Day 20: Yuma to Denver, CO

The ride was a bit wet today. There was mist in the air most of the day as we climbed from about 4,000 feet to over 5,000 feet. You can definitely feel the effects of the change in altitude on your breathing. We began the day in Yuma, which is a quiet and small town, like many small towns on today’s route, and biked to the busy and vibrant city of Denver.

We had a wonderful alumni event at the Spire.  Cindy and Mike Parseghian were there and Cindy presented her family story about their fight and the loss of their three children to NPC. No matter how many times I listen to the story, it never gets any easier to hear.  Because of their fight, courage and devotion, the Notre Dame family has rallied behind their cause. Erica from the Notre Dame Federal Credit Union also visited the event. NDFCU has been such a wonderful sponsor over the last four years. The credit union has a new program called Elevate that further supports our fight against rare diseases. Being in Denver, a great sports town with the Rockies, the Broncos, the Nuggets, the Rapids, and the Avalanche, I started thinking about our fight against rare diseases at Notre Dame that is so connected to the Parseghian family and Coach Ara’s rich football tradition and legacy.  One thing that comes to mind quickly when you think about Notre Dame is its highly-respected athletic program. I expect “football” would rank very high in the responses to “Notre Dame” in a word-association game. In my experience of seven years at Notre Dame, I gained a new appreciation for the thousands of virtuous and community-minded student athletes as well as the power of a strong synergy between academics and athletics

My experience as dean has taught me that the mission of academic excellence is greatly enhanced by the union of academics and athletics, which we enjoy at Notre Dame. Rather than developing separate, parallel worlds of sport and study, the campus becomes a united community. The University gains greater recognition from a sports-focused audience for its academic excellence, which helps us recruit great students. The athletic enterprise gains a reputation for delivering on its educational promise, which helps us recruit great players. At the same time, the student-athlete enjoys a holistic life rather than a false opposition between learning and playing.

We have actively supported this kind of collaboration in the College of Science. One example is the fight against rare disease, including the Road to Discovery. Notre Dame’s cycling and rugby teams have supported this effort, along with students who have organized runs and other events to raise funds and awareness.  On this blog, you can see the highlights of Notre Dame athletic teams that we honor— the men’s lacrosse team who mentors a group of local middle school students as well as a group in Chicago, holds lacrosse clinics on the road, and visits children’s hospitals; the women’s soccer team who empowers girls in the developing world with Soccer Empowering Girls Worldwide and You (SEGway), an organization started by three Notre Dame players; and Notre Dame baseball who is raises awareness for ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease) in support of Coach Mik Aoki’s former player Pete Frates. Be sure to check back regularly as we highlight other Notre Dame teams throughout the ride.

Another example is our partnership with the women’s basketball team as part of Pink Zone, a national fundraiser to benefit the Kay Yow Cancer Fund to raise money for women’s cancer research. The passion of our coaches and scholar athletes, our student-athletes, coaches, faculty, and staff has taken Pink Zone to a new level, contributing to the national effort, but also locally.  Through events on campus, including a highly visible Pink Zone luncheon on game day with a nationally recognized cancer survivors speaking about their experience; partnerships with a local country club and RecSports for 24 hours Spin-a-Thons; and an overall push and competition on campus between colleges to raise money, these fundraisers not only channel money toward research but also fund mammograms for women in our community who cannot afford them.  This event is also an opportunity to thank cancer researchers, faculty, and clinicians, who are honored on the court during the Pink Zone game. Pink Zone is a combination of the courage of cancer survivors, the compassion of a community, and the passion of our student-athletes and coaches to make a difference in the lives of local women, while also contributing to the national fund for scientific research.

Pink Zone 2015

Pink Zone 2015

There are so many other examples I could bring up on our campus. Our new Campus Crossroads project encompasses the historic football stadium with integrated spaces for academics, career services, and other services and activities directly associated with the academy. At various home games, we honor faculty, staff, and service clubs by calling them onto the field or court and telling the crowd about their excellent work and the impact they have on the academy or community. Faculty and student research and achievement is also a regular topic of the “What Would You Fight For?” commercials that are broadcast during our televised home football games and remain available online. Athletes, former athletes, and coaches guest-lecture in several of our science classes, including an undergraduate course on scientific entrepreneurship that focuses on strategies for team building and recruitment, interdisciplinary work to build connections among academics and sport, servant leadership, core values, and ethics.

As I travel around the country as a dean, I see this kind of integration everywhere. Faculty are highlighted at sporting venues, student-athletes are honored for their extraordinary commitment to the community, and athletic teams call attention to the broader mission and success of their universities.  As a scientist and dean, I feel compelled to call attention to the way teams, coaches and student-athletes have passionately raised money for scientific research that might otherwise not have happened. I see foundations started by coaches, athletes, and former athletes providing a vital service to society by underwriting life-saving research, and I believe they deserve our gratitude.

The vast majority of academics, athletes, and institutions impact their local communities and the global society in so many positive ways, day in and day out. From rowing to rugby, basketball to soccer, hockey to baseball, student-athletes are finding ways to serve the community and even fund research to cure numerous diseases. They strive to improve the lives of people in their community and around the world. They effectively utilize their role as student-athlete and take it to the next level—student-athlete-community-benefactor.  These are stories of virtue, service, generosity, creativity, and courage that can inspire even more unity and service.

Notre Dame Rugby team with Coach Parseghian at the 2014 Parseghian Cup

Some may call me a sports enthusiast, which I am. I am even more of a fan of the student-scholar-athlete, or perhaps more appropriately the community-student scholar-athlete. I have seen how the values and virtues that these students hold impact performances both on and off the field. These students elevate campus life. At Notre Dame and other institutions, integration of student scholar-athletes into the community of learning, discovery, and service is a win for classmates and a win for the young men and women themselves, who need feel no conflict between their identities as students and as athletes. I think it’s worth remembering the daily contributions, large and small, that athletes and athletics make to our educational institutions and our society.

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