Notre Dame felt like a foreign place to Angie Torain even though she grew up less than 20 miles away in Elkhart.
She was a good student and a three-sport athlete at Elkhart Central High School, but when she graduated in 1990 she didn’t even consider Notre Dame as a possible opportunity.
“As a young, Black female growing up in Elkhart, Notre Dame was not an option for me,” Torain said. “I never thought about it. I never came over to South Bend.”
Twenty years into her professional career, Torain was hired by Notre Dame in 2017. Recently, she’s worked as the university’s senior associate athletic director for compliance, legal and risk management. On Wednesday, the university announced a new role for Torain: senior associate athletic director for culture, diversity and engagement.
“To now be here and actually have an opportunity to ensure that others can come to Notre Dame, to ensure that those that are here can thrive at Notre Dame — whether minority, whether female, whether whatever — is amazing,” Torain said. “More than anything, it’s awesome because there’s a community that wants diversity and inclusion and wants different ideas and different thoughts.
“To me, that’s what’s awesome — the willingness and wanting to see people excel and do well here.”
The new role for Torain comes at an important time for Notre Dame’s athletic department as it has pledged to listen to its student-athletes, amplify their messages and effect change as protests of racial injustice have swept the country following the recent deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Abrery.
The creation of Torain’s new position came with the current movement in mind.
“Our Diversity and Inclusion Committee has done a very good job the past few years,” Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick told the Tribune via email, “but the events of the past month have highlighted the need to augment those efforts by having someone on staff devoting every day to the task of giving more structure to our efforts and building greater momentum.”
Swarbrick said he’s confident Torain can help the athletic department engage in an honest assessment of its culture, facilitate important conversations and build a plan to make tangible and lasting changes.
“She brings a remarkably rich group of experiences, having worked in university athletic departments, conference offices, and the NCAA,” Swarbrick said via email. “Most importantly, however, she brings the perspective of a mother and a former student-athlete and a passion for helping others that make her eminently relatable.”
Torain, 48, has a long résumé with varying job titles since graduating from Indiana University’s Maurer School of Law in 1997. She’s worked in compliance for the Horizon League. She’s worked for the NCAA in enforcement. She’s been the associate commissioner for The Summit League while also being an adjunct law professor at Northern Illinois.
Immediately prior to being hired by Notre Dame, Torain was the deputy athletic director at Incarnate Word.
None of those jobs will specifically inform Torain’s new role at Notre Dame, she said, but the experiences she’s witnessed along the way will help her.
“It’s listening and loving people,” Torain said. “I don’t feel like I’m the one that has to take on this big charge. It’s really allowing people to tell me what we need as opposed to me saying this is what we need.
“I have a huge staff and coaches and student-athletes who are going to say, ‘This is what we need. This is what’s missing.’
“Then it’s my job to help figure out how we get there.”
Torain’s most relevant experience may be her own as a student. She remembers feeling like an outsider on a college campus.
When she enrolled at DePauw University in 1990, she became part of the largest incoming freshman class of Black students the school had seen at that point. The concerted effort to increase the diversity on the campus in Greencastle, Ind., was clear.
Torain was part of a freshman class that included 58 Black students. The freshman class four years prior included only six.
Still, the 141 Black students on campus in the fall of 1990 represented less than 10% of DePauw’s student body, which was predominantly white and affluent.
“It’s a different world,” Torain said. “Even if you come from a small town, you don’t have to be Black. If you come from a small town, the economics there are different from what most of us would have experienced. I took that moment and I knew automatically that I was different.”
While she valued her time at DePauw, which culminated in 1994 with a degree in sociology, Torain recognized the deficiencies the university had in helping its Black students feel part of the campus. She came to rely on the Association of African-American Students, a group of older students experiencing the same challenges.
Torain didn’t necessarily feel like she was in touch with the rest of the university.
“I had my group. That was the African-American students. That was my group,” Torain said. “DePauw’s a lot smaller than Notre Dame, but at the same time while it’s intentional to help our student-athletes — minority or not — to be together, it’s also important for us to help educate others and make sure that we’re part of the campus as well.”
Torain will work with Notre Dame’s Student Welfare and Development department. She’ll communicate with the Student-Athlete Advisory Committee. Any way she can promote culture, diversity and engagement among Notre Dame’s student-athletes, coaches and staff, she wants to be available for guidance.
“Everyone has great ideas and is going out and doing what they need to do, but how do we structure it so we’re making sure that we’re getting the best bang out of our buck for what we’re trying to do?” Torain said. “It’s going to be having one person help funnel those discussions.”
The discussions recently have included a pair of town halls. In one meeting, Black staff and student-athletes shared their concerns. In the other meeting, other non-Black members of the athletic department were encouraged to join to have tough conversations.
Torain was inspired to see how the football team organized its “staNDtogether” unity walk on campus last Friday. Roughly 1,500 people gathered on campus for shared prayer and speeches on Juneteenth, the holiday which celebrates the end of slavery in the U.S.
“The unity walk that we just had last Friday was amazing,” Torain said. “It was extremely hot, especially to be in masks. Oh my goodness. But it was amazing to hear the guys. They put that together by themselves within 48 hours.”
She wants to help create more moments like that. She also wants to improve the everyday experience for students and figure out how to do so. It starts with listening.
“The passion of the student-athletes speaking openly to us,” Torain said, “and bringing some attention to the things that they deal with as a student-athlete that we may not have known or had even thought of, that’s been exciting.”