Rome study abroad student wins the Lou Holtz Leadership Scholarship

Author: Peter Di Re

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Michael McKenzie is a rising senior who spent the 2021 fall semester studying abroad in Rome, where he made an effort to engage with the Rome Global Gateway and the surrounding community. His time in Rome helped earn him the prestigious Lou Holtz Leadership Scholarship. 

McKenzie’s options for going abroad last year were limited to either Rome in the fall or London in the spring. Ultimately, he decided on the Eternal City.

“Rome appealed to me because it seemed that it would push me out of my comfort zone more than London would, as there is a language barrier and greater cultural differences,” said McKenzie. “Also, to break the engineer stereotype a bit, I actually find history very interesting, and what better place to nerd out about the past than Rome?”

Looking back, McKenzie is undoubtedly happy with his decision to come to Rome. 

“I was blessed to have an incredible experience abroad. In short, I loved it. Living across the Atlantic forced me out of my comfort zone, just as I hoped it would, and I grew so much as a person,” he said. 

After an enriching semester in Rome, McKenzie eventually returned to South Bend for the spring semester. One day, he received an unexpected email from Fr. Gerry Olinger, vice president for student affairs, who wanted to set up a meeting. McKenzie was surprised, admitting, “While I was assured that it wasn’t a bad thing, I had no idea what it could be about either!” 

McKenzie soon discovered that he had won the Lou Holtz Leadership Scholarship – given to undergraduate juniors in recognition of demonstrated leadership in matters pertaining to student life. 

“After leaving the Dome following an early Friday morning meeting with Fr. Gerry, in which he broke the news to me, I went straight to the Grotto and then gave my parents a call on the walk to class,” he reflected. “I was, and still am, completely humbled by the fact that I was selected for this honor.”

Interestingly, according to an announcement from the Division of Student Affairs, McKenzie was commended for “actively engaging in Notre Dame’s residential mission while participating in the Rome Global Gateway program.” 

McKenzie explains, “Sometime in the week after we arrived, two of my roommates and I went in search of a court to play some basketball. There was one in the park next to the Colosseum, in addition to a small dirt soccer pitch. We eventually started playing with some of the Italian kids who showed up. I started going to the park fairly often, often by myself initially, and playing with the locals that were typically there. I became friends with a couple of the guys I saw frequently and would text them when I was planning on going over.”

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A few of his classmates started joining more often as well, and they set regular times to go and play. They soon caught the attention of Federico di Pasqua – rector of the Villa, Notre Dame’s primary student residence in Rome – who began advertising the opportunity in his weekly email to all students, reminding them that they were welcome to join McKenzie after class on Thursdays at the nearby park.

McKenzie continues, “It was a really fun way to relax and connect with local Italians similar in age to us. They were always very curious about us – what we were doing, where we were staying, how long we were there, what we were studying, why we came to Rome, et cetera – and many were eager to practice their English and learn about America. I enjoyed learning about them and practicing my broken Italian – with a sense of self-deprecating humor, of course. Many of my most authentic interactions with locals came in that setting. Sport allowed us to bond and connect. That park became one of my favorite spots in Rome.” 

While McKenzie’s time in Rome has helped him secure an impressive award, it has also been rewarding in other (less tangible but perhaps more profound) ways. 

“I definitely think that the growth I experienced as a person, the relationships I formed, and the experiences I had while abroad will be significant moving forward.,” he concluded.

Learn more about opportunities through Rome’s Global Gateway here.