First-Year Journey: John Sexton ’23 on Engineering, Family, and Never Eating Lunch Alone

Author: Shannon Rooney


John Sexton enrolled at Notre Dame with an intended major in computer science through the College of Engineering.

He had learned to code in high school and, thanks to a shared interest in computers with his dad, a Notre Dame alumnus, he had some experience in programming. 

Sexton’s mom and dad, Shawn (‘88) and Kathy (M.A. ’91), are also former University employees. They worked at Notre Dame for 10 years before moving to Atlanta, Georgia.

As an employee, Shawn helped launch the first wired network at Notre Dame. He shared his knowledge of computers with his son because it was fun and a way for father and son to bond, but his teachings became important for another reason. 

During John’s eighth-grade year, Shawn was diagnosed with ALS, or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, a progressive neurodegenerative disease that affects nerve cells in the brain and the spinal cord. Speaking and moving became difficult and Shawn increasingly relied on his caregivers, along with helpful technologies, to navigate life with his illness.

John Sexton '23 with his parents, both Notre Dame alumni.

Shawn’s growing needs led father and son to collaborate on the technical side of things.  The most significant of their inventions is a hardware and software system, called EyeDriving, that allows Shawn to drive his electric wheelchair with his eyes. 

In addition to this practical experience, John’s natural interest led him to computer science courses in high school. 

When John was admitted to Notre Dame, the computer science major felt like a natural fit.

Then he took Introduction to Engineering, a course required for all first-year engineering intents. It combines learning the fundamentals of engineering with exposure to each of the different fields available as majors at Notre Dame. 

“Then I decided that I wanted to challenge myself a little bit more,” says John.

When an electrical engineering professor came to talk about the major in his engineering course, the class completed a related project. They worked with breadboards, arduinos, and sensors, which were similar to the breadboard prototypes John built for the EyeDriving System. 

“It was exactly what doing stuff with my dad looks like and I was like, ‘Oh, I’ve never connected this to a major before,’” says John. He realized that his dad’s expertise came from the same things he was learning about in that class session. 

Now John is planning to major in electrical engineering. He’s interested in the hardware behind the software and especially enjoys a course he is currently taking called Embedded Systems and the Internet of Things. View this and other engineering courses.

He also found a creative outlet in his first semester creative writing course. He developed an interest in creative nonfiction, which has allowed him to write about his life experiences, including the challenges his family has faced due to his dad’s illness. 

“[Creative writing] was really interesting because it’s not something I really looked into a whole lot before, having a STEM brain. But it was interesting to see how I reacted to it and how I performed in class,” says John. 

John also finds ways to explore music at Notre Dame. In high school, he played keyboard in a rock band, so he was excited to join an ensemble in college. He had never played a brass instrument before, but learned to play the tuba in order to audition for the Marching Band. He ended up playing in three University bands during his first semester and five during his second, alternately playing tuba and sousaphone, mallet percussion, and piano.  


Whether he’s in class, playing music, or has carved out time for fun between activities, John has made some good friends in his first year. He attributes this to advice once given to his dad by Rev. Edward "Monk" Malloy, C.S.C., who was University president during Shawn’s years at Notre Dame. 

“He told him, ‘Never eat alone,’” says John. 

Shawn passed that advice down to his son and John took it to heart. He finds friends to eat with at the dining halls, talks to people in his classes, and finds ways to connect with hallmates whenever he can. 

He feels that Notre Dame is one of the easiest places to go up to someone and strike up a conversation without any prior connection. 

“That’s such a small thing, but it’s also a huge thing,” says John. “Because you don't realize how much of your day revolves around little things like that. You don't realize how grateful you are for  things like that until you have all of them. That's what Notre Dame has and I was lucky enough to know that Notre Dame had that because of my ties to it...I came here because of that openness.” 

See the previous First-Year Journey

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