Portrait of Joy Agwu.

Joy Agwu

Finding joy

Graduating senior Joy Agwu hopes to improve education policy

May 13, 2024

When Notre Dame’s president threatened to send the students home as COVID levels spiked during the 2024 graduating seniors’ first year on campus, Joy Agwu was secretly elated.

“I was like, please send me home,” Agwu said. “It was absolutely miserable. I’m at risk. I had pretty bad asthma, so I was terrified of getting COVID.”

Agwu wanted to be part of the college experience and to build new friendships in her residence hall and beyond, but there was always an emotional barrier: “I wanted to hang out with everybody, but at the same time, I was still very much afraid of them.”

The senior philosophy major from Maryland decided to spend her time alone, learning to enjoy her own company even though she’s not a natural introvert. She ate alone, didn’t tell her new friends about her asthma, and missed her sister and family.

Agwu was invited to recount this experience at the Spring 2024 Staff Town Hall because her rector, resident assistant (RA) and roommate played a big part in her ability to live up to her name: Joy. Her rector asked her RA, Sarah Herber, to check in on Agwu, so they took walks outside and talked through the challenges.

Joy Agwu stands at the podium at the Notre Dame town hall.
Senior Joy Agwu speaks about the challenges of the pandemic during the Spring 2024 Staff Town Hall.

“Looking back, I know for me freshman year was miserable,” she said, “but experiencing that, pushing through that, building my own community sophomore year, it helped knowing that at the absolute worst moments, there are people here.”

As Commencement looms, Agwu is certainly glad she endured. Her future starts with two years in the Alliance for Catholic Education (ACE) program, through which she will teach middle school social studies in Louisville, Kentucky. After gaining firsthand experience in the field, Agwu intends to attend law school so that she can help shape and improve education policy in a divided country.

“My overarching end goal is to help education be the equalizing force it’s supposed to be, not just a pawn for partisan ideals,” Agwu said. “I think the cultural wars going on right now have made the classroom seem like a war place for the future. If we make it this political battleground, it’s going to be unrecognizable.”

Agwu grew up in Bowie, a Maryland suburb of Washington, DC. Her mother, who was raised in St. Thomas, Virgin Islands, is a teacher. Her Nigerian-born father worked his way up at a utility company, starting out repairing lines to now being the senior IT lead.

“I think I got my resilience from both of them,” Agwu said. “My dad definitely has had his hardships, showing me if you want to get there, you can work towards it. And my mother’s ability to talk to everyone and anyone always annoyed me growing up, but her warmth impressed upon me because I think people are fascinating now.”

Her name is a family tradition with five cousins likewise named Joy, but she joked, “I’m the oldest, so I set the standard.”

In high school, she was interested in creative writing and film, democracy and government, and community service. She worked as an election judge once she qualified at age 16, and she planned to major in English in college.

Coming from a family that isn’t Catholic and with a Howard University legacy in her grandfather, Notre Dame was not Agwu’s first choice. Howard and NYU were urban schools on the east coast. She knew little about and no one going to Notre Dame, and she wasn’t able to visit due to the pandemic. Worse, she was a Michigan fan.

Joy Agwau talks to Fr. Jenkins. The Golden Dome is in the background.
Agwu talks with ND President Rev. John I. Jenkins, C.S.C., at an open house in the Hesburgh Library in 2023.
Agwu stands at a podium wearing a red dress.
Agwu gives a talk at an Advisory Council dinner in the Dahnke Ballroom.

“But I didn’t see service so much at the forefront of other universities I was looking at, and that was my thing,” she said. “I wanted to be at a university that was prestigious and had the acclaim to its name, but had more vocation than just blind ambition, and that was the energy I got from Notre Dame.”

Besides building a solid core of friends in Pasquerilla West, Agwu persevered through the pandemic in her first year by getting involved. She became a Rooney Center Hesburgh Democracy Fellow and a Sorin Scholar, two programs that provide access to academic lectures, events, scholars and research opportunities.

Starting as an English major so she could continue writing and reading novels, Agwu didn’t at first see the point in philosophy: Why spend time asking questions that have no answers? Against expectations, she found the introductory class really clicked.

“The more I dug in, the more I realized that’s the entire point,” she said. “I think it’s really important to engage with these ideas, building up the skills of asking unanswerable questions, making arguments, and just seeing where the idea leads you.”

Agwu served in student government for two years on committees for national affairs and political engagement, as well as diversity and inclusion: race and ethnicity. She helped plan events to get students registered, request absentee ballots, and discuss equality and the lack of bipartisanship. She also worked in a paying job as a tutor with the Writing Center and as a teaching assistant in which she helped first-year athletes become stronger writers.

Her work as a research assistant in the Center for Social Concerns reinforced her studies. She helped Jay Brandenberger, director for assessment and engaged scholarship and concurrent associate professor of psychology, review and find themes in 10 years of interviews he’d done with moral exemplars from each Notre Dame class.

“He helped me learn a lot of the language surrounding moral responsibility, as well as what it looks like to go above and beyond to try to extend justice to others by living a good life and a good, intentional life,“ Agwu said. ”One theme that I saw throughout was purpose and feeling a calling for a higher mission.”

Agwu stands with a group of congressional staff members.
During her junior spring semester, Agwu speaks with Congressional staff outside the U.S. Capitol.

The other experience with a strong impact on her career choice was a junior-year semester in the Washington Program. Agwu worked at a lobbying and consulting firm, Penn Hill Group, that works with groups from both ends of the political spectrum on education policy.

“It was an amazing opportunity to look into how education policy is approached from multiple angles,” she said. “I’d be interacting with vastly different organizations in the same day and it really pushed me to think outside of my own assumptions about policy. Education was a big, hot topic—it’s the way we mold the future of America for better or worse, and that’s a lot of power.”

Agwu wrote her senior thesis to bring her first-year struggles and future goals into a cohesive philosophy of meaning. “In the end, I described meaning as fundamentally being rooted in how we interact with others—not being isolated, so engaging with other people, and also working towards something that serves a greater purpose and has a positive impact,” she said.

She hopes teaching in the ACE program will give her the practical experience she needs to thrive in a career in education policy. It also fulfills her belief in meaning through service that coalesced in her final year.

“Looking back, it does seem like there’s been a clear path, and I think my experiences have forwarded me towards this orientation,” she said. “The way that Notre Dame has molded me, the teachers that I’ve had, the experiences that I’ve had thus far, it’s made education the most important thing in my opinion.”