Current & Former Dominican-American Students Reflect on Community at Notre Dame

Author: Oliver Ortega

Coming to the Midwest from a tight-knit Dominican-American community in Massachusetts, Nathalie Garcia knew life at Notre Dame would be an adjustment.

Nathalie’s from Lawrence, a small city 25 miles north of Boston. “All the Dominicans that aren’t in the Bronx are in Lawrence,” she jokes. Lawrence is “people-centered”, and the junior feels right at home there.

“I was very used to a small community setting,” Nathalie says when asked about going away for college. “Being part of [the Institute for Latino Studies] helped that transition. But it’s definitely been hard.”

Nathalie G Professional Pic 11Nathalie Garcia

In a sense, though, the Neuroscience and Behavior major is in familiar territory: From Pre-K through college she’s moved exclusively through Catholic schools. Her early years at Lawrence Catholic Academy were followed by high school at Presentation of Mary Academy in nearby Methuen.

Her time at Lawrence Catholic Academy was special enough to make her go back to visit after eight-grade graduation. And just recently she joined the school’s Board of Trustees as an alumna representative.

It’s a role that’s especially important to Nathalie given the downward trend in Catholic school enrollment and closures nationwide. Sadly, it’s affected her personally: Presentation of Mary shuttered its doors last year, becoming the third Catholic school Nathalie attended to close.

By working with the archdiocese and school leaders, Nathalie hopes she can help keep Lawrence Catholic Academy thriving for many years.

Indeed, touching back to home has been crucial in helping Nathalie carve her niche at Notre Dame. Here, she’s found the spiritual landscape a bit different, but it’s been a blessing to have a network of current students and alumni from Lawrence with whom to connect.

In her studies, Nathalie decided to bolster her Neuroscience and Behavior major with a Latino Studies supplemental major in the spring of her freshman year.

"I needed something to balance the neuroscience major. Sociology, American Studies, Gender Studies: I knew I would get to take classes in many disciplines and count them all towards the one program,” she says.

Nathalie, a LSSP merit scholar, has made good use of other ILS resources. Along with a group of fellow students, she traveled to Mexico the summer before freshman year, engaging in valuable educational exchange with students from the Monterrey Institute of Technology and traveling to national landmarks like the Temple of the Sun in Teotihuacan.

Natalie And GigiNathalie & fellow merit scholar Gigi in Mexico

LSSP, or the Latino Studies Scholars Program, began in 2017. Students receive $25,000 a year in scholarship in addition to summer internship or research dollars. There are currently 22 merit scholars, including 10 in the most recent class.

This past summer, Nathalie worked at the Library of Congress as part of the Cross Cultural Leadership Program, an ILS initiative that places students in internships across the country.

For eight weeks, she was part of a team tasked with creating the first Afro-Latina/o bibliography for the nation’s library. The project allowed her to “highlight the intersection of blackness and Latinidad.”

The experience of putting together general reference material on artists, performers, athletes, and — a favorite topic of Nathalie’s — children’s literature, functioned as a type of career “discernment.”

Nathalie And Other Current Students From LawrenceCurrent students from Lawrence

Nathalie is quite open about her deep interest in identity. In early October, she participated in a panel organized by Student Government and the Student Union Board entitled “Exploring the Complexities of Latino Identities.” Nathalie spoke to the audience about being at the intersection of identities as a light-skinned, Afro-Latina.

“I’ve spent quite some time trying to the find the balance between honoring my Blackness and acknowledging my privilege,” she says. “That recognition of privilege, even within families, is definitely an important part of this fight.”


Julia Alvarez And Natalie GarciaNathalie meets author Julia Alvarez

Ultimately, though she enjoyed her summer experience and speaking out on social issues, Nathalie firmly sees her future as a researcher in neuropsychology.

To make this aspiration reality, last year she started working in a lab on campus. As assistant to Dr. Kristin Valentino in the Department of Psychology, she looks at how Mexican-American teenagers deal with stereotypes and how these influence development. She is keen on making the most of these next two years as a Domer, while maintaining her connections to Lawrence.

Crucial to keeping Lawrence students in contact has been alum Ted Gorrie, who is from the area and attended Notre Dame in the ‘80s.

During welcome weekend this year, Gorrie brought Nathalie and sophomore Joseph Trinidad to meet two freshmen who were also from Lawrence. The spirited alumnus has been “integral” in keeping Lawrence students in contact, Nathalie says.

One fellow student from Lawrence is Simon Rodriguez, a senior in computer science. He attended Presentation of Mary academy along with Nathalie, and the two run into each other from time to time.

“Personally, I found what prepared me most for Notre Dame was the importance of having a tight-knit community that you can depend on in your times of need,” Simon writes over email. “My experience at [Presentation of Mary Academy] taught me to find a core group of people that I fit in with and depend on them.”

An important connection Nathalie made through Gorrie was Vanessa Acosta ’18.

Nathalie Vanessa JeniVanessa (left), Nathalie, & fellow alumna Jeni

Though she wrapped up her studies before Nathalie’s arrival on campus, Vanessa’s experiences as a student are not dissimilar. She, too, is a Dominican-American from Lawrence educated in the area’s Catholic Schools before coming to Notre Dame.

Like Nathalie, she found herself attracted to the study of the brain and human behavior, graduating with a major in Psychology and minors in Latino Studies and Business Economy.

Her first year out of college, she worked at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, doing preparatory assessments for neuroscience evaluations.

After that, she began a two-year post at a primary care office in the same hospital network. The position put her Spanish language skills to good use.

“It was a behavioral health office and that was very direct, patient-facing, working with people with anxiety, depression, grief, life adjustments,” she says. “Two years in that job, I knew I would be applying to psychiatric nurse practitioner programs.”

Vanessa did just that, and this year she started an accelerated, 3-year nurse practitioner program at Yale.

At the end of it, she’ll be able to prescribe medication as a primary care provider. She’ll be a clinical social worker who also functions as a therapist.

As for going back to school, she can’t help but remember her first year at Notre Dame. Though she received excellent schooling at Central Catholic High School in Lawrence, she found the academic rigor daunting her first year here. Impostor syndrome was what she felt, though she didn’t have a word for it back then.

Vanessa GraduationVanessa & Prof. Karen Richman at Graduation

At Yale, her days are long and even her rest day — Tuesday — is not really a rest day. Still, she’s taken her lessons from Notre Dame to heart.

“I found that I’ve been more open this time around than when I was freshman in college,” says Vanessa. “I’ve been more open about using my resources, like going to office hours, for example. I can’t just skate by; I have to know actual information.”

Vanessa hopes the Lawrence-Notre Dame connection continues to grow in coming years.

“I’m definitely exited to see what Nathalie does,” she says.

For now, it’s back to the grind of studying for midterms.