Portrait of Elizabeth Gonzalez.

Elizabeth Gonzalez

Miracle moments

Senior Elizabeth Gonzalez makes most of opportunities

May 13, 2024

You would be hard-pressed to find a more perfect Notre Dame story than that of Elizabeth Gonzalez.

In eighth grade, her principal in Crown Point, Indiana, called to say that an anonymous donor in her parish had paid to send her to Notre Dame for a week of academic camp. She quickly fell in love with a campus she’d never known existed and dedicated herself in high school to get there.

When she received her acceptance letter, her father pulled out a collection of Irish memorabilia he’d been secretly collecting for the last four years. But the moment was bittersweet because he had lost a job and she didn’t think she could afford to attend.

So Gonzalez and her parents and sister and grandparents bundled into a car and drove a little over an hour to light a candle at the Grotto on campus. “If I’m meant to be here,” she prayed, “let there be a solution.”

Her miracle manifested almost immediately.

While she was walking out, an older man on a bench asked her name. He said he’d just lost his wife and asked for her story, and then her parents’ phone number. That night, he called her parents and offered to support her education however she needed.

“We just started crying,” Gonzalez said. “We went to the Grotto to pray for that. And then on our way out, a solution was right there. It is just crazy.

“And I remember he said, ‘I have a feeling about you.’“

Seems that Jerry Hammes was a good judge of character. Between a sense of responsibility spawned from her good fortune and her innate drive as the first in her large family to attend a research university, Gonzalez has one of those Notre Dame resumes that you can hardly believe is possible.

A group of students in Rome.
Elizabeth Gonzalez is in the center of a group of Kennedy Scholars during their trip to Rome in spring 2023.

A political science and Keough School of Global Affairs major with a minor in Latino studies, she has spent nearly every semester and break engaged in human rights work around the world: from an Indigenous community in Minnesota to Ukrainian refugees in Germany, from a diplomacy tour in Vienna and Brussels to the Clooney Foundation for Justice in the Netherlands, and from research on the Latino community in London to serving as a tutor at a Latino community center.

She’s been chosen for competitive programs like the Kellogg International Scholar Program and Phi Beta Kappa. As an undergraduate, she’s interning as a research assistant in a Law School class working on international human rights cases.

It’s a lot to process.

“Just to be inside of NATO and the EU at 19 years old is not an experience I ever thought I would have, especially coming from Crown Point, Indiana,” she said. “While I have an innate drive and desire to push myself to realize these opportunities, Notre Dame has these connections and avenues that would not have opened otherwise.”

Gonzalez spoke at an Advisory Council dinner last year about her formative experiences and thanking the many people who made them possible. Only after she was done did she realize that Jerry Hammes was in the audience, a full-circle moment that left them both in tears.

Hammes is a retired business owner and philanthropist who has donated generously to Notre Dame over many years. The paternal relationship with Gonzalez has continued throughout her four years on campus with regular lunches at Rohr’s in the Morris Inn. He plans to sit with her family at Commencement ceremonies in May.

“She’s very eloquent—whatever she wants to accomplish, she will,” Hammes said. “I remember when I called her parents, they wanted to know why a stranger would get involved. I told them I’ve done this a number of times. It’s what I do. She represents Notre Dame well as a student.”

First generation

Gonzalez’s Puerto Rican father grew up poor in East Chicago, the 13th of 17 siblings who mostly still live in Northwest Indiana. They lived in a converted store without enough beds, so he slept on the floor. At age 9, he lost two fingers in a meat grinder while working at his father’s restaurant.

Her mother is from Mexico, and when her parents met and went out to eat, he would get sick because he was used to eating mainly rice every day. Gonzalez’s mom helped him improve his reading and writing skills because he fell far behind after losing the fingers but still finished high school.

Elizabeth Gonzalez and her father wearing green, standing in front of some bushes.
Gonzalez and her father wearing green for a game in 2022.

“I don’t know exactly how, but my dad had this deep sense that education was the key to mobilize the next generation’s success,” Gonzalez said. “And my dad knew that he didn’t want to bring kids into this world without a purpose and direction.”

He worked two to three jobs at a time, sometimes all day in the city sewage department and then evenings until 10:00 p.m. at Costco. He bought a house in Crown Point and rebuilt it because he knew that was a better school district than East Chicago’s, where his wife worked.

Gonzalez struggled through the transition from a predominantly Latino school to a wealthier white one. Though she wanted to be on a dance team, her father told her to go out for golf because that would help her future success.

“He said he made the sacrifice for me and now I have to make sacrifices for us,” she said. “Being Afro-Latino in the 1960s, he could not climb these social paradigms, but I could and he was going to make sure I excelled at it.”

In high school, Gonzalez did not hide her desire to attend Notre Dame, saying, “It was my North Star for everything.” She started a club named The CURE (Courtesy, Understanding, and Respect for Everyone) to counter the bullying that she’d seen and promote kindness with signs and talks. The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis chose her work for a Power of Children Award in 2017.

She recognizes now that she could have told Notre Dame’s financial aid office about the late change in her family circumstances, but as the first student in her family to navigate the complex aid process, she had no one to guide her.

Starting out

Gonzalez came to Notre Dame thinking she wanted to study immigration law, but she expanded her focus to international human rights. While she praised many of her teachers at Notre Dame, two stood out as personal mentors: Karen Richman, a cultural anthropologist, and Diane Desierto, a human rights lawyer.

She was accepted into the competitive Kellogg International Scholars Program as a first-year student, which led to working with Richman on migration and development issues in Haiti and the Dominican Republic over the next three years.

“Elizabeth approached our research collaboration with exuberant curiosity and dedication,” said Richman, who is also director of undergraduate studies in the Institute for Latino Studies. “It was a pleasure to contribute to her development as a researcher and a scholar.”

A class with Desierto in the fall of her sophomore year “changed my trajectory,” Gonzalez said.

“There were so many things that drew my attention,” she said, “but it wasn’t until I took this class that I found a field where I could be exposed to all of my different curiosities within this umbrella of human rights law.”

Desierto helped Gonzalez get a competitive internship at the Clooney Foundation for Justice after her sophomore year. Her role was to transcribe the accounts of 13 victims of arbitrary detention in Venezuela and look for discrepancies between government accounts and what the foundation had found.

Elizabeth Gonzalez sits on a blue mosaic bench in Barcelona.
Gonzalez enjoys the view of Barcelona in spring 2023.

“That was really powerful,” Gonzalez said. “I actually had an impact on someone’s ability to actualize their own flourishing and human dignity.”

Rather than rest or have fun on breaks as many students do, Gonzalez looked for opportunities to travel and learn. Sophomore year, she spent fall break visiting Indigenous communities in Minnesota through the Center for Social Concerns. Over spring break, she went to Berlin with a class studying Europe’s response to its migration crisis.

“It was the beginning of Russia’s war on Ukraine, and refugees were coming into the train stations,” she said. “Five of us students went to the train station and volunteered our time, and even though I couldn’t speak the language, just sitting with someone and experiencing genuine empathy can transcend nationalities and language. I don’t think I could have learned that in a classroom.”

Hitting stride

Gonzalez credits the Diplomacy Scholars Program trip to Vienna and Brussels for opening her eyes to human rights work in Europe. She also used Nanovic Institute funding to reunite with Clooney Foundation colleagues at a justice conference at The Hague in the Netherlands during a break junior year.

She volunteered in South Bend first as a tutor for Latino students at La Casa de Amistad and then as a peer mentor at Building Bridges, a program that matches first-year students with faculty mentors. (note: this program is for underrepresented students, which is not exclusive to first-generation, low-income students)

When she studied in London during the spring semester of her junior year, she researched the impact of gentrification on the small Latino population in London. The Kennedy Scholars Program helped her expand her migration research in Rome and present her findings to scholars at Durham University.

Elizabeth Gonzalez and two female classmates on a street in Rome
Gonzalez heads out in Rome during the Kennedy Scholars trip.

“They’re a community that is really struggling with visibility,” she said. “My senior thesis adviser, Dr. Richman, said the same thing happened in Pilsen in Chicago, so I compared what worked and didn’t work there to give this community some insight.”

The summer before senior year, Gonzalez worked as a legal assistant intern in the civil rights office of Letitia James, the attorney general of New York. In a pending matter against US Immigration and Customs Enforcement, she helped establish a pattern of medical neglect of detainees that supported hate crime charges against ICE officers. “I got to see the peak of legal ingenuity in how we were able to build a case,” she said.

When Gonzalez was a senior, Desierto invited her to be the only undergraduate participating in the first Global Human Rights Clinic, a Law School program providing real-world experience representing individuals or groups combating human rights violations. Her work is mainly research and fact finding, but the intense experience convinced her that law school is in her future.

“Elizabeth is a real prodigy,” Desierto said. “Her sincere accompaniment of vulnerable persons such as migrants, refugees, and displaced persons comes from a genuine empathy and love for the human that seeks to understand who they are, how their rights can be realized, and how justice can be achieved in their terms.

“She is an indispensable and much-valued member of our legal teams. I’m proud to have witnessed her academic and formative development.”

Bright future

Gonzalez plans to continue with Desierto’s clinic over the summer and work for a year before attending law school.

Elizabeth Gonzalez and stands in front of the flags at the United Nations in Vienna.
Gonzalez stands in front of the United Nations in Vienna during the Diplomacy Scholars Program trip in spring 2022.

Through all of these head-spinning experiences, Gonzalez said her family and home keep her grounded. After mastering how to communicate in elite academic circles as a freshman, she hoped to study abroad in Paris, but COVID canceled the program. Instead, she worked at Costco with her father.

“I got to see what it feels like to stand on your feet for eight hours, and I saw him rushing from one job to the next,” she said. “These worlds are so different. I can never forget that I am and always will be a part of both, and it’s such a privilege.”

Notre Dame opened the path between worlds, and Gonzalez is appreciative and aware that the opportunities she has received come with a responsibility.

“My entire life, I’ve had all of these miracle moments, and they do put a little bit of pressure on me—I have this deep sense that I’m meant to do something of a greater purpose than myself,” she said. “Here at Notre Dame, we’re called to run with that, and make sure that what you do in these four years are preparations for how you’re going to be a force for good in all of the years to come.”