Several years ago, Elaine DeBassige ’92 was looking for a new way to make a difference when a late-night chat with the rector of her former residence hall changed the course of her life.
DeBassige was on campus to meet with fellow members of the Alumni Association’s Board of Directors, and after the day’s activities had finished, she met Layla Karst, the outgoing Lewis Hall rector, to discuss ways she could help give back.
Their conversation, which stretched into the wee hours of the morning, soon turned to DeBassige’s job. After working as a licensed therapist for years, she found private practice isolating, and wanted to transition to something else. That’s when Karst asked DeBassige if she’d ever considered working as a rector at Notre Dame.
“I burst out laughing,” DeBassige recalls. “But as I learned more about the position, I realized, oh my gosh, this could be the next thing.”
And it was. After a quick interview process, DeBassige returned to campus—this time, as the rector of Farley Hall. No longer isolated, she finds herself intimately involved in the lives of the young women she guides and mentors.
“My door is always open,” DeBassige says. “It’s the coolest and most complicated job I’ve ever had.”
While DeBassige oversees activities and makes sure the hall is running smoothly, much of her job is just being available to talk to her residents about whatever is on their minds.
“I’m having conversations with the women about everything under the sun,” she says. “It’s everything from how do you talk to a boy and get a date, or helping them figure out if they are dating somebody, because they don’t know, to how to get gum out of a sweatshirt. I don’t know what topic we have not talked about.”
And DeBassige is happy to to help. Drawing on her counseling experience, she helps Farley’s young women navigate the challenges they’re facing, something she sees as an important part of transitioning to adulthood.
“My background really helps because I know how to ask questions,” she says. “I have found asking them questions instead of fixing things is one of the most helpful things for them. Because they want the answer, and they’re still young enough that they don’t understand that in life, many times there are not easy answers.”
Given the busy lives Notre Dame students lead, the conversation often turns to the activities the women have taken on, and why they’ve chosen them.
“We have this conversation about being a human doing vs. a human being,” DeBassige says. “So then we talk about what kind of human being they want to be. When they finish their four years here, what do they want to be most proud of? And the other conversation we have is about not living a mile wide and an inch deep, and about what it is that most fulfills them. So we talk a lot about fulfillment and who it is they want to become. And I think sometimes that’s the first time they’ve taken the time to think about that, because they’ve been on this treadmill and everything’s been so automatic and programmed, and this is the first time that they have choices.”
DeBassige is also eager to help students from various backgrounds learn from each other and navigate differences.
“Sometimes I feel like a unicorn,” she says. “There’s not a lot of women here from the southwest. So many times, I’m the first either Mexican-American or Native American that they’ve met. I’ve had so many interesting conversations with women who have just had questions that they were afraid to ask anywhere else. And so I’ve really tried to create a space where if people want to learn, please ask questions. And that has been really amazing.
“We talk about these differences. I usually use myself as an example, to take the edge off. I think because I have purple hair, there are just naturally more things that pop up, because I’ve just extended the world of what is normal. I’ve really tried to encourage opening the boundaries of what people can talk about.”
As Farley’s rector, DeBassige is also intimately involved in planning and putting on the hall’s various events. Highlights include Pop Farley Week, which honors Father John “Pop” Farley, C.S.C., a Notre Dame graduate and longtime campus rector for whom the hall is named. The week begins with Mass in the Log Chapel with Father Edward A. “Monk” Malloy, C.S.C, ’63, ’67 M.A., ’69 M.A., a former Farley resident. It includes a skit night, ice skating, and hall decorating leading up to a dance. The week concludes with another Mass, usually offered by University President Rev. John I. Jenkins, C.S.C, ’76, ’78 M.A.
Other hall traditions include Sisterhood Week in February to honor the late Sister Jean Lenz, O.S.F., ’67 M.A., a former rector, and Be Fine Day in the spring, which encourages conversations about femininity. DeBassige has also helped Farley partner with other residence halls to bring Las Posadas, a Latin American tradition that celebrates the Nativity story, to campus. And she helped the hall’s residents start Cafe Far-Far, which gives them an opportunity to run a business that sells a variety of ever-popular waffles.
Ultimately, DeBassige finds her work as rector deeply satisfying, and she enjoys helping to mentor rising generations of Notre Dame alumni.
“To know that I have helped to guide a journey of a little pocket of all the other people who will become my fellow alumni, it’s a little bit overwhelming at times, in a really amazing way,” she says. “I wake up and I can’t believe I’m here. I feel like I won the lottery in being able to help this group be better. We talk a lot at Notre Dame about being a force for good, and when I see the women—where they start and where they end—then I can’t help but believe that our world is going to be better. And to know that I had one tiny part of that just makes me feel so grateful.”