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Coccia leaves a legacy of positive change

From building LGBTQ alliance to serving as student-body president, this Notre Dame fencer graduates this month a champion of social causes

Graduating senior Alex Coccia approached fencing and social justice issues on Notre Dame’s campus with the same attitude: “We can’t be complacent. We have to continually be challenging ourselves to be better and better.”

Five years before Alex Coccia was born, Notre Dame received and denied its first request for a gay-straight alliance. In the years that followed—as Coccia was growing up in Columbus, Ohio—similar student-led pushes for an official gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and questioning organization on the Catholic campus rose and fell, rose and fell.

Coccia didn’t know any of this when he enrolled at Notre Dame. The fencing team and research opportunities drew him to South Bend, as well as the positive stories he’d heard from his father, a 1972 graduate.

Yet Coccia, who graduates this month from Notre Dame’s College of Arts and Letters, quickly grew into one of the school’s biggest champions of LGBTQ inclusion — the one with just the right combination of skills, ideas and timing to reach a historic breakthrough.

“The conversation was ready to be had,” said Mike Harrity, Notre Dame’s senior associate athletics director, “and I think he was the perfect one to have it.”  

Coccia’s portion of the conversation started during his freshman year in Notre Dame’s Progressive Student Alliance, a coalition of students, faculty and staff that advocate for an inclusive campus environment. Coccia, a straight ally, was surprised to learn the extent of the struggle for some of his peers in the Notre Dame LGBTQ community. “Once I got involved with the efforts, I met wonderful people and heard some of their stories,” he said. “It evolved into a much more personal issue for me.”

The Notre Dame Department of Athletics last week released a video in support of the You Can Play Project for inclusion and diversity in sports. Tennis player Matt Dooley, who publicly announced he is gay in March, helped spearhead the video after connecting with Alex Coccia and the Student Welfare and Development department.

In the fall of 2011, Coccia founded the 4 to 5 Movement, an initiative named for statistics that reveal four out of five college-educated people between the ages of 18 and 30 support gay rights. By voicing that LGBTQ allies make up the majority, the group fights a common misconception at the Catholic school, Coccia said.

They kicked off their campaign with a panel addressing “How to Be an Ally,” and the next spring released a video featuring various members of the Notre Dame community called “It Needs to Get Better.” They wore t-shirts emblazoned with the words “I am the majority” and maintained a presence in the campus newspaper. “We knew if we were going to make some change with this, it needed to be a constant conversation,” Coccia said.

He also knew they needed to approach the issue from the Catholic perspective. Nearly 200 students, faculty members, staff and parents submitted testimonials for the 4 to 5 Movement, and about half stated they were strong believers in both the Catholic faith and the need for a gay-straight alliance at Notre Dame, Coccia said.

Coccia noticed mindsets shifting in conversations he had with administrators. Then in December 2012, the university announced a pastoral plan that, for the first time, allowed a gay-straight alliance to be recognized as a student organization. A full-time faculty member was also hired to oversee the new LGBTQ programs.

Notre Dame’s Alex Coccia (second from left) takes a break from discussing student government initiatives at the first annual ACC Student Body President’s Conference in September.

“The fact that we got all of that done last year was amazing,” said Dan Myers, Vice President and Associate Provost of Faculty Affairs and a professor of sociology. “The students have led the way with this here at Notre Dame, but the sentiment had to be organized and made visible. I think that’s where (Coccia’s) real genius was. He was able to do just that.”

“I don’t think this plan would’ve happened if he wasn’t here. We wouldn’t have come close to it.”

Already, Coccia and Myers agree a change in campus culture is tangible. It found the national spotlight recently when tennis player Matt Dooley publicly announced he is gay. Prior to his announcement, Dooley reached out to Coccia, who in turn connected him with the university’s student welfare and development office and others who could help spread his message. “His story and the amount of support he’s seen really shows where we are as a student body,” Coccia said.

“When I was a freshman, the question would have been, ‘Are you an ally, or are you not an ally?’ Now the question is, ‘Why wouldn’t you be an ally?’ It becomes an assumption that this shouldn’t be a debatable topic.”

Coccia led the movement throughout his college career while remaining a varsity fencer and working towards an Africana studies and peace studies major – enough to fill anyone’s schedule. But Coccia managed even more: fencing lessons to Ugandan children in 2011; research in Rwanda the summer of 2012; and a year as student body president, which included a campaign against sexual violence.

“I can’t even think of half of it,” Myers said.

Harrity often jokes that Coccia must be an identical triplet: “The guy is everywhere. Either he has more hours in the day than the rest of us, or he’s incredibly driven and focused and passionate on helping others.”

A recipient of the prestigious Harry S. Truman Scholarship, Coccia will embark on a yearlong fellowship with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services ­­after graduation and, in a few years, attend law school. He calls the last four years an “incredible experience,” fueled by his desire to challenge himself – and his beloved university – to be better.

“I think that’s been the mantra of students pushing for things like this on campus,” Coccia said. “It’s certainly out of a love for this place.”