Leaving Our Legacy

Author: Caroline Ashworth

O'Toole as her character Ros in "As You Are""

During the fall of 2020, theft was rife on Notre Dame’s campus. But students weren’t stealing food, others’ belongings or items of value. Rather, they were stealing signage from the HERE campaign — the university’s attempt at enforcing pandemic-related rules — and keeping it as memorabilia. If you walked into a given dorm room on campus, you were likely to see bright green signs, touting phrases such as “HERE we wear a mask,” “HERE we stand six feet apart” and, of course, “HERE come the Irish.”

One of these stolen signs — a huge flag, around 10 feet long, that was stolen from the COVID-19 testing center — still remains hanging in the house of one group of seniors living at Legacy Village. From freshman through senior year, from the dorm to off-campus life, the group adorned their walls with this flag, having every guest who entered sign their name to leave behind their legacy. To some, this flag is just a stolen object, but to others, it represents so much more. Senior Emma Sedlack, who came across the flag in her friends’ home, said that the flag is “symbolic of everything that we experienced freshman year and just our four years. It very much sums up how valuable it was to be here even if it was hard, because those are all the people that got to be here and that we got to be friends with.” That flag went on to inspire Sedlack to write a senior thesis on the impact of the HERE campaign and the class of 2024’s experience at Notre Dame during the COVID-19 pandemic.

March marks the fourth anniversary of the onset of the pandemic, causing many people, but especially members of the class of 2024, to reflect on how COVID-19 has impacted their lives. Back in 2020, the class of 2024 were seniors in high school, unsure of where they’d be going to college or whether they’d be going to college at all.

The class of 2024 was introduced to the university in a way that no other class ever has been, and (hopefully) no other class ever will be. Now, as seniors in college inching closer to graduation, Sedlack and other members of the class of 2024 have been thinking about the pandemic and its effects on their college experience. For some, saying goodbye to Notre Dame means saying goodbye to the pandemic and its effects on their lives. For others, the impact of COVID-19 may linger for much longer.

After being inspired by the HERE flag in her friends’ home, Sedlack realized that writing a senior thesis on the HERE campaign would perfectly combine her academic interests — sociology, marketing and design. To Sedlack, the flag “symbolized how much community we were able to build through having that tougher time.” The flag — complete with students’ signatures as well as messages of spirit and camaraderie between dorms such as “PE loves Dunne!” — served as “a testament to how adaptable and community-focused and just kind Notre Dame students are,” Sedlack said.

For her thesis, Sedlack conducted interviews with 28 members of the class of 2024, dividing them into categories of “anarchists,” “rule followers” and “negotiators,” depending on their reaction to the HERE campaign and their willingness to follow the guidelines. Throughout her research, she discovered that the HERE campaign disproportionately impacted certain groups by dorm and gender.

For example, when Sedlack talked to people who lived in men’s dorms, they often relayed the sentiment, “I miss the freshman year dorm community because all we did all day was hang out, and those are my best friends.” In women’s dorms, on the other hand, the rules tended to be more strictly enforced, leaving female students with less freedom and more fear.

Furthermore, the hall staff in each dorm greatly impacted the way students experienced their first year. Some rectors punished residents for breaking guidelines, while others were more lenient, recognizing that strictness in dorms may push students to gather off-campus and put them at greater risk. “Most people understood that Notre Dame had to do something, and more of the frustration came from the ways the rules disproportionately affected people based on gender, based on dorm,” Sedlack said. She explained that “rule followers” were disproportionately affected because “there were just so many rules that they kind of lived in constant fear of breaking them.”

This is not to mention the various other ways that certain groups were disproportionately affected, both by the pandemic in general and by the guidelines at Notre Dame in particular. Laurel Daen, an assistant professor of American studies, began teaching at the university in the fall of 2020 and has since reflected on how Notre Dame handled the pandemic.

“The pandemic was an incredibly challenging time. Notre Dame placed a strong emphasis on in-person education, which was really welcomed by some students and faculty but also exclusionary and anxiety-producing for others. Students with disabilities and health conditions that [put] them at higher risk for complications from COVID-19 had to choose between their health and their education. They had to come to terms with the fact that furthering their education at Notre Dame meant significant risks to their immediate and long-term health,” Daen said. Some faculty members such as Daen herself were able to receive accommodations to teach remotely, but for students, these accommodations were more difficult to receive.

“Disabled people have been advocating for hybrid or remote events and instruction for many years — this type of access benefits not only immunocompromised people but also those with countless other health conditions from chronic illnesses and anxiety to sleep disorders. Of course, other disabled people really benefit from in-person learning and engagement. The key to greater access is expanding options and allowing people to engage in ways they feel most comfortable,” Daen said.

Daen notes that she still sees reminders of the pandemic at the university today: “There are certainly still visible effects of the pandemic on campus. Some people continue to wear masks. Every now and then, you might come across a sign from the HERE campaign reminding you to wash your hands. But mostly what I see on campus is a desire to forget and move on.” This desire, she noted, is not surprising: “After the 1918 flu pandemic, people had a similar impetus to distance themselves from the unpleasant and traumatic event … But studying and remembering pandemics, including COVID-19, have a lot to teach us. When we see health inequities that were exacerbated by a pandemic, for example, we can better tackle these inequities going forward.”

In addition to academic engagement, others are finding themselves reflecting on the pandemic through art. Senior Molly O’Toole performed in “As You Are,” a play written by Rachel Lynett and directed by Patrick Starner, a member of Notre Dame’s class of 2020. The story, loosely based on Shakespeare’s “As You Like It,” follows residents in an apartment complex during the spring of 2020. O’Toole explained, “It’s about this community sort of trying to deal with the pandemic and being quarantined. A lot of them are artists or musicians. None of them really have money. And it’s kinda about their attempt to form community with one another while they’re stuck inside.” Throughout the play, the characters are seen talking through walls or communicating across fire escapes, demonstrating their attempt to form connections despite the barriers of quarantine.

For O’Toole, the play resurfaced memories of relying on music during quarantine. “I feel like the play focuses a lot on music, and the healing power of music and art, and I feel like a big part of my experience during being quarantined was listening to a lot of music and discovering new music and just really delving into that, because it was something to focus on and something that provided an escape,” she said.

Before the characters walked onstage at the beginning of the show, the audience could hear sound bites from news clips about the pandemic, recounting rates of disease and death. “It was very eerie and very bizarre,” O’Toole said. Back in 2020, she never would’ve imagined that she’d be in a play about quarantine, wearing a mask as a costume. “It’s the most bizarre thing to think about — going from a senior in high school to a senior in college, from really experiencing it to being in a play about it,” she said.

O’Toole said that a lot of people’s reaction to the show was that “it’s both too soon and too late to do a show focused around COVID.” O’Toole and others are often conflicted between wanting to reflect on COVID and wanting to put it in the past. “Sometimes I feel like we don’t talk about it enough, and I’m like, ‘Isn’t that insane what we all lived through?’” O’Toole said. During rehearsals for the play, she talked to her costars, many of whom are younger than her, which reminded her how much time has passed since the onset of the pandemic. “They were freshman in high school when COVID began! It’s crazy to me,” O’Toole said.

In addition to “As You Are,” there is an emergence of “COVID media” in the mainstream, with seasons of TV shows set during the pandemic or movies and books set in 2020. Some viewers embrace this, while others cringe at the allusions to the past, wanting instead to move forward. So why should we keep talking about COVID?

“As You Are” director Patrick Starner said, “It’s imperative that we continue to discuss the pandemic and its effect on us so that the global community can truly heal and create a better and more supportive future. During the pandemic, there was such an emphasis on returning to normal or reclaiming the past, but in doing so many ignored the changes we went through as a result of this global trauma. Art allows us to confront that trauma and come together to create a new normal, together.”

For Starner, “As You Are” was so much more than just a play; it was an opportunity “to provide the ND community the chance to reflect on their own pandemic stories.” In fact, part of the audition process was to “tell a COVID story, about our own lives and our experience with the pandemic,” O’Toole said.

Starner, a member of the class of 2020, was hiking on spring break with his friends from the Notre Dame Marching Band when the world began to shut down. “What we thought would be an extra week soon became a month and then the rest of the semester … Suddenly, we were thrust into a world that we were not prepared for,” he said. In the summer of 2020, Starner’s anxiety and depression worsened, ultimately leading him to make an attempt on his life. Fortunately, he was able to rely on his friends from that spring break trip. “My found family [saved] my life and I’m forever grateful to them for their support,” he said.

Reflecting on the play, Starner said, “At its core, ‘As You Are’ is about an apartment building that comes together through music during the pandemic. They learn that the only way to deal with their individual traumas — ranging from job loss, to addiction, to serving as a front line worker — is to lean on and uplift one another, just as I did … The show is a celebration of found families, and I could think of no better community to give the gift of this show to than ND.”

The Notre Dame community continues to remember the pandemic through projects on campus. During the fall and summer of 2022, students in the history department conducted a series of oral history interviews on the COVID-19 pandemic at Notre Dame. The project was spearheaded by Dr. Anna Holdorf, a postdoctoral research associate in the history department. According to the history department, “The effort [was] part of a University-sponsored project to document the campus community’s experience of this historic event, and interviews will be preserved in an official collection in University Archives.” Now complete, the collection includes “audio recordings of 85 oral history interviews conducted with administrators, faculty, staff, and students about the University of Notre Dame’s response to, and the campus community’s experience of, the pandemic.” Perspectives from the class of 2024, as well as from other classes present at Notre Dame during the pandemic, are included in the archives. Holdorf also offered a course entitled “Chronicling COVID” in the spring of 2022, allowing students to further engage academically with the pandemic.


The class of 2024 is the last class to have experienced Notre Dame during the height of the pandemic. The experience that first-years have today seems completely alien when juxtaposed with the experience of the class of 2024. Welcome Week in the fall of 2020 was filled with masks and socially distanced events. Throughout the school year, students could not eat meals inside the dining hall but rather ate outside on the grass, often surrounded by bees and mosquitoes. When the weather was less than ideal, students ate in dining tents located on North and South Quad. The tents were equipped with two-person tables and, sometimes, raccoons. HERE ambassadors patrolled campus, requiring that students stay six feet apart and masked at all times. Students took weekly COVID-19 tests in the Joyce Center, and if they tested positive or were identified as possibly infected via contact tracing, they were quarantined in one of the various hotels or apartment complexes around campus.

The social scene of 2020 was also entirely different from what it is today. It largely revolved around Library Lawn, which was created as a space for students to gather while following COVID guidelines. For a majority of the year, students could not enter another person’s dorm room or even the common spaces of a dorm in which they did not live. On a typical Friday night, rather than go to dorm parties, students flocked to Library Lawn, which was ablaze with fires and s’mores, and lots of conversation amongst newly acquainted students. As for football games, students were assigned seats with their roommates, which, for the class of 2024, meant sitting with a random person you had only met upon move-in.

Senior Claire Marshall remembers the difficulties associated with meeting new people. “You met them outside, with masks on, and you had to sit so far apart, and it just made it so awkward to have to be meeting new friends,” she said. The biggest conversation topic was always COVID, she said. “It just made it so difficult to actually form strong connections because there was just always so much in the way.”

The barriers to socialization during freshman year left a lasting impact on Marshall. “I feel like it was so difficult to form friends outside of your dorm freshman year, and so I feel like I didn’t find a lot of the people that I’ve ended up becoming such close friends with until towards the end of sophomore year. And while I do love the friends that I had freshman year, and I am still close with them, that was a small number of people and I didn’t have a huge pool of friends to pull from, so I feel like it’s kind of ended up hindering my experience a little bit.”

Despite these hardships, Marshall is adamant that the class of 2024 should not be remembered solely for their freshman year experience. “We’re obviously so much more than just the COVID class,” she said.

Many seniors expressed worry about how COVID will be addressed at commencement. Some are wary of placing too much emphasis on COVID’s impact on the class’s experience as a whole. Senior Patrick McCarthy said, “The problem is, yes it was a big part of our experience, but it’s a quarter of the experience. We’ve done so much since then that I think is more important.”

Others demonstrate concern surrounding the attitude with which we treat the pandemic. O’Toole said, “It’s hard because I’m imagining Father Jenkins giving the commencement address and what he’s gonna say about it, and then I’m like, ‘Okay, well he was at Trump’s White House in the Rose Garden. He was making all of these poor decisions while we were on campus suffering, and COVID cases were going crazy, and people were sick, quarantined and it was not great.” O’Toole is referencing the nomination of Judge Amy Coney Barrett to the United States Supreme Court. Rev. John I. Jenkins, C.S.C. attended the event and was seen unmasked, shaking hands with others at the ceremony. Even though attendees were given rapid COVID-19 tests, Jenkins tested positive for COVID-19 after returning from the event. O’Toole worries that references to the pandemic will leave out a discussion of “the failures on the part of the administration that were pretty significant and affected a lot of people.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has clearly left students with a lot to reflect upon. Regardless of whether walking across the stage in May means leaving it all behind or carrying the impacts forward, the pandemic is something that the Notre Dame class of 2024 got through together. Recounting her experience of freshman year followed by the normalcy of the next three years, Sedlack said, “I was forced to be so grateful to be here, so I hope other classes also find ways to remind themselves that getting to be on Notre Dame’s campus is so, so special.”