and I love that thing! I can never go to any of the stuff because I'm way too busy, but just knowing that it's there makes me feel connected and seen.” Somebody taking the time to create a newsletter specifically for graduate students makes them feel connected to the institution. They know at least one person they can turn to if something is falling through the cracks. If they need a safety net, I’m there. Oftentimes my work is anonymous. Students may go to get their ID card, and the reason they can do that is I had a conversation with the ID card office to make sure they accommodated graduate student schedules.
If you could have any other job on campus that isn’t your own for a day what would it be?
Since my background is in theology, it would be a job in Campus Ministry, particularly the person who gets to lead all the pilgrimages and retreats.