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Department - Campus Life

Duke's Noelle Cunningham ('14) Voted Collegiate Soror of the Year:

Congratulations to class of 2014 graduate, Noelle Cunningham, on receiving the Collegiate Soror of the Year award at her sorority's 26th South Atlantic Regional Conference.  Soror of the Year is a regional award given to a single undergraduate who has exhibited constant dedication to Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc., her chapter and the community and has exemplified the Nine Cardinal Virtues of Delta Sigma Theta in her daily interaction with others.



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The Caged Bird…A Song Well Sung

Maya Angelou entered my life at a time when I very much needed to see someone who looked like me, both in body and in spirit, doing and being something unconventional. I remember reading I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings and hanging onto every word. I was in my first semester of college, at Pace University in New York, and dealing with a particularly trying and debilitating trauma that had recently occurred in my life. A dear friend had recommended this text to me. I didn’t know then that it would serve to reconnect me to pieces of myself that had been silenced/I had silenced. 

I felt daring as I read her words. I saw this woman speaking truths that were mine, in ways that I felt had been forbidden to me. She spoke of pain as though she had conquered it…stood on its neck and reminded it who she was in a world that would tell people who look like me and her otherwise. Maya was unapologetic as she revealed parts of her that were more easily kept covered…private…unseen. There was a communal shame associated with some of the realities that she shared and, rather than embracing that shame, she sang. Sang inside of the cage of racial disparity and cultural invisibility…she sang beautifully. Every now and then I could hear my own muffled voice adding a harmony or timidly carrying the melody while she moved fearlessly on to the next verse of our song. This was one of my first glimpses into what freedom could look like. Speaking…truth to power, words in spaces that preferred silence, poetry as activism…finding and owning my voice.

When I came to Duke University, I was a part of the last class of January Freshmen that Duke admitted, in January 1989. I had no idea that, the fall of that year, I would find out that Maya Angelou was the convocation speaker for the incoming class of freshmen. This, to me, seemed to be divine providence. I had been finding own my voice by listening to the beckoning of hers. Because of Maya Angelou, I was a phenomenal woman before I ever believed it. Because of Maya Angelou, I knew that I was the dream and the hope of the slave in spite of the intimidating voices that said that I didn’t belong here at Duke. These words and truths accompanied me through a harrowing 12 year journey that finally, in 2000, resulted in me proudly finishing my Duke undergraduate degree with my children at my side. 

The power that Maya Angelou gave to words and the fact that speaking was a conscious decision for her gave me the inspiration to speak and act in activism, and social justice advocacy. The universal truths that governed her understanding of being human and loving humanity continue to remind me that there is a responsibility that comes with a poetic gifting. There is a responsibility that comes with choosing to speak and being intentional about that which you articulate for others’ consumption. That freedom is often a journey through which community is developed. That there will be struggles, difficulties, issues and pain…that there will be cages and that cages will never be a reason to stop singing.

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Thank you, Dr. Angelou, for clear eyes

It is a special cohort of students that is able to claim itself as Literature majors at Duke University, and I consider myself extremely lucky to call myself one of that small group of ten that graduated from the department just two years ago. However, I must warn you - though I am proud to call it mine now, it wasn't always so.

As a lowerclassman, the struggle to manage my family's expectations of a traditional career path and my own interests had brought uncertainty into what should have been an easy decision. I was confused and torn by my passion for the art (and the academic enjoyment it fielded me) and the internal guilt I harbored for not following the path my family had mapped out.  

This is about when Dr. Maya Angelou came into the picture. Like many Duke students, my first brush with her was through assigned readings in grade school and then her annual Convocation keynote during Orientation Week. I had always loved her poems and even as a freshman, I was in wonder of the inspiration and fresh perspective she instilled in the students though she had been doing the keynote for decades. Even so, it wasn't until I was an upperclassman in Delta Gamma sorority, which hosted Dr. Angelou at the event each year, that I was afforded the incredible opportunity to meet her.

We were in a back entrance of the Chapel after ushering another fabulous talk, and though her son conveyed that she was exhausted by the experience, she was still waiting for us and excited to meet. She greeted all of us, shook our hands, and gave a bit of personal inspiration there to our sisters in that little nook. I may be a little selfish when I say that I felt like her words were spoken directly to me, but being in her presence with my academic background made me truly awestruck and reflect on my current circumstance.

All in all, I credit my brief meeting with her for jolting me into the realization that there was nothing wrong with my love of the written word, and it was time to release myself from my self-constructed cage of doubt and guilt. Without her, I would have continued my studies with a clouded head (and heart) and been unable to fly free and wholeheartedly enjoy my academic career so much.

So, thank you, Dr. Angelou. It would have been impossible to absorb the amazing teachings I was so lucky to experience from our renowned faculty without the clear eyes you gave me.

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"I am yours, and you are mine"

Each day this week, a member of the Duke community will share their memories of Dr. Angelou.

I was 11 years old in the sixth grade, and I needed something new to read for silent reading time at school. Looking through my family bookshelf, I came across a tiny book that looked pretty well-worn, and its author was someone I’d heard of before: Maya Angelou, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.  My mom had written her name inside the front cover, and it looked like it was a book she had read multiple times—so I grabbed that one and brought it to school.

I couldn’t ask my mom what her opinion was on the text, at that point, because of the stage of her illness. My mother was diagnosed with brain cancer six years prior, and was in a difficult place at that point in her life. Her name in the book’s cover was all the recommendation I needed to trust her judgment on the quality of this autobiography.

Sitting at school reading the book, I remember wondering whether this content was too mature for me—perhaps, I thought, I should choose something less heavy, like Holes or something. I remember raising my teacher’s eyebrows that I was tackling it at all. Who knows how much actually resonated with me at that point in my life, but I stuck with it, and I never forgot the power of Maya Angelou’s words. I remember trying to hide the tears in my eyes during the difficult moments of sexual assault in the text. I remember my indignation as a young, white female that this young, African American female recalling her autobiography could have faced such a different life than I had. These feelings stayed with me as I got older. Later in my life, I would read Toni Morrison’s novels, and I’d find myself drawing connections back to Maya Angelou’s writing. These books sparked an early anger in me, and were fundamental to my wanting to pursue work in social justice.

This book also left a connection in my head that only a sixth grader could have between Maya Angelou and my mother. That I could ever have connected my mom, a white, Jewish, Canadian woman, to Maya Angelou at all feels a little strange. But for me, I saw reading this text as a way to spend time doing something my mom had done at a time when because of her illness we couldn’t do much together. My eyes following the same words that my mom’s eyes had followed, reflecting on and connecting with the same moments she had read. Whenever I read Maya Angelou again in the years to come, my thoughts would always come back to my mother. I thank Dr. Angelou for being able to connect not just me and my mother, but so many women through the beautiful power of her language.

You could have never convinced me as an eleven year-old that someday I would meet the poet that had inspired me so much. Flash forward to my junior year after I was elected president of Delta Gamma at Duke, where our organization had partnered with Dr. Angelou for 20 years to bring her to campus for Freshman convocation in the Chapel.

I remember sitting with Dr. Angelou before the event in a side room in the front of the Chapel. We were left alone for a few minutes to spend some time together—she could probably hear my heartbeat over where she was sitting. To break my obvious nervousness, she asked me what I was studying. I told her I was a double major in Spanish and History, and a minor in political science. “Ah,” she said, “ ¿hablas Español?” she asked me in a thick accent. And there it was: Maya Angelou and I were speaking in Spanish. (Little did I know, she spoke over half a dozen languages!) Sitting in that room, Dr. Angelou told me she had hoped my introduction of her wouldn’t be a list of her accomplishments, as she found those so boring. I assured her mine wasn’t, and that she could trust me. With my heart beating so fast and my blood rushing a million miles per hour, how could I even begin in that moment to share with her the connections in my head I had between her and my mother, that I’d drawn courage from her for almost 10 years of my life. This moment of spending time with the poet I admired so greatly was unreal. All I could say was that she’d have to let me know afterward what she thought of the introduction.  She told me “buena suerte,” good luck, and that she would let me know.Dr. Angelou spoke so beautifully that summer day in the Chapel. She told the freshman class, “I am yours and you are mine,” noting that she didn’t live far away over by Wake Forest, and they could write to her anytime. Sharing herself with the world was Maya Angelou’s part of her power as a poet. I had considered her words mine since I first read them, and before then her words were my mother’s. Now this incredible woman was offering to share herself with over a thousand more people—I wonder how many letters she got following the event.

After the speech concluded, and the freshmen boarded the parade of C-1s back to East, I stepped outside with my Delta Gamma sisters and my father to meet back up with Dr. Angelou. She greeted us outside with a smile, open arms, and embraced me and said, “Becki, you were so smooth!” I could have fainted.

The world lost a beautiful mind last week, and the Duke community lost a piece that was shared with us for so long. I am incredibly privileged to have met and spent time with Dr. Angelou, a woman whose writing will be a part of me for the rest of my life, and created an eternal connection to my mother. May she rest in peace.

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Collaboration & Change for a Common Good


Collaboration & Change for a Common Good
A Reflection on Collaboration in Campus Life
India Pierce and Sean Novak


One way that we can work effectively to create change for a common good is to work collaboratively across communities. With this in mind, India Pierce from the Center for Sexual & Gender Diversity (CSGD) came together with Sean Novak from the Center for Multicultural Affairs (CMA) to create a program that explored the intersections of race and sexual orientation. As part of the CMA’s En/Countering Racism series (E/C), they created a program for students to gather and explore intersectionality. This was done in order to deepen participants’ understanding of themselves and others as a means to building stronger coalitions for social justice.

En/Countering Racism is one part of the CMA’s Race Speaks Initiative. The series aims to provide a safe space for people to share their experiences encountering racism and build participants’ capacity to effectively counter it. The more we explore intersectionality, the more we will see that life is much more complex than our politically polarized times might suggest.

In the beginning, the focus was on doing good works and providing students the opportunity to enrich their understanding of themselves and others. However, in the midst of the project the true essence of collaboration became apparent. As much as they wanted the students to leave anew, they walked away from the experience impacted themselves. The project became more than just another event to host or dialogue to facilitate. It was a lesson in how to successfully collaborate. On the heels of the recent rollout of the Student Affairs Leadership Development model, India and Sean thought to share some insight regarding their experience.

Sean’s thoughts…

I had the pleasure of collaborating with India this past semester for our En/Countering Racism Series. I approached her with a very broad idea. I felt there was a need to host a program that explored the intersections of race and sexual orientation. I came to India with that basic starting point and little expectations. I know that I desired for the program to primarily be geared toward stimulating ideas for how and why individuals and organizations should work across communities (Ex. Black community and Asian Community) and movements (LGBT justice and racial justice movements.)

After a few brainstorming sessions, we came up with a concept about “challenging the face of privilege.” As we talked, India and I found a common desire in challenging ourselves to think about our privilege. On the surface, you can assume that I am White and I am male. Additionally, you can assume that she is a woman and Black. I knew from conversation that we had a similar social economic background, coming from a poor and/or working class background. With our education and current profession, we are both experiencing relative mobility in that aspect of our life. However, both of us are more than just this. As we talked, it was clear that we both acknowledged that we have multiple and intersecting identities. We both acknowledged that we needed to consistently bring our whole selves to the table and not just our racial identity, or sexuality, or gender identity, or class background, etc. We both believe that no aspect of our experience pertaining to our identity operates in isolation of other identities. It all intersects. We thought it important that we all explore our privilege instead of just pointing fingers at those who we perceive as “the privileged.”

In my opinion, what worked so well with India and I was that we were both willing to be open, honest, and vulnerable. We threw ideas around. We had a level of trust built that allowed for us to brainstorm without worry of being ridiculed for our ideas. Neither one of us had ulterior motives. This wasn’t a case of either one of us putting together a collaborative program in order to build our professional portfolio. We did this for the love of the work. India appeared to have a common desire for creating and expanding community and empowering students to work for equity. We had a common goal of providing people a space to explore the complexities of their lived experience not only to see how unique and distinct those experiences are but also, how we might be able to find common interests.

Next, I feel that we had mutual respect for and were resourceful with one another’s strengths. Instead of positioning ourselves against one another, we just focused on the work. I love the work I do. That’s why I committed to it. That’s why I chose this as a profession because I had a deep desire to work particularly with racial reconciliation and justice. It was obvious to me that India had a similar passion and commitment. After observing her track record in the short time she has been here at Duke and the conversations that we’ve had, India had similar motivations as I to embark on this journey together.

Additionally, what worked so well with our collaboration was a mutual willingness to compromise. India may have had an idea and I may have not initially agreed or thought differently. Instead of resisting, I discerned her suggestions. Sometimes, I might come back and say, “I think we should do this instead.” She agreed at times and disagreed at other times. Nonetheless, it was never personal. We had built a strong foundation from the start so we had a common goal. There were no suggestions that intentionally led us off course from that goal. Compromise can be a long and tedious process when you’re trying to organize a collaborative effort. I could easily have taken this program on myself (as could she) and created all the content. It would have been quicker and easier in the short-term. However, I am a firm believer that when you build bridges with weak foundations they are bound to collapse. Compromise and equitable collaborations are absolutely necessary for a sustainable initiative or program. If I wanted something for my professional portfolio, I could have just thrown it together and advertised it. In my opinion, compromise in collaboration is the difference between (1) being seen as a leader and (2) being a leader.

The last item that I will touch on is that we both put in our work. There was a mutual effort. We delegated duties and when one of us thought the other was taking on more than they should, we expressed it. After all, how could we take an inequitable approach to developing a program partially geared toward empowering participants to be more equitable? That wouldn’t be establishing a solid foundation. Sometimes, I was caught up with other projects or was simply slacking. I was open and honest about it with India. She was honest with me when she was falling behind as well. We made adjustments and knew what we were working with most of the time.

It truly was a pleasure working with India and I am going to enjoy working with her to build a larger initiative off this collaboration.


Thoughts from India…

I have been at Duke for a little less than a year but it did not take me long to understand how much of a buzz word “collaboration” is for folks around here. Yet, it seems to be at times easier to talk about than it is to do. Call it newbie naivety, but I believe that if us Student Affairs folks could figure out how to succeed with our collaborating efforts we will all win. I remember sitting down with my supervisor early on during my time here, sharing with her all of my ideas for how we could work with other identity/cultural centers. Encouraging of my enthusiastic spirit she encouraged me to consider every opportunity that presents itself.

Unwavering in my opinion, that’s exactly what I did when I embarked upon a wonderful collaborative project with Sean. He approached me about creating an event that would work for the CMA’s En/countering Racism series and I don’t want to brag but the experience was the stuff dreams are made of. I say this because I have often been approached about collaborating on events where the real intention was simply to use our space or for us to provide financial support. I wasn’t being asked to be a partner in the creation of an event, most of the time the planning for the event was already completed. In those instances I can’t help but feel a little confused because that is not how I see collaboration working. Don’t get me wrong, I cannot and do not want to collaborate on everything. However, what I am normally asked for is to be a sponsor of an event not a collaborator on the creation of an event. It would have been easy for Sean to fall into the same pattern, as En/countering Racism is a series that he plans on his own. He could have come to me with a vision and plan for how we would work together and what the event would be, leaving very little room for me to interject; I appreciate that he did not do this.

Our first few meetings were us just talking about the issues that are important to the students we serve. We discussed the types of programs that were the most successful in each of our offices and sought to take some of those elements and include them into the work we would do together. I can’t remember how we came to the topic of privilege but when we got there everything seemed to fall in place.

Working on this project showed me that there is a clear difference between working with people and collaborating with people. In any working relationship there are some pretty basic expectations that one has for their teammate, like completing tasks and meeting deadlines. However, successful collaborations go beyond the logistics…beyond the things on paper. Successful collaborations push and cultivate the growth of us as individuals. Our project focused on challenging the traditional notions of privilege, a topic that could not be taught to others until we did a little of the work ourselves. We had numerous conversations about the spaces in which we felt we had privilege and those that we didn’t. For both of us, we discovered that it is important that we bring our whole selves into our work. In order to do that we must first see beyond the check boxes of identities and see ourselves as the complex individuals that we are. At first glance it doesn’t seem that Sean and I would have much in common, aside from the fact that our home sports teams were rivals, Michigan and Ohio State.  Despite Michigan’s inferiority to Ohio State, we found out we’ve had some similar experiences in certain aspects of our life and others that were completely different. It was on those things that we were able to build a strong foundation for our work. I didn’t feel the anxiety that I’ve felt when working with others where I had to do x, y, or z otherwise it wouldn’t get done. Most importantly I was able to be myself, I admitted when I didn’t know something or was swamped with other things. It was our flexibility and openness that helped Sean and I work well together. We discussed how we approach creating events and when we’re at our best so we could support one another where we were and not where we would prefer the other to be.

At the center of every collaboration must be trust, and it is probably the hardest part of any true collaboration. We by nature are looking for ways to save our own butts. We expect the worst in others and over compensate for bad things that haven’t even happened yet. Those approaches are a disservice to those who we are committed to serve. I am of the belief that the best collaborative experiences often look like magic. Magic is something that can be taught, you teach it by encouraging people to think outside the box and embrace the process of stepping into the unknown. If we want our division to be one in which we are truly collaborating and creating meaningful programming for students we must first start by teaching the skills that people need to be successful at those things like emotional intelligence, communication skills, and effective management skills.  I believe that these skills helped cultivate a healthy working relationship between Sean and I. I look forward to what happens next as we build off this collaboration.

Sean and India closing…

We had a wonderful time working together. This started off as a one-time program to explore the intersections of race and sexual orientation and it is now developing into a half-day workshop. We plan to restructure and expand this program to provide an opportunity for students to engage even deeper into the complexities of intersectionality. One of the primary purposes will be to galvanize and equip students to work across identities and movements. Additionally, we will be altering this workshop to provide a professional development opportunity for colleagues to consider an intersectional approach to advising student organizations as well. As advisors, we think it is important for students to work collaboratively and not always in isolation from other organizations and communities.

In closing, we believe that collaboration is a vital component for us to provide the best service possible for our students. It is difficult to be influential in encouraging students to work together if we are not setting the tone for what it looks like. One of the most powerful things we can do to increase our ability in advising students is to first advise ourselves. Working collectively can be a daunting task with competing interests. However, we believe that enduring the struggle and fighting through the dissonance can produce sustained initiatives that will prove to serve students and ourselves well.


Thank you for your time.


India & Sean


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2014 Greek Awards

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Rubenstein Gift to Enhance Jewish Life at Duke

Duke University trustee David M. Rubenstein is giving $1.9 million to Jewish Life at Duke to expand programming, fund building renovations and enhance the college experience for Jewish students.

Most of the gift -- $1.5 million -- will fund new initiatives and staff positions for a Jewish student population whose needs and interests are changing, said Rebecca Simons, the center's director. New programs are expected to reflect an increasing student demand for information and resources related to globalization, leadership and community, she said.

Read more.

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Making Choices

Social life?  Sleep?  Good Grades?  It seems we can only ever get two of these at a time here at Duke.  Even after countless time management lectures, and many hours spent on schedules, I struggle to find balance. The careful plans I make always seems to fly out the window within a matter of hours.  An exciting social event will come up, assignments will take longer than I expected, or an unexpected wave of exhaustion will wash over me as I grow tired from trying to keep up.  Life can certainly be chaotic here, especially at the end of the semester.  The stresses of Duke have a great influence over the choices we make on an everyday basis. Should we eat dinner with friends or get an extra hour of studying?  Is it worth an all-nighter to study math?  Pressure comes from parents, other students, teachers, and even people we don’t even know. The future employer, the kid in the class who destroys the curve, and the thought of our own future selves looking back on Duke all add to the stress of making choices here at Duke.

As a sophomore this year, I am already looking back on my freshman year and making changes to my life accordingly.  There isn’t usually much free time to reflect carefully at Duke, but two years have already gone by and before I know it I’ll be graduating.  While some freshmen saw college as a new start, I arrived here intending to hang on to my high school identity for as long as I could.  It was a safety blanket, and I felt comfortable defining myself a certain way.  I had excellent grades, I ran track, and I played in the orchestra.  I defined myself by the activities I participated in and placed importance on my skills and abilities.  I was also quiet and introverted, and a little bit dorky.  These bits of my personality have certainly stuck with me through college, but what I thought were my most defining characteristics evaporated when I set foot on this campus.  I didn’t know how to describe myself to others; My grades here aren’t anything special, I’m not a student-athlete, and I haven’t played my violin in two years.  Coming to college, freshmen have to redefine themselves, and for a lot of people that’s refreshing, but for some it’s uncomfortable and scary.  Making choices during orientation week seemed life-changing.  Do I go to Shooters, or not?  Will I have any friends if I don’t?  Looking back now it seems ridiculous to base long-lasting friendships on such an inconsequential choice.

Throughout freshman year I fell back into the habits of high school.  I felt the same pressures to achieve academically, and I stayed in a relationship with my high school boyfriend (who was still in high school at the time).  I couldn’t seem to let go of anything from the past and grab hold of life in college.  I spent most nights in my room doing work or talking to old friends and family.  I chose good grades and sleep over a social life.  Other freshmen chose social lives over sleep or grades, or grades and a social life over sleep, but I did know one thing for sure: I wasn’t the only one who didn’t have it figured out. 

This year, however, I’ve been better at balancing academics, health, and friends.  I look back on my freshman year and regret spending more time with books than with people.  I had unrealistic expectations of myself; 4.0?  Double major and a minor?  Shooting for the moon may land us among the stars, but it can also isolate us from the people and community at Duke.  Goals are important, but many times it’s the journey to achieve it that teaches us the most.  Duke is an opportunity I’ll only have this one time, for two more years.  I want to remember it in a positive light, and over-stressing about grades and achievements isn’t going to make many happy memories for me.  As a sophomore, I’ve focused more on making choices that will result in my mental well-being.  I want to have friends to catch up with and crazy stories to tell when I graduate.  Of course, I also want to have decent grades, but I don’t want to define myself on my academic abilities all the time.  Sometimes it’s ok to have a little fun, especially in college!  One of the hardest parts of Duke is actually being accepted into the University.  When the going gets tough, it’s time to think about all the wonderful opportunities we have had as students here and make choices that will truly benefit us.  Staying happy and healthy is just as valuable as an A+.


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Leadership Learning from a Canine

When asked to submit reflections on leadership, I immediately desired to have the reflection correlate with the topical focus of ethos and leadership. That after all is what I would spend time and energy speaking on at Framework Friday (April 11th 3pm UCAE…shameless plug).  However, I was reflecting upon the idea while walking Diamond, our family dog.  Our life at home revolves around her anyway, so it was not surprising that she became my immediate focus regarding leadership.  Here’s what she taught me…

In the evening when I arrive home from work and put my purse and laptop bag down, I open one of our kitchen drawers. Immediately when Diamond hears that sound, she excitedly runs downstairs. In leadership, we must answer the call to lead! Perhaps there is an issue that is buzzing in the ethos, and it requires attention.  Or perhaps, there is an issue that is so challenging, that people feel powerless or silenced to address.  Whichever the case, leaders should be curious enough to see a need and begin, with excitement to maneuver with readiness.

After I secure Diamond’s leash out of the drawer and attach it to her collar, she runs to the door, jumping high and wagging her tail to go outside and begin her walk.  As leaders, we must be enthusiastic about our journey.  When Diamond goes outside, she surveys our front yard, and looks in both directions of our street.  She notices everything before leaving our area.  Leaders must be acutely aware of their immediate resources.  Even though Diamond repeats this behavior daily, and is so keenly connected to her foundation, she never fails to notice any changes that may have emerged since her last outing.  As leaders, we cannot become so entrenched that we fail to look for newness in those who have elected to support us in our leadership.  We must take time to survey our landscape and appreciate the gifts of those around us before we elect to start on our destined path.

Once Diamond has completed her inventory, she sets out on her walk.  She typically walks ahead of me, but she is constantly stopping and looking back to see if I’m following.  Dr. Johnetta B. Cole once said, “If you are a leader, and no one is following you, you are just taking a long walk.”  As leaders, we must ensure that we have enlisted support and that what we are leading actually matters.  Of course, there are times when one must stand alone, but those are fewer and more far apart.  On the average, what you elect to provide leadership for should emerge from a space that others share a similar passion and are placing trust and faith in you to stay the course.

Even though we typically walk the same path, day after day, Diamond never ceases to loose focus of the end point (which happens to be our mailbox).  She is determined to get there, despite the wind, rain and as we experienced this season, the snow and ice.  The ethos around us may change regularly, as well as people’s opinions, but when we are focused with our predetermined end goal, the elements won’t matter.  We are instead as leaders, committed to the greater goal.

As we return home, Diamond always stops and speaks to someone along the way.  As leaders, we must never forget to take time along the journey for interacting with others.  We don’t have all the answers.  Sometimes a brief exchange may provide just what we need to support our work.  These brief moments may awaken the desire to lead in another.  Small beginnings are critical!

When we reach home, Diamond looks for water and finds a place to rest.  Restoration and self-care is critically important and essential as leaders.  Without it, we will not be well for self, those we are leading or for the work we’re expected to do.

As leaders, we must allow ourselves to be vulnerable enough to learn and to grow.  Only then will we create a path for success and sustainability.  As much as I believe I know about leadership, I’m still learning more everyday.  Yes, in fact you can teach an old dog new tricks!


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Meet Stephanie Helms Pickett

Stephanie Helms Pickett was recently named as the new Director of the Duke Women's Center. We asked her a few questions about herself, and her how she plans to serve the Duke community.

Why is working in higher education important to you?

I often tell folks that I went away to college and I fell in love. It wasn't with a significant other, but instead the environment.  

When I arrived at my school as an undergraduate, I had limited knowledge of what I was in for. I'd never seen the campus. I was a first generation college student. My family was supportive, but they didn't know what I would be exposed to, confronted with, challenged about and affirmed to become. It was all a new experience, for me and for them. I needed help, and I found it. There was a woman named Virginia Rinella who worked in the Career Development Center, and instructed an orientation course. She was one of my professors, and eventually became my mentor. She was instrumental in providing me with the tools, resources and compassion I needed to navigate a place so foreign to me. She was a significant person in my developmental experience, providing both challenge and support. I am forever grateful for her presence at that crucial point in my life.

Being a student who was involved in a plethora of activities and organizations, I decided early my senior year that I wanted to assist students in the same manner and extension that was given to me. So, instead of pursuing Oprah Winfrey's job in Chicago (I was a Radio-Tv Broadcasting Major), I elected to pursue a graduate degree in Higher Education and from there, a career in Student Affairs. Since then, I've had the opportunity to work with thousands of students over the last 20 years at public, private, single sex, predominantly white and historically black institutions of higher learning. It has provided me joy and challenge. It has allowed me to give voice to policies and ideas. It has afforded me the opportunity to ensure that the place that I fell in love with over 25 years ago is safe, welcoming, affirming, challenging and empowering for all who enter and exit. It is a decision I've never regretted.

Is there someone in your life that has guided or inspired you?

My mother has always been my biggest inspiration. She was a single parent. My father passed away when I was 5, and she never remarried. I was reared on the south side of Chicago with limited monetary resources, but bountiful amounts of love, wisdom, compassion, accountability and faith. She was not afforded the opportunity to attend college, but it was always an expectation that I would. She has always believed in me, encouraged me, counseled me and corrected me. There is absolutely nothing that I've ever aspired to do without her full endorsement. The guiding principles she set for me have played a profound role in my life and who I present myself to be in any community. Further, her modeling has shaped me as a mother, a sister, friend, colleague and woman. She is my blueprint for how I interact and serve to bring out the gifts of others to witness their mark on this world.

How do you hope to serve the women of campus and the campus on women's issues?

The women at Duke are incredible. They are smart, savvy, innovative, empowered and beautiful. They are engaged and concerned. And yet, in conversations and spaces with women, you hear them speak of the challenge to be their authentic self in this environment. Academic engagement, leadership, entrepreneurship, belongingness, sexual violence, self-esteem, racial disparity, body image, social capital, choices, decision-making, and relationships are a part of their ethos; and each of these issues present themselves to women, concurrently and on a daily basis.  

I hope to encourage greater space for conversation with each other, to elicit compassion and understanding for each other's narratives before we can even speak of navigating the environment. Mentoring has always played a critical role in my life. I would like to see more of it, between underclass and upperclass students, with undergraduate and graduate/professional students, and with students and staff and faculty. I hope to continue the legacy of ensuring that women's voices are heard, and that that their voices are reflected in policy and the life of the university. I will make myself available to women, to hear what gives them joy at Duke, what gives them pause and what they need to be successful here and post Duke. I will listen, I will be accountable and I will be active to represent the concerns of women in student and academic life. I hope that as students, staff and faculty reflect on their Duke experiences, they can boldly state that the Center played a role in exposing them to something new, affirmed them as to who they are, and propelled them to higher heights. I want to move people and the environment from a place of knowing womanist and feminist theory to a place of doing and being womanist and feminist theory. I hope to inspire a deepened sense of community so that women's issues overall are not only heard, but responded to.

Tell us about the Women's Center staff?

The Women's Center staff are amazing! They are committed to the affirmation and empowerment of women. They are passionate about serving the needs of women and creating a climate that is safe, equitable and liberating, to fully enjoy and embrace their Duke experience. They model work-life integration and encourage women to lead lives that are reflective of their authentic selves. They encourage women to ask the tough questions, challenge systems that aren't representative of everyone, and insist their voices be heard and not silenced.

Full time staff and student interns create programming and discussions that allow us to consider multiple frameworks from a socially responsible perspective. I encourage anyone who is curious about the Women's Center to stop by, sit down and open up!

If you could stress a message to campus about the work the Women's Center does, what would it be?

The Women's Center is the place that always welcomes you, no matter what your path, how you arrived and where you intend to go, even if you don't know where that is right now. It celebrates your success, calms your fears, sustains your soul and, when you need it, gives you shelter from life's circumstances. It is a space that keeps on giving.

Now in her eighth year at Duke, Helms Pickett's other roles at the university have included directing Assessment and Professional Development within Student Affairs, chairing the Duke's Bias Analysis Task Force and serving on the Task Force on Gender and the Undergraduate Experience. Before coming to Duke, Helms Pickett worked at Bennett College, the N.C. Department of Public Instruction, Durham Public Schools and Meredith College. She has been an instructor at Duke and Walden University, and holds numerous professional and committee appointments. She has published two books, "Later Never Came Until Now," and "Her Name is SHE."


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Reflections on Dr. Jason Mendez

I always have heard that iron sharpens iron. Last semester (Wednesday, Sept. 25), I was reminded of that once again as we welcomed Dr. Jason Mendez to the Center for Multicultural Affairs. During my time as a multicultural and social justice educator, community organizer, higher education professional, etc… I have come to learn the painful truth that this work can be tiring. It is easy for us to want to retreat, give up, or submit ourselves to the un/written rules and procedures of society. For many of us, deviation from our true and authentic self can slowly chip away at the core of our soul while making the compromises that we make doing this work. Sitting down and having a Down To Earth Dinner with Dr. Jason Mendez, Visiting Assistant Professor of the Practice in Education at Duke University, was a breath of fresh air. He is truly one of the hidden gems at our institution. I am extremely excited that we will have him back as a guest to highlight our annual 14th Annual Unity Through Diversity forum on Arts & Activism. It is gearing up to be pretty exciting.

I want to recap a non-exhaustive list of the much-needed refreshers that Dr. Mendez delivered to approximately 25 students, faculty, and staff members on the evening of September 25.

1) Sport that cap – As Dr. Mendez threw his NY Yankees cap on his head and shared with us his journey from Hunts Point Avenue in the Bronx to Duke, I instantaneously flashed through the 33 year journey of my own. From time to time, you might see me walking into the office with the black Detroit cap, sporting our beloved Old English ‘D’ (or as many of us native Detroiters call it, “the Detroit D”). That cap has an entire journey tied into it that I could share many stories about. But at the core of it, that ‘D’ is me. It is where I’m from. It is who I am. In many ways, it is what made me who I am today. I might have bought that cap for $5 at a gas station in Detroit but that cap is worth millions to me. There is an irony to me wearing that cap though. I have to take it off when I come into work and I put it back on when I leave. There lies the symbolic reminder that although I can be me in many ways, there is much of what encompasses that cap that I might have to hide, change, and alter in an environment like Duke. That struggle to find a balance between my true authentic self and who I am expected to be in certain environments is nothing new to many of us. It is important to find your own rhythm.

2) Oppression/privilege – Many of us experience marginalization in a variety of ways. Many of my colleagues (and students) of color experience it because of their race. Many of my female colleagues (and students) experience this because of their gender. Many of my queer colleagues (and students) experience it because of their sexual orientation. Many of my colleagues (and students) from poor and working class backgrounds experience it because of their class background. To make it more complex, it all intersects. However, when we experience marginalization it can become a more salient identity because we are having experiences regularly that reinforce that difference or “otherness.” This is where I can appreciate Dr. Mendez. Despite having to navigate oppression being a person of color (more specifically, Boricua), he discussed the dynamics of heterosexual and male privilege in his life. I can only imagine what his experience is like. Not many people are confident and transparent enough to put themselves in such a vulnerable place. But he takes that step, to share the intricacies of his work and its relationship to his personal journey. He doesn’t wrap him self up in a blanket of oppression or privilege like many of us do. An intersectional lens will open us up to the complexity of the lived experience as Dr. Mendez shared.

3) Leading the youth - As a visiting faculty in the Education Department, Dr. Mendez shared some of his journey working with Duke students to engage them in working with local youth. His critical pedagogical approach is a breath of fresh air. As a former Michigan Campus Compact AmeriCorps* VISTA I can tell you how heart-breaking it was to work with well-intentioned colleagues who aimed to “Help People Help Themselves.” This was the actual motto. Many of my colleagues were entering communities like the one I came from. Some were actually entering my actual stomping grounds. None of them came from these kinds of communities. The in-group/out-group dynamics along with the paternal/maternal approach often hinted of internalized superiority. Dr. Mendez does an excellent job bridging theory and practice to engage his students in issues that impact those at this school and our neighbors in the broader Durham community. All too much, in a college setting, we have very detached conversations about the intricacies of the human experience. He certainly bridges that gap for his students and his colleagues. Additionally, his creativity in engaging his students is wonderful. This is part of the reason that he has such a large following among our students. They appreciate his work to find creative ways to keep them engaged. This is part of the reason why he will be our guest star at this year’s Unity Through Diversity.

In closing, I hope you get the chance to connect with Dr. Mendez if you have not already. He is inspiring. He is hard working. He is creative. He is truly a hidden gem of Duke University. His presence can serve to continue the progress that Duke has made over the years in opening up an environment that provides one of the best educational experiences in the world.

I salute you, Dr. Mendez! Looking forward to you bringing the Bronx to the Bryan Center on April 2, 2014 for our 14th Annual Unity Through Diversity forum.


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American Football 101-CLG workshop at IHouse


It’s going to be a showdown…
Seattle Seahawks vs Denver Broncos…
We are all going to be watching on the biggest screen we can find…
The parties have been planned, pizzas are ready to be ordered

But, if you’re anything like me, American Football might just be a bit beyond your grasp. From my perspective, it just seemed to be a lot of men, with massive shoulder pads knocking each other to floor. Watching football over Thanksgiving weekend, I soon gave up trying to understand and just enjoyed the food. However, given that the Superbowl is such a HUGE deal here, I thought it would be very valuable to know the basics.

Luckily the CLG workshop on football at IHouse came to my, and many other’s rescue. Some of Duke’s very own footballers, former players Lex Butler, Partick Kurunwune, and Quan Stevens came to teach the lost and confused the basics. Though they gave us a simplified version there were so many positions, penalties and score possibilities – no wonder I couldn’t keep track on my own!

Here are what I think are the most important things to know when watching the Superbowl on Sunday.

A touchdown is worth 6 points.
An extra point or two-point conversion is possible after a touchdown (the kicker has to kick the ball through the goal posts, or for two points move the ball from the 2 yard line across the touchdown line again)
A field goal, worth three points, occurs when the kicker kicks the ball through the goal posts from any point in the field.
    It’s not only the offensive team (those with the ball) that can score. The defensive team can, too!

    Penalties can pretty much be awarded for anything, the list is enormous, with specific types of penalties applying to certain players. For the Superbowl when a penalty is called, my advice? Don’t try and figure out why.
    My personal favourite, you can’t hold a player but no worries, you can smash him to the floor. Problem solved.

    This game is a big deal! So get into it! Pick a team to support, go to a Superbowl, eat the chicken wings and pizza and embrace the excitement that this game generates here in the U.S.A.

The three former players expressed that the game of football definitely has taught them life lessons, even off the field. Moderated by Byron Turner of the Duke Center for Multicultural Affairs, the discussion was really insightful and the audience seemed very happy to have the opportunity to talk with the real players. I think American Football 202 may be on it's way someday...until then...HUT! HUT!

Tierney Marey
Sydney, Australia
Undergraduate at Trinity College of Arts and Social Sciences

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CLG Workshop on Efficient Reading Strategies at IHouse

If the GIANT garbage bag that I threw out last semester, full of readings, is any indication: College students do a lot of reading! Sometimes I feel like I spend my entire life here at Duke moving my eyes over pages and pages of black and white text. It’s a fierce battle…the reading must be conquered in order to achieve the ultimate prize…sleep.

Reading, and more importantly reading efficiently was exactly what this week’s CLG workshop Active and Efficient Reading addressed. We had a great guest speaker Jackie Ariail from the Academic Resource Center come and speak to us about how to improve our reading speed, style and comprehension. Slow readers never fear! It is possible to increase your reading speed, whilst still retaining information. Here are the top tips from the evening:

1.    Be aware of how your eyes move across the page, do they jarringly move from one word to the other, or blindly sweep across the text?
2.    Try and practice with easy texts taking in sets of words at once, rather than reading them one at a time.
3.    Particularly avoid reading aloud, or even speaking the words in your head because that can slow you down!
4.    Try to familiarize yourself with common words in the discipline that you are reading – especially if English is your second language.
5.    Be alert whilst you are reading, notice if your mind seems to be straying and try to refocus. Putting a page underneath each line and moving it down as you go can be very helpful. There is no point to speed-reading if you don’t understand what you’ve read!

With this guidance, we all went home energized about developing more efficient reading strategies. A little investment in developing better reading habits will be a great help to our academic lives, and maybe we will all gain a little more sleep along the way!

Written by Tierney Marey from Australia
Class of 2017 at Trinity Arts and Social Sciences

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Dear PNMs

Dear PNMs,

You're finally done. You can finally breathe and try to return to normal life, untainted by the judgment of women (yes, women, not girls) you hardly know and who hardly know you. You're done with the silly title of "Potential New Member." Some of you are new members now, some of you are not. Some of you knew what sorority you'd be in throughout the entire recruitment process because you're friends with the older members and you're a legacy and you know how to socialize with the right people. Some of you went into rush bright-eyed and bushy-tailed and completely unaware of where you'd end up and now you couldn't be more thrilled to call these new friends your sisters. Some of you got into a top-tier sorority only to experience Bid Day, alone and excluded, wondering if you made a mistake in your choice. Some of you opened your envelopes to bid cards bearing the name of a sorority you never wanted to begin with but had to list as a choice. Some of you cried on Bid Day. Some of you cried before Bid Day. Some of you didn't even make it to Bid Day.

Every single one of you dressed your best for each round. Some of you bought entirely new outfits for the process. You curled your hair, or you straightened your hair, or you tried the messy bun look or a braid or maybe you just let it go natural. Women of color, the courageous few of you probably tried to look as Caucasian as possible, because that's how you make it in this system. Some of you wore makeup, or maybe you didn't (but you probably did). All of you went into this whole process knowing that you would be judged (on how you looked). Before each party, you would ask the women next to you in line if you had any granola bar stuck in your teeth (the Convention Center refused to feed you...as if Potential New Members of sororities needed another thing to worry about). You'd pop a mint or a piece of gum, and hope no one could tell how much you were sweating.

You enter the room to clapping, singing, shouting, and other overwhelming noises. You are surrounded by smiling, laughing, happy, "beautiful" women who have been granted the power of judging you and deciding your social fate simply because the system favored them in one way or another. You make small talk about majors and hometowns with women who seem truly, genuinely interested in you. You try to be as engaging as possible. You try to stand out, but not too much. You leave the party feeling good about how your conversations went, relieved that rush isn't as scary as everyone made you think it would be.

Before the next round, your Gamma Chi gives you the tiny slip of paper (that you'll try all day not to lose) listing all the parties you've been invited back to. Some of you get all of your top choices (and you knew you would); some of you are pleasantly surprised by how many you got invited back to. Some of you realize the conversations you were so confident went so well didn't go as well as you thought, because some of you get "cut." Some of you get "cut" by several sororities. Some of you drop out of rush.

Some of you get called back to all of your top choices for the next two rounds; your conversations move beyond small talk and you start to see these women (who will judge you) as friends, as Potential New Sisters. Some of you tell your friends what sorority you know you'll join; some of you get over-confident. Some of you receive your slip on the day of Round 4, only to be crushed by the power of judgment. Some of you finally get cut. Some of you move on, making the best of it all and continuing with recruitment. Some of you quit.

And now, fast forward through preference night and Bid Day and it's over. Now, whether you're in a sorority or not, you can look back on the process and reflect. If you didn't end up where you thought you wanted to be, you may blame yourself. You're not pretty enough or smart enough or funny enough or unique enough. And if you're saying any of these things, you're wrong. But no matter how many times your friends and family tell you you're perfect just the way you are, that it's the sorority's loss that they missed out on you, you won't believe it. Because you still got cut. You weren't enough. You didn't fit the mold established by a system that encourages and promotes young women judging other women on entirely superficial standards. And even though you should believe and know that you are worth so much more than the meaningless and unfair judgments of girls who do not know you, that you are beautiful because you are you, that your worth is not determined by the letters or lack of letters on your sweatshirt, you will still probably think that there is something wrong with you, when, in fact, there is nothing wrong at all.

And if you did end up where you wanted to be, you're probably ecstatic right now. And you should be happy and excited, because you are special. You might start to see yourself as better than other women; you were selected, they were not. You are in a certain sorority, while they are in another. And while it's easy to do this, and the system reinforces this thinking, you can't let these letters change the way you act or treat people. Because just days ago, you were a PNM just like everyone else. No one is better than anyone else in this system, despite what some may think. You are just as terrified as everyone else of being judged.

So, PNMs, or NMs, or independents, or whatever title you prefer, I urge you to take your new letters or lack of letters with a grain of salt. In the end, they are simply letters. We attach meaning and significance to them, no doubt, but they do not define you or anyone else. Ultimately, what matters is not the judgment of women you hardly know who hardly know you, but instead, the fact that you are awesome, wonderful, kickass you.


Sorority Member Still Being Judged

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Welcome/CLG Kick-off Party at IHouse

From Nepal to Germany or China, Australia, or South Korea, there were internationals galore at Welcome/CLG’s kick-off party at International House on Thursday. The party welcomed new comers at Duke and celebrated the commencement of International House’s Connect.Learn.Grow workshop series. Over the next 9 weeks International House will host a variety of workshops designed to help internationals and non-internationals alike settle in, or re-appreciate their home in Durham.

With topics like American Football 101, keys to interview success and even a trip to the lemur centre, the CLG workshops are definitely something to look forward to! At the party we ate finger food from a variety of cultures, and chatted about life at Duke, in Durham and back home.

It was really fascinating to hear all about people’s experiences moving to America, and their lives in their home countries. People had found themselves at Duke for all different reasons; some were undergraduates, others PhD students or even professors! It was a relaxed, friendly night and a great way for people of all ages and cultures to come together, thanks to the International House’s dedicated and enthusiastic staff!

Come along next week to learn all about Active and Efficient Reading Strategies! The CLG workshops are on Thursdays, 5pm at International House (300 Alexander Ave, on C2 bus line).


Written by Tierney Marey from Australia
Class of 2017 at Trinity Arts and Social Sciences.




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Snippets, a Toast

Well there it is. I’m done. It’s been a semester with many late nights, some tears and some laughs—and now that my work is done, I’m hoping not to let all the things I’ve learned be defined by my GPA. Because really, when I think about all the experiences I’ve had these past few months, it’s wrong to quantify my “performance” so narrowly. There is very little I would actually change about my sophomore year so far. Maybe I would have done better on my statistics project, or been a little more adept at some botched flirtations…but all in all, I feel very lucky.

As I look back through unfinished blog entries I started this semester, I’m reminded of the significant extent to which my time at Duke has been and will be formed by the people here—those I’ve met and those I haven’t. I figured rather than fishing those entries, I’d give a shout-out to the peeps who were featured in them.  Here are a few (in no particular order):

-The frat bros across the quad who never wear shirts. Is there some unspoken rule that once you get to your bench you’ve got the peal off the polo? I don’t judge, just curious. And in fact, I’d have it no other way. You, forever shirtless college boy, belong in the mosaic of my Duke experience.

-The Red Mango employees, especially when you bring out the miniature cookie dough bites. And also to the baristas at Bella Union—you never judged me for all the trail mix + bin candy (i.e. Sour Patch Kids).

-My fellow library moles. I don’t know your names, but after performing 6-hour study marathons with you in the library on a Sunday afternoon, I feel kind of attached to you all. You make life in the work cave less lonely. #PartyInPerkins

-Whoever bakes cookies routinely in the Kilgo dorm. I don’t know who you are, (or else I would have asked for one), but they always smell so, so good. Thanks for the…aroma? It reminds me of home.

-My friends who sat with me for three hours straight while I sobbed about a loss that was shaking my world. You held my head in your hands, and cried right alongside me. “Thanks” just doesn’t cut it.

-The Dukies with weird sleeping habits. Though I don’t understand how you can routinely stay up until 5am, I was definitely grateful for your company in Maclendon tower when I had to pull all-nighters to finish my public policy memos. 

-That one rando I always see around campus. I know you always see me too, so we should just meet already. If this continues next semester, I’m going to ask for your name. Be prepared. Our friendship would definitely be a convenient one.

-And all of you. You add texture, color, taste and energy to the Duke I experience. Thanks for letting this campus be the place where I’m not judged for the bad days, complete with greasy hair, mismatched socks, and the wrong set of notebooks in my backpack.

The above is neither complete nor articulate, but it does remind me to be grateful for where I go to school. Our Duke community is hardly perfect, but it is forgiving. And given all the learning opportunities (ahem. Mistakes.) I’ve made these past few months, that ain’t “no big deal.” At Duke, there’s almost always a second chance—another exam to take or a new friendship to find. That’s extraordinary privilege, and extraordinary opportunity. So as I lounge on my couch at home, having broken out my sweatpants at long last, I raise my glass to you, Duke. A semester well done!


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World AIDS Week

Why just celebrate World AIDS Day on December 1st?!

Celebrate World AIDS Week (Small Steps with Big Impact) with us by attending any of the events listed below or stop by the display outside of the Center for Sexual and Gender Diversity to pledge your small step towards fighting the stigma, building community and decreasing your risk. Please share with your students and colleagues.

Click image to enlarge the schedule, or read below.World AIDS Week 2013 Events

Monday, Dec. 2
Food for Life: Will will be watching Life Support followed by discussion and dinner
6-8pm, Mary Lou Williams Center

Tuesday, Dec. 3
Delta Sigma Theta Red Lounge
6-8pm, Center for Sexual and Gender Diversity

Wednesday, Dec. 4
STOP THE STIGMA-Bus Stop Takeover!
Take a moment and make your voice heard! Stop by to sign our small step pledge cards and enjoy free hot chocolate and mini donuts.
West: 11:45am-1pm
East: 1:30-3:30pm

Thursday, Dec. 5
We Are Greater Than AIDS
Join us for a candelight vigil to honor those we have lost to HIV/AIDS epidemic and the legacy they have left behind. Immediately after, take a moment to revive your spirit as we eat, play games and watch movies.
7-10pm @ The Oasis - East Campus, Bell Tower

Friday, Dec. 6
Dance for Life
Celebrate teh end of World AIDS Week by dancing for life, for hope and for a cure! Join us for food and to play Just Dance 2014.
2-5pm @ the Center for Sexual and Gender Diversity

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A Military Brat and Infinite Diversity

 For my whole life, I’ve identified myself as a military brat.  My dad graduated from the Naval Academy, and served as a Marine for 29 years.  I was 17 when he “retired” and went to work for Amazon, but after a few months he joined the State Department.  He now lives in Khartoum, Sudan and works at the embassy.  Sometimes it’s surprising that my dad’s career has been such a defining factor in my identity, but I am appreciative of the values my 19 year adventure has instilled in me.

One of the most difficult questions someone can ask me is one that everyone asks: Where are you from?  I usually just say Pennsylvania, even though I have only lived there since 9th grade.  On other occasions, I’ll say that I’m from Pennsylvania, but I moved around a lot.  The real story is that I was born in Georgia, but never actually lived there.  I lived in South Carolina and North Carolina for my first five years, then went to Florida, back to South Carolina, up to Virginia, then to Norway and then Belgium, and then finally to Pennsylvania.  But who really wants to know all of that, right?  When I say I’m from Pennsylvania, people think of me as a North-Easterner, but I actually spent the first ten years of my life in the South, and the next four in Europe.  I wish I could tell the whole story to everyone I meet, but there just isn’t enough time (or air) in the world to say all of that every single time I introduce myself.

By the end of eighth grade, I had moved 8 times, so moving again for high school just seemed like the next step in my life.  Packing things up, saying good-bye to friends, and feeling like the new kid had become familiar to me.  I’d often been surrounded by other military families, so I was used to people understanding the whole complexity of “Where are you from?”  In my Pennsylvania high school, not very many of my friends had moved more than once, and I had to explain to them what I meant when I said I moved from Belgium.  At first, many people thought I meant I was “from Belgium,” a native of the country. One person even told me, “You speak really good English!” Seeing as English is the only language I know, I wasn’t sure how to reply other than to chuckle to myself and thank them. After the initial excitement was over, I’d tell them I moved to Europe from the U.S., sometimes skipping over living in Norway to make myself seem less complicated.  They all calmed down when they realized I was really “from here.”

Duke has been a much different experience for me.  Here, people are used to meeting friends from different backgrounds, so it seems like a more normal lifestyle to have moved so many times.  I still tell most people I’m from Pennsylvania, but when the occasion arises to speak about diverse backgrounds, I always think about the ways moving has increased by knowledge of different cultures around the world.

However, I think that diversity at Duke has come to be defined in a very specific way, and I don’t feel that my experiences in other countries are counted as diverse here.  The “diversity” workshop activities I’ve participated in usually consist of self-report questionnaires with topics relating to race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender, religion, and income level.  I’ve come to call these “boxed diversity questions.”  If you can’t write anything that varies from the norm, the questionnaire makes you feel like a boring person.  It seems like there is a set list of qualities that can make us diverse, and that just isn’t true.  These questions make it seem as though diversity can only be attained through certain and specific qualities defined by Duke.  Most students I’ve talked to say they don’t really like the diversity exercises because it makes them uncomfortable.  It seems paradoxical that there would be a set list questions to identify diversity, right?  Isn’t diversity supposed to be something that makes us unique?  I’m not saying that the questions about gender, race, religion, or income can’t identify diversity; I’m just saying that if there is a list of questions about diversity, it must be infinite.

One of the most uncomfortable exercises I’ve participated in was one that every other member of the group also disliked.  We had to all stand shoulder to shoulder in a straight line across the room.  The instructor then read a series of questions, and depending on our experiences we had to take a step forward or backward.  The questions were about privilege; if we had been to private school we took a step forward, while if we had been made fun of because of our race we took a step back.  Two of the questions from this activity over a month ago still stick out to me.  These were “Have you ever had to move because a parent lost a job?” and “Do you live with a single parent at home?”  I’ve moved 9 times in my life, not because my dad lost his job, but because that WAS his job.  I went to five different elementary schools, including one Title I school and one private school.  Does that mean I answer yes to going to private school?  I was in fifth grade, and we had recess twice a day.  It’s not like I was getting any early SAT prep there.  It was an international school in Oslo, Norway, and I only went because the government paid for it, as it was the only English speaking school in the area. I only stayed for a year before I had to move again.  But does it really matter to an eleven year old WHY she has to move?  As far as I was concerned, moving just meant I had to leave my friends and make new ones.  However, I couldn’t answer “yes” to the question about moving because of how specific it was.  Moving is a hardship almost everyone faces, but the question wasn’t inclusive of any other reasons for having to relocate a family.  The second question also bothered me because I couldn’t really answer yes or no definitively.

Currently only my mom is at “home,” wherever home is for a military kid.  My dad has been in Sudan for a year, and he is staying for one more.  He comes home twice a year, and when he finishes his work there, he’s coming back to work in Washington D.C. for a year.  After that, my whole family (except me) will be moving to Germany for two years.  I’ll be going into my senior year then.  In the past, my dad hasn’t always been around either.  He was deployed seven times when I was growing up, so he’d be gone for six weeks to nine months at a time.  He’s been to Japan, Guam, Kosovo, Afghanistan, and more, sometimes dangerous and sometimes safer places.  It never occurred to me that this could put me at a disadvantage because that’s what seemed “normal,” until I got to middle school and I realized that other kids got to have their dad home all year-round.  So how do I answer the question of living in a single parent home? Sometimes I do and sometimes I don’t, but I think this question was addressing divorce, not a long-distance marriage.

If someone would just ask me, “What diverse experiences do you have,” I could tell a pretty lengthy story about constantly traveling, meeting new people, visiting global historic sites, and learning about different cultures.  However, with such short, specific questions in most of these diversity workshops, I don’t feel I can truly explain myself.  And I think the same goes for even the people who can show adversity and hardship through the given questions.  Just because someone lives in a single parent home doesn’t mean they’ve had a terrible life, but many times that is what the workshop implies.  It reinforces the idea that kids who’ve been to private school have had easy, care-free lives, which isn’t always true either.  Diversity workshops should be about each of us telling our own stories so that we can learn from each other in a secure and comfortable environment. These activities shouldn’t make us feel bad about ourselves for being underprivileged or over-privileged.  Instead, they should acknowledge the fact that everyone has ups and downs in life and each advantage or disadvantage we’ve faced has given each of us a unique perspective on the world and the way we live in it.


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Standup and Stand out – commitment & comedy on campus

A friar, an imam and a rabbi walk into a lounge … This might sound like the start of a joke, but actually, it’s the start of an interfaith gathering on campus. The Duke Chapel Lounge is not a 70s-era bar with dim lighting, fruity drinks and mood music, but it is a place where connections are made and interfaith interaction happens on a regular basis. This semester, in particular, a motivated group of students has channeled their own sense of religious commitment and activism into a series of programs that transcend faith boundaries and highlight a common call for peace both in the world and in themselves. 

In September the Undergraduate Faith Council (UFC) designed a pilgrimage for peace connected to the International Day for Peace. Students gathered in front of Duke Chapel then moved around the West Campus quad offering prayers for peace in our broken world. This act of remembrance and solidarity was completely designed by UFC students and offered a moment to pause and reflect on the interconnectedness of life around the world.  When Muslims and Christians in Syria suffer, Muslims and Christians in Durham weep with them.  Students from different faith traditions offered up prayers and petitions for wholeness, justice and harmony on earth.

Later in the semester, UFC students organized an interreligious panel on faith and mental well being. Religious leaders and mental health professionals from different traditions challenged societal expectations of perfection and encouraged those present to look for communities built on trust, respect and vulnerability.  The call to cultivate inner peace paired well with the prayer for peace in the world shared earlier.

If all of this sounds a bit too serious, never fear! There’s also room for fun in Duke’s interfaith engagement. To celebrate the last day of classes this semester on Dec 6, the UFC will be hosting an interfaith standup comedy night in the Women’s Center Lounge. The community is invited to come and let off a little steam – and perhaps finally learn why, exactly, that friar, imam and rabbi walked into the lounge …

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For those who feel lonely this year

I finally caught up with an old friend from freshmen year last week. After promising each other we’d grab coffee, we finally locked down a slot that suited us both. Neither of us cancelled, neither of us had assignments due in 24 hours and neither of us were late. It was a fantastic reunion. After all, we had a whole two months to catch up on.  We discussed classes and future career dreams, laughed about old flames and confessed new ones. Yes, she was still pre-med and no, I was still not. I was surprised by how easily we fell back into our old friendship, how enjoyable it was, how much I missed her.

The problem was that we made those first overtures to get lunch in September. It was now November. It had taken two months for us to simply sit down and have a meal and a decent conversation. This was a girl who I adored, a girl who once knew everything about my Duke life, but somehow in the chaos of this year, she’d slipped through the cracks. It was almost like I forgot she existed, and there’s something disturbing about that.

So I want to bring up friendship this week. I want to talk about why it can be so damn hard to sketch out time to spend with someone you like. Why despite being literally surrounded by intelligent, sociable, interesting people our age, college can feel so lonely sometimes.

Part it for me is that as a sophomore, I don’t seem to be meeting new people – something I used to love about Duke. These days my closest friends are the same people I eat meals with, I text, I hang out with at 2am. If I’m not with them, I’m just chilling by myself. Occasionally I try mixing it up and getting dinner with someone different - maybe that person I smile at between classes who looks like they share my love for late-night cookout – but more often than not it falls through because making the first move is hard, and finding a mutual hang out time feels impossible. And so we continue to smile at each other in between classes. And that’s as far as it’ll go.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with already finding your perfect friend group here and sticking with them. Yet a year at Duke is only a year, and I still feel like there are so many stories I haven’t heard yet, so many good friends I have yet to meet, so many defining experiences to come. The truth is I’m still tentatively working out my friend circles and I haven’t figured it all out yet. We may have left cozy nest of East Campus – but that shouldn’t mean the idea of new friendship, along with unlimited food, closes forever.

Are people busy at Duke? Sure. They fit in tremendous amounts of activity in every minute of every day. But no matter how busy you are, I’ve discovered there is always time for the things important to you. It becomes not a question about being enough time, but whether I am worthy of your time. Maintaining a friendship at Duke becomes the ultimate two-way street. You both have to prioritize that dinner, but that doesn’t always happen.

So I have decided to let go of those people that cancel coffee for the second time because they’re sorry, they were too busy. To me that means my friendship is not a high priority, and you know that’s okay - but let’s just call it what it is. And for those I haven’t been trying hard enough with, I’m sorry. Two months is too much to clock out on a life I care about. It doesn’t matter that finals week is coming and the weather if worsening - I know somehow, we’ll find the time.


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