Developed to invest in students as the University of Notre Dame’s most important and precious resource, while acknowledging that not all students come to higher education with the same preparation or resources, Notre Dame’s Transformational Leaders Program (TLP) provides students with access to mentoring, education and outreach specialists, community-building activities, a dedicated gathering and study space and other academic resources.
Working with the Enrollment Division and scholars programs across campus, TLP identifies and invites first-generation, under-resourced or differentially prepared students to join. The program, which started in 2021 with about 250 students and has grown to about 400, aims to help each scholar reach their academic and intellectual goals while staying healthy, grounded and connected.
“Our mission is to accompany students along their academic journey to develop into the fullest, best versions of themselves so they can go out and do transformational things in the world,” said Maria McKenna, director of the Transformational Leaders Program and professor of the practice in the Department of Africana Studies and the Education, Schooling and Society Program. "We've developed a program designed to support young scholars in a holistic manner and are committed to being leaders in higher education with how we serve our first generation and under-sourced students throughout their academic journey.”
McKenna credits Rev. Canon Hugh R. Page Jr., vice president for institutional transformation and adviser to the president, and Rev. Daniel G. Groody, C.S.C., vice president and associate provost, for much of the program’s development. “Dr. Page has championed our scholarly communities and our underrepresented students for the entirety of his multiple-decade career,” she said. “His vision, along with Fr. Dan Groody’s educational philosophy of ‘personal accompaniment’ for our students, shaped what TLP is today.”
Alexandra Rojas-Monsivais, a sophomore QuestBridge Scholar from Longview, Texas, majoring in math and gender studies, joined TLP as a freshman. She said her transition to college life at Notre Dame “was a really big roller coaster. Very deep lows, but very high highs.”
Rojas-Monsivais remembers receiving an email from McKenna, inviting her to meet for lunch. “We met Dr. McKenna, and she was amazing. She is like 95 percent of why I really wanted to be a part of this,” she said. “She was so welcoming. She asked for a hug the first time she met me, and I think that was the first time I’d ever really been seen by someone of authority here. So I think that made a really big difference in getting me to participate.”
She also developed a great connection with her TLP cohort leader, Amanda Springstead. “You kind of forget that they’re professionals, and they can really become like your best friend, or a really trusted person that you can tell your struggles to. She gives me amazing advice.”
Rojas-Monsivais said Springstead introduced her to an internship opportunity in Dublin, which ultimately led her to sign up to study abroad there next year. “I have her to thank for knowing about studying abroad in Dublin, which is where they have the best math, so that’s why I choose Dublin specifically,” she said.
“What I really value and appreciate is their constant unconditional support. It’s really unique here, I think,” said Rojas-Monsivais. “You just really do feel the support academically and emotionally, on all fronts. That’s really necessary here because being away from parents, family, you might be lacking in one form or the other and they can make up for it.”
Kristen Lemus, a sophomore QuestBridge Scholar from Chino, California, majoring in political science with minors in public policy and civil and human rights, has really appreciated the mentoring and community building that TLP provides.
Lemus said that during her freshman year there were times she felt isolated, especially after breaking her ankle in the first few weeks of class. “I wasn’t really involved with TLP my first semester, but then my second semester I think the community and the mentors really helped.”
Lemus said her education and outreach specialist, Manuel Fernandez, has been especially helpful. “He’s somebody that you can rely on that will be there for you and somebody to give you tips and tricks and things like that. Especially this year, I’ve definitely been taking advantage of having those connections, and I will say they definitely helped with the transition to college.”
TLP hosted a Thanksgiving potluck for students who weren’t able to go home for the holiday, and for Lemus, it was really special. Students picked recipes they wanted to make and TLP did the grocery shopping for them. Lemus and her roommate, who is also a QuestBridge Scholar and TLP member, made a family macaroni and cheese recipe.
“I entered the event and there were so many different foods from so many different cultures. It felt like home, because there was diversity and there was community building and we were all very excited to try each other’s dishes,” Lemus said. “And I made so many new friends from that. I think just having that space, especially for students who are all kind of in the same boat, is very important. And I think especially in a campus where not everybody has the same experience that maybe I did, having that space we can share is very important.
“I definitely feel like I found my family,” Lemus said. “I would definitely say that it’s transformed my vision of Notre Dame. And I think if anybody has the opportunity to join, they definitely should.”
Lizette Mendez Ramirez, a sophomore from Monterey, California, majoring in political science and psychology, has enjoyed the connections she’s made through TLP.
As a QuestBridge Scholar and first-generation college student, she said a lot of her friends aren’t in the same position as she is. “I think sometimes when it comes to advice on school stuff, it’s hard to take the advice of people my own age, so it’s nice having the outreach specialists and all the people who work at TLP. They kind of have a different view on it just as adults.”
Mendez Ramirez is considering enrolling in Notre Dame’s Alliance for Catholic Education program for graduate school. During a Christmas celebration lunch, she met Itzxul Moreno, an ACE graduate and education and outreach specialist with TLP. “I mentioned my interest in ACE and she started telling me about how she did ACE and how she now works here at Notre Dame as an outreach specialist.
“It made me think about what TLP means to me and the opportunities it has opened up for me, and I was like, wow, that’d be cool to do that for someone else, especially if they’re in the position that I was, struggling to make that change into college life,” she said.
This semester, Mendez Ramirez has an internship with Mishawaka Mayor Dave Wood. She said TLP helped her through the process of securing the internship.
“They sent out an email to TLP students about the internship opportunity. That was something that was really, really helpful to me because I didn’t really know how to find those things on my own,” said Mendez Ramirez. “TLP has been super helpful throughout the entire process, guiding me through the communication and sharing information with me. I wouldn’t have been able to find it without them.”
Transportation could have been an obstacle for this off-campus internship, but TLP has helped fill that gap as well. “They’ve been helping me financially have the ability to get to the mayor’s office because I don’t have a car.”
Echoing Rojas-Monsivais and Lemus’ feelings about TLP, Mendez Ramirez said, “TLP is part of what made me feel more at home at Notre Dame because it’s given me opportunities and the ability to have some of the same experiences as my peers that I wouldn’t normally be able to have. Whether it be exposure to different events, or helping me financially or just helping me find those opportunities, it has definitely made it easier to call Notre Dame home.”
Summing up the program, McKenna said, “So much of our job is not to provide students with something they are missing, but to provide opportunities to allow our students to shine. They come to us as beautiful whole people. What we pride ourselves on and make clear is that we want to hold up our students as the beautiful humans that they are, and help them to find the opportunities that they’re going to grow from.”