How the Program of Liberal Studies Helped McKenna Cassidy Expand Her Mind, Strengthen Her Faith, and Find a Career Path She Loves

Author: Sophia Lauber

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McKenna Cassidy at Villa d’Este outside Rome

The Program of Liberal Studies’ motto — Learn what it means to be human — is a phrase that Notre Dame senior McKenna Cassidy has taken to heart.

She grappled with big ideas in her Arts and Letters courses, traveled to Italy to research Renaissance mealtime rituals, and followed her passions to a career in the wine industry.

“That motto is a wonderful goal for each individual,” Cassidy said. “It is important to understand who I am and why I’m here, and I’m grateful for the space that the College of Arts and Letters has created for me to discern that question.”

After changing her major from mechanical engineering to PLS halfway through her first year, Cassidy has come to love the self-starting, critical thinking, and communication required by the reading- and discussion-intensive major.

“You get out of this major what you put into it,” Cassidy said. “I love that our learning is deeply self-motivated. My peers and I like the surprise of coming to class and leaving feeling impacted by the material.”

Passionate about her Catholic faith, Cassidy also pursued a theology minor at Notre Dame — a field that complements her PLS major as readings and fundamental questions often overlap.

“I’ve grown in my faith by being a PLS student, and I believe that’s the same for many of my peers,” Cassidy said. “We take classes in PLS where we examine and question theological texts because we truly care what the answer is. These books are certainly impressive works of literature, but they should also mean something for our understanding about human life.”

“We take classes in PLS where we examine and question theological texts because we truly care what the answer is. These books are certainly impressive works of literature, but they should also mean something for our understanding about human life.”

A sacred ritual

When deciding on her senior thesis topic, Cassidy drew on both her personal experience and her academic interests, choosing a topic that deeply mattered to her — mealtime.  

“I think that our true selves come out at the table and that by consuming food, we’re also taking in nourishment from one another,” Cassidy said. “I think this phenomenon occurs  uniquely during mealtime, and I value the effect it has at the table.”

In her senior thesis, Meaning in Mealtime: Carving Knives, Princes, and Dances at the Renaissance Italian Table, she examines Renaissance Florentine dining culture and argues that mealtime is meaningful, in part, because of the objects at a meal and how they interact with those who are dining.

Cassidy’s thesis was largely inspired by the intentionality she observed around mealtime with her family growing up.  

“Mealtime is sacred in my house,” she said. “On holidays, my grandma, Oma, would pull out the special plates and cups. The fact that people care about the experience they were to have at the table stuck with me, and I remain curious about why that is. I wanted to explore that, using Renaissance Italy as a case study.”

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Cassidy in the Parrot Room, which was once the dining room in Palazzo Davanzati, in Florence

A powerful experience

Cassidy, who had completed an internship in Rome with the JPIC (Justice, Peace, and Integrity of Creation) Commission the summer after her first year, looked to Italy again for her senior thesis research.

With funding from the Nanovic Institute for European Studies, the Flatley Center for Undergraduate Scholarly Engagement, and the de Nicola Center for Ethics and Culture Sorin Fellows Program, she spent two weeks traveling to Florence, Rome, and London to conduct research while studying abroad in Scotland during the spring of her junior year.

Seeing artifacts from the Renaissance era firsthand — including credenzas, plates, and carving knives — at various museums was a powerful experience, she said. 

“It heightened the quality of the project I produced, and I’m grateful for some of the surprises, too,” Cassidy said. “A 1533 cookbook by Bartolomeo Scappi was brought to me on a pillow in this wonderful wooden-walled library, and I got to touch it and take pictures of it. Seeing these things in person was inspiring.”

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Cassidy in the Medieval and Renaissance Galleries at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London

‘The right place to be’

Cassidy’s love of mealtime has influenced other areas of her life as well, from co-chairing the Sorin Fellows’ Bread of Life Dinner in 2018 to determining her career path.

Interested in the hospitality industry, Cassidy met with E. & J. Gallo Winery at the Meruelo Family Center for Career Development’s Career Fair and completed the  experience marketing internship in Napa Valley during summer 2019 at Louis M. Martini Winery.

“I worked at the tasting room, so my first introduction to Gallo was in a hospitality setting where we would welcome people in,” Cassidy said. “I started to learn about wine, and I fell in love with this beautiful product that brings people together in a special way.”

After completing the internship, Cassidy landed a full-time position and will begin working this summer as an on-premise sales representative for Gallo Wine Sales of New Jersey. She hopes to eventually become a portfolio consultant for premium wines with E. & J. Gallo’s Lux Italian portfolio. 

“Not until the summer before my senior year did my path with PLS inform my most fundamental passions and future career,” Cassidy said. “Throughout my years at Notre Dame, I have tried to make choices through which I would nourish my authenticity, joy, and personal growth. 

“The increasing cohesion between my own interests, academic research, and ensuing career shows to me that, while there might not be any one ‘right’ path for my life, there is certainly one on which I have and will most attentively pursue what it means to be human.”

“The increasing cohesion between my own interests, academic research, and ensuing career shows to me that, while there might not be any one ‘right’ path for my life, there is certainly one on which I have and will most attentively pursue what it means to be human.”

Originally published by Sophia Lauber at al.nd.edu on May 18, 2020.