$20 million gift to fund initiative to support students from low socioeconomic families

by Dennis Brown

2015 graduates on the steps of the Main Building

University of Notre Dame graduate Sean Cullinan and his wife, Sue, from Glen Ridge, New Jersey, have made a $20 million gift to his alma mater to fund a groundbreaking program that will make a Notre Dame education a reality for students from low socioeconomic households.

The Fighting Irish Initiative will fully fund the cost for low-income students to attend Notre Dame — including tuition and fees, room and board, books, transportation and personal expenses. At the same time, the initiative will create a comprehensive enrichment program that will help these students get the most from their Notre Dame experience.

“We want to ensure that the talented students who are admitted to Notre Dame are able to attend and find a supportive home here,” said Rev. John I. Jenkins, C.S.C., the University’s president. “We are tremendously grateful to Sean and Sue for their willingness to fund an initiative that will make a Notre Dame education a reality for those who are in need of financial assistance, and then to make the years they spend here on campus as successful and rewarding as possible.”

Born from the heart of the University’s mission to care for the whole person, the Fighting Irish Initiative’s enrichment programs will be customized to help students acclimate and adjust to a collegiate environment, and, in particular, provide access to all things that make student life the tie that binds the Notre Dame community together — from seemingly routine needs like warm winter clothing and a laptop computer, to help with travel home for breaks, study abroad program expenses and tickets to join their classmates at athletics and other events.

“I am extremely grateful that Sean and Sue’s generosity and vision have made it possible for us to enhance the support and services that we offer to our undergraduates with greatest financial need,” said Erin Hoffmann Harding, vice president for student affairs. “The new staff and programming associated with this initiative are significant next steps toward our goal of ensuring that every student feels that Notre Dame is a welcoming place where they belong and can flourish.”

The gift also will fund the hiring of a full-time director to oversee programming and serve as a catalyst to engage with others to support the initiative.

The Fighting Irish Initiative emerges from Notre Dame’s enduring commitment to welcome students who are from underprivileged and immigrant families — those who are the underdogs of their time.

“This visionary gift has jump-started our effort to fund the Fighting Irish Initiative, but it is only the beginning. We must raise millions of dollars more for this initiative to ensure that students coming from hardship who are admitted to Notre Dame can enroll and that we provide them with the full Notre Dame experience,” said Louis M. Nanni, vice president for University Relations. “I know the intent of this gift is to inspire others to support this extremely important effort.”

At Notre Dame, financial aid has been the top fundraising priority for more than a quarter century. University-based aid increased from $5 million in 1990 to $117.8 million for 4,126 students this past academic year. More than half of all Notre Dame’s undergraduate students receive need-based aid from the University.

“Notre Dame has established itself among the top 15 national research universities for the quality of its student body,” said Don Bishop, associate vice president for undergraduate enrollment. “In the past five years we have added more students from the lowest-income households and have strategies in place to continue to find and cultivate even more of these top scholars. Adding more support and enhancements in programs to elevate their educational, professional and personal development is an exciting prospect for us as well as our students.”

Sean Cullinan is a 1988 Notre Dame alumnus who works in the financial services industry. The Cullinans are the parents of three children, two of whom are students at the University.

The Office of Student Affairs is engaged in the search for the inaugural director to launch the enrichment programming and will continue to build the program throughout the current academic year.