Women at the Center for Social Concerns: A story of 50 years

By: Mary Ellen Woods ’80

October 9, 2023

Today’s alumni story is grounded in history. As I write it, we are celebrating 50 years of coeducation at Our Lady’s University. More broadly, the country is marking 50 years of Title IX, the foundational legislation that paved the way to eliminate discrimination for women. And the center is reflecting on our engagement with the women of Notre Dame.

To prepare for this story, I read the reflections of 25 women who had been active at the center during their times at ND. As I am wont to do, I looked at their class years and the stories they told about where they are now. I saw in the history a story of the evolution of Our Lady’s University, co-education, and the life journeys of the incredible women of ND. Among them were stories from the earliest — Kathleen Maas Weigert who earned her PhD in 1972. Also included were two friends and classmates, Mary Meg McCarthy and Melinda Henneberger, who were there at the very beginning, working with Rev. Don McNeill, C.S.C., to create the center as we know it today. We see the arc of the experience of women at Notre Dame. Some are young and recently graduated, others are well-established in life, career, and family. All are immeasurably touched by ND and each has brought her story to our beloved campus. Numbered among them are doctors and nurses, health care educators, students — PhDs, lawyers, and medical students. One Melinda Henneberger was recently awarded a Pulitzer Prize for Commentary. After 50 years, the women of the center, the women of Notre Dame are truly a force for good. Time and effort devoted to the work of the center has transformed service and scholarship into leadership. Our Lady and her servant, Rev. Theodore M. Hesburgh, C.S.C., would be rightly pleased by the results of 50 years of coeducation. 

But while the long view is compelling, my attention was drawn most keenly to the more recent grads whose ranks include at least two Rhodes Scholars. I kept returning to one story in particular. You see, it was truly one of those “only at Notre Dame” stories — MacKenzie “Kenzie” Isaac’s reflection. In 2021-22, I returned to campus as a Fellow in the Inspired Leadership Initiative (ILI). Isaac was applying to be a Rhodes Scholar. Several ILI Fellows had offered to help the students prepare for virtual group interviews for Marshall and Rhodes Scholarships. I had the good fortune to be matched with Kenzie and to help her prepare for her Rhodes interview. Imagine our pride when her selection for the Rhodes was announced. As I prepared for this piece, my joy was enhanced knowing that she was active in the center and that this story allows us to reconnect.

In her words:

“We do not (and should not) have to accept the status quo if we see that it does not work in the best interest of everyone. … Center for Social Concerns seminars allowed me to feel both courageous and safe in asking important questions, and the training I received at the center has served me well throughout my postgrad service and advocacy.” 

What was special about her thoughts was that they were so much more than a harkening back to fond memories of undergraduate studies. They were also a call to action, a challenge to all of us to be all that we are called to be and what Our Lady expects of us. 

A bit about Kenzie: As an undergrad, she studied sociology with minors in data science and Latino studies. After graduation, she worked as an AmeriCorps Public Ally in Indianapolis and pursued a master’s degree in health education from Teachers College, Columbia University. Her work is a commitment to service, scholarship, and leadership. During her Rhodes, she will pursue a Doctor of Philosophy (DPhil) in population health. When I wrote to congratulate Kenzie on the Rhodes, she replied a week later noting that her excitement has not yet worn off though she promised to make Notre Dame proud. Of that, I have no doubt. 

In closing, I treasure each of the 50 years of coeducation and the opportunities they have afforded for women to get involved at the Center for Social Concerns. One sees through the reflections of 25 amazing women that the center has offered and nurtured opportunities for learning and service, and that those opportunities have helped develop women leaders who truly are a force for good. Our Lady must be pleased with her handiwork and the wisdom of her servant, Fr. Theodore “Ted” Hesburgh, C.S.C.