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Seven Notre Dame grads vs. South Bend's problems

SOUTH BEND, Ind. – Seven Notre Dame students who are about to graduate and could get jobs just about anywhere and make quite a bit of money have instead decided to stay in South Bend and help tackle the city’s problems.

At a presentation on Thursday evening city officials and business leaders met with seven students who will be graduating from Notre Dame’s Engineering, Science and Technology Entrepreneurship (ESTEEM) Program in August.  The seven young men will be working out of Union Station as part of program to help South Bend called “En Focus.” 

It was an idea the students came up with themselves in a bar after attending a UNC vs. Duke game in Durham, North Carolina.  They looked at how the city, similar to South Bend, had rebuilt itself and realized there was an opportunity to do the same thing in South Bend.

"Pitched an idea for an organization, in this case a non-profit organization that will work on community projects and focus on economic development and try to bring some return to South Bend,” explained Andrew Wiand.  “Try to defeat the brain drain."

“Brain drain” is the name commonly given to an increasingly serious problem in South Bend and Indiana.  It describes the problem of highly educated and highly marketable college graduates leaving the city and the state for what they see as better opportunities.  Local entrepreneurs who were concerned about the “brain drain” problem said they were surprised when the seven students proposed their plan.

“They came to us as business leaders and they said we don't want to leave, can you help us stay? And I said really?” described Kevin Smith, Chairman of the Board for En Focus.  “I'm like, well absolutely."

Smith is the man behind the refurbishing of the once rundown Union Station.  He helped the seven young men get support for their program and offered them a space in the building to use as an office.

The plan is fairly straightforward.  Sponsors will be pay the seven enough money to live on and in return they will work on saving the city money, coming up with new business ideas and helping to plan future economic development projects.

"We have high hopes; we're actually hoping to save potentially like up to $400,000 out of Transpo's budget for instance," explained Kevin Smith.

Under the plan, 10-percent of any money saved will go back to En Focus to help pay for additional grad students to join and expand the program.

“The board of directors, I know those guys work hard, so I think we’re going to be working around the clock to get things done,” Andrew Wiand explained.  “I think they even encourage us to live together so if we’re late night having some pizza or something they say talk about work.”

The seven young men come from across the country and the world, from Bogota to Rancho Cucamonga.  But, Wiand explained he had a personal reason for helping to get the project started.  He’s a South Bend native and graduated from Riley High School in 2007.

“Anything that we can do for the economy, personally for me is going to return to friends and family,” Wiand described.  “But I think for these guys it also offers and opportunity because South Bend is something we call a “beta-city” something small enough to make an impact as a single person or as a group.”

All seven will be graduating from Notre Dame in August and then their work with En Focus will begin.

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