March 1, 2013
By: Vicky Jacobsen -
Notre Dame, Ind. -- When Alex Coccia became the Notre Dame student body president last month after a run-off election many people were eager to call him the first varsity athlete to hold the office.
But as with many things in life, the reality is not that clean. Coccia, a junior sabreur, will remain an official member of the fencing team, but his new position may make it impossible for him to travel to away tournaments.
The Irish coaching staff, however, was very supportive when the sabreman approached them about his intentions to run for the office.
“It was one of the hardest decisions I’ve ever had to make,” Coccia says. “I think I would not have decided to run had my team not been 100 percent supportive and had my coaches not been 100 percent supportive.”
Although student affairs, particularly his work to increase the inclusion of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgendered, and Questioning (LGBTQ) community on campus, has become a huge part of his life, Coccia arrived on campus as an athlete, not an activist or politician.
“I came to Notre Dame not looking at non-discrimination clauses, not looking at whether gay-straight alliances existed as clubs. I didn’t even know what they were,” Coccia says. “But I had an idea of how I view Catholicism and what Catholicism means to me with respect to Catholic social teachings.”
Coccia joined the Progressive Student Alliance as a freshman and was inspired by the leadership and passion of seniors who had worked with the LGTBQ community at Notre Dame.
“It seemed to me that Notre Dame, as this prominent Catholic institution with this deep tradition of social justice, this would be something that we would be on the forefront of,” he says. “When I started working more directly, collecting stories and testimonials … a lot of the stories really, really hurt me, because I had this vision of what the student experience would be like and there are plenty of people who don’t have the same experience.
“I’ve had friends come out to me. I’ve had friends tell me their stories and why they don’t feel welcome on campus, and so those personal stories have become why I continued with it.”
One of Coccia’s biggest initiatives during his time at Notre Dame is the 4-to-5 Movement. The group, who’s name is derived from statistics that show that four out of five college-educated young people support a full slate of gay rights, was formed with the intent of telling students who support gay rights that they are in the majority, not the minority, while simultaneously trying to increase acceptance and understanding of homosexuals among those who do not support gay rights.
Coccia occasionally brought together his advocacy and athletic efforts. Last school year, he helped organize Athlete Allies. One of this initiative’s accomplishments was a series of posters featuring varsity athletes from a variety of teams wearing 4-to-5 Movement t-shirts.
“[This initiative] says that we don’t lose sight of the fact that we’re working with our peers, and that we’re building these relationships,” Coccia says. “In order to build a good team, in order to win a national championship, you have to make sure that everyone feels welcome and everyone feels like they’re a part of the team or the athletics department or the university as a whole.”
Despite the growing role of social justice and student organizations in his life, the decision to run for student body president did not come quickly.
“It was actually a really long discernment process. I think it was certainly all of fall semester, I was considering it,” Coccia says. “I really had to talk to a lot of people that I trusted to get a sense of whether this was what I should be doing for my senior year.”
Coccia says that he had three main factors to consider before he decided to run. The first was the progress of LGTBQ inclusion on campus, as he and other student leaders wanted to make sure there was a plan for the creation of a newly approved LGTBQ and Ally student organization. The second was the question of whether this was the best way to help the student body in his senior year. After concluding that he could effectively represent a wide range of Notre Dame students using the connections with students and administrators that he had established during his advocacy work, there remained just one concern: fencing, and the knowledge that he could not work as president while competing full time.
“I think we can gauge how important decisions are by how much we’re willing to sacrifice, and for me it is a big sacrifice to give up [traveling with] the team,” Coccia says.
Regardless of his decision to run for student office, Coccia said that he has reflected on the role of fencing in his life with the knowledge that his career will not extend beyond senior year.
“It’s meant a lot for my development in the past two-and-a-half years,” Coccia says. “I’ve been fencing since I was in seventh grade, and I’ve built a lot of great friendships with my teammates.”