First-Year Journey: Irene Chinchilla Mejia '24 on Having the Space to Explore

Author: Grace McDermott


The moment that Irene Chinchilla Mejia '24 stepped onto Notre Dame’s campus, she knew it was the place for her. She was in eighth grade at the time, visiting a friend from her hometown of Tegucigalpa, Honduras.

Immediately upon returning home, she told her parents she wanted to study architecture at Notre Dame. Four years later, Chinchilla’s dream has come true—she is a first-year student in the School of Architecture and a Hesburgh-Yusko Scholar.

On that first fateful visit, Chinchilla was impressed by the architecture program, but she says it was the people she met who truly sold her on Notre Dame.

“That’s what everyone says, but it’s because it’s true,” she says. “It was incredible how at home I felt when I hadn’t ever been there and I only knew one person. I had never experienced something like that before and I haven’t since.”

The unique character of the architecture school drew her in as well, and its emphasis on "design for good" has continued to impress her. Chinchilla took her first two architecture courses during the fall 2020 semester.

Irene Chinchilla Mejia '24 at Notre Dame Stadium

“Notre Dame’s architecture program focuses on building communities, and the classes really prepare you to appreciate architecture and understand the practical aspects of it,” says Chinchilla. “It goes hand-in-hand with the service aspect that architecture can have, which I want to use back in my home country.”

Chinchilla lives in Pasquerilla East Hall on campus and has made the most of the opportunities provided for her by the Hesburgh-Yusko Scholars Program and the Glynn Family Honors Program, of which she is also a member.

During her first year, she has researched water pollution in Honduras under the guidance of Professor John Onyango, worked with a South Bend legal clinic on immigration as part of a transformational leadership challenge, and joined the club tennis team.

Chinchilla, who was cast on the Honduran National Opera in high school, considered declaring a musical theater minor at Notre Dame, but ultimately decided to keep her options open for now.

“I like that Notre Dame gives you the opportunity to really explore your interests and develop them while having a major that has nothing to do with them,” says Chinchilla. “There’s so much stuff with music I can get involved in, and I have the space to do that.”

As excited as she was to be on campus, Chinchilla's first semester was marked by major challenges. She was sick for a period of time and, sadly, two of her friends passed away. 

Her friends, residence hall community, and professors stepped up to support her as she healed. “There were so many resources to reach out if someone needed help,” says Chinchilla. “I felt like I was being looked after, not like I was just another student. It made me realize that this is a community that focuses on fostering well-being and not just success.”


While Chinchilla faced difficulties, her first year at Notre Dame has also offered time to make new friends and the fun of campus traditions. 

One area in which nearly everyone Chinchilla met was willing to help? Football.

“On game days, so many people, when they heard I’m not from the U.S., were like, ‘If you want me to explain football, I would be happy to!’” she says. “It’s not in a condescending way, but in a way that they want me to love it as much as they do.”

She laughs at this, another example of the way Notre Dame builds community around its students.


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