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Narrator: You are listening to the Duke University Parent and Family Programs Podcast
Grace Sullivan: Hello, this is Grace Sullivan from the Office of Parent and Family Programs at Duke University. We're here today with Duke student, Shrey Majmudar. Thank you for joining us today.
Shrey Majmudar: Thank you so much for having me. I'm super excited to be on.
Grace Sullivan: Shrey could you just start by introducing yourself. Tell us a little bit about yourself.
Shrey Majmudar: Absolutely, so my name is Shrey, as you said Grace. I am a junior from Austin Texas, he/him/his pronouns, and I am studying public policy and computer science here on campus. And I joke that my day job, besides being a student, of course, is also being a part of our Duke Student Government here on campus where I serve as the Vice President of academic affairs.
Grace Sullivan: First I can't help but ask is your family okay. I know this has been a rough few weeks for Texas.
Shrey Majmudar: Yes, thank you so much for asking that. They are doing okay, by and large. They did lose propane, so they didn't have much heat in their home. And so our dog and my sister and parents were all shivering, but I think space heaters have been a total blessing for them, and you know electricity has been on for them for the entire time, so they've been okay, but I appreciate you asking.
Grace Sullivan: Of course, well we're really excited to have you here today, particularly. Because you have been a student leader during this time of change and transition. And I know you've really worked to enhance and support the student experience during COVID-19. So, briefly, I wondered actually if we could step back and you could talk a little bit about historically, what is the role of DSG or Duke Student Government at Duke and as part of the student experience.
Shrey Majmudar: Absolutely, so Duke Student Government, in essence, is a representative body most of our student leaders are elected by either their class or the entire student body to fill these roles in Duke Student Government. And so our role is really twofold: one is to act as an interface between our student body and our staff faculty and administrators here at Duke to make sure that we're actively representing our students’ opinions and needs and wants as best as possible with our faculty, staff, and administrators. And second is also to help support our students so whether it's you know, forming and bridging communities on campus whether it's empowering our student groups, you know, by providing them funding or other leadership resources or just whatever else. It's kind of responsibilities as assigned, and so a lot of different things, but those are the two main buckets that I’d like to clump it into.
Grace Sullivan: So set the stage for us a little bit what was that timeline of you stepping into a leadership role in DSG, COVID hitting, and realizing that DSG you might have a role in sort of shaping the future of Duke in that way.
Shrey Majmudar: Absolutely, so I guess, we would have to you know trace back to early March 2020. I so distinctly remember, I was sitting on my couch at home, back in Austin. It was spring break, and we get this email from President Price and our university leadership, which says that Duke is moving completely online and students will not be returning after spring break. And at that point in time, I mean you know, my phone just started blowing up you know students at first were just freaking out. And it wasn't until I was going to bed that night, where it was really starting to settle in about how much load not only Duke student government, but all of our student leaders across campus and that you know their variety of spaces, will have to step up and help lead during this time of crisis, in terms of leading their different student organizations and whatnot. And so you know from there, I often joke, even though it really isn't a joke, that my spring and summer just blended together. I mean it was basically nonstop from you know that point in March, where we transition to online all the way through basically the end of summer. And so happy to chat about more details from there, but it was, it was a lot. And I think the last thing also say actually is, you know Duke Student Government, just like all other student organizations on campus, DSG, Duke Student Government, does not typically work over the summer. You know students get a break. They’re typically doing internships, research, fellowships, or whatever else they may be over, you know doing over the summer. And it was literally the complete opposite last summer, where you know, especially DSG leadership was working 20, 30, even 40 hour weeks, sometimes. You know interfacing with our different faculty, staff, and administrators, to help you know plan for this very bizarre and an abnormal fall that we had this past Fall 2020.
Grace Sullivan: I really appreciate so much of that: one is really highlighting it's not just DSG, but there have been so many students who have risen to the challenge. And really spent so much time outside of their norm and dedicated their own personal time to creating solutions for Duke. So, can you talk about the summer? What did your summer look like? What sort of initiatives were you working on?
Shrey Majmudar: Absolutely, so you know what did that look like after the COVID transition happened. You know, at first it was just students, as you mentioned yourself Grace, stepping up organically to help fellow students, you know highlight a couple different things. One of them is after that March transition. You know, as I mentioned earlier, I'm the Vice President of academic affairs, and so what that means in essence is academic affairs handles everything within the classroom. And so, you think about faculty student interaction and kind of undergraduate education at large, as well as things which relate to what happens within the classroom. And so for many reasons the inequalities that we saw, you know, which are there in a typical time, were only severely exacerbated by COVID-19, especially for students who had to go back home and work two or three jobs, while support you know, in order to support their family, while also taking full time classes.
And so after that that spring transition where Duke, as with you know almost every university in the nation, moved online at that point in time we realized very quickly, especially you know me and my academic affairs team, that there was a lot to be done in terms of advocating for students to make sure that there was more equity within our classroom. And so one of the things which Duke Student Government did in partnership with many different student organizations on campus as we lead this entire charge to reform our grading policy. And so as many parents out there are probably aware, students by and large opted for something called S/U or satisfactory/unsatisfactory grading this past spring. And so that was you know many weeks we had over half of the student body fill out the survey as to their stressors and what they wanted to see, and this reformed and adjusted grading policy because of the stressors and what not which has come with COVID-19. And I will also note that it was you know, it was very fast paced. It was incredible to be a part of this effort and to work with you know, especially our academic administrators here on campus including Gary Bennett, our Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education, and many others. And in the end, you know that was successful and we were able to advocate, and it resulted in this grading policy change which allowed for students to get what we call targeted grading policy relief. So, you know, that was one thing.
Another thing, which is one of my personal favorites, is again in terms of students stepping in to fill these voids on campus. One of Duke’s most iconic traditions, which I’m sure parents out there are aware of, is something called midnight breakfast, where our students on East Campus, for example, our first-year class, as well as our sophomores on West Campus gather together during final exam time for a nice bonding study break. Students right around midnight—11pm, 11:30pm or so—stream over to Marketplace on East Campus, which is the dining hall there, or to, you know the Bryan Center, which is this kind of Student Life Center on our West Campus for our sophomores, and there is just breakfast there for students to come together, you know form new connections, or reconnect with friends who they haven't seen because they're holed up in Perkins Libraries studying for their final exams. And so we realized that you know, of course, because of everyone being scattered truly all over the world, students wouldn't have this opportunity to be able to connect with one another. And so Liv McKinney, who was the student body President back over the 2019/2020 school year, Liv and I were on one of our many calls and we decided hey why don't we find a way to bring over you know undergraduate community together as best as possible for a midnight breakfast event. And so you know, I had the privilege of working with a team of over 15 students and many other administrators on campus, including athletics, university communications, you know our student affairs and office of undergrad ed teams, as well as OIT to pull off this massive midnight breakfast, which was virtual so it was over zoom. And it was just incredibly heartwarming to see I think was well over 600 students who hopped on right around final exam period. And some of them even had made breakfast, and they just all had a chance to connect with one another and meet new people. And the best part—the two I think great parts, besides students connecting with one another, is that we were also able to raffle off, I think well over 2 or 3,000 dollars in terms of gift cards to Durham restaurants, that we could support them immediately. Because Duke and Durham are one in the same. Duke is Durham and Durham is Duke. And then similarly, we also—thanks to Debbie Savarino and athletics—had the chance to give out a couple Duke vs. UNC tickets, and so that definitely also helped with turnout. So very successful event but, as I said, it was you know, a true privilege to be able to see students come together. So that was a lot of the spring. It was just students across the university, within and outside of Duke Student Government, stepping up.
And as the summer rolled around, the work didn't end. As I mentioned earlier, you know DSG typically takes a break over the summer, it was quite the opposite. And that was definitely the case for myself and other student leaders as well. Mary Pat McMahon, our Vice Provost and Vice President for Student Affairs and Gary Bennett, who I mentioned earlier, or Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education put together something called a 2021 Student Advisory Board probably towards the end of May or early June I guess it was. And this 2021 SAB, I had the privilege of co-chairing it along with students from all across this university. We had people from the undergraduate conduct board from Mi Gente, our LatinX organization on campus, our Multicultural Greek Council, someone who was on our varsity swimming and diving team, our co-president of DukeLIFE, our first-generation limited-income student community. So we had students from all across this university, and this board was created by Mary Pat and Gary to effectively partner with and advise administrators and staff from across the university to successfully pivot our entire undergraduate experience as we look towards the fall. And so it was quite a busy summer. And I think that the last thing that I’ll say about our SAB at a high level is what we did throughout the summer is every week, you would have a deep dive or two deep dives, which were hour-long meetings with various campus units across the university. So for example, we had a deep dive with our academic affairs leaders, so we talked a lot about grading policy and what does it look like to administer tests during COVID, for example. Right because you can’t sit down in the classroom and you know, write things out, or you know talking with our Counseling and Psychological Services and DuWell, which is our wellness units on campus. And so we had these weekly one or two deep dives with units from across the university for more than half the summer, where we sat down with them, tried to best understand what their fall plans were, and then every week—weekend, we as a Student Advisory Board, would regroup and create this one or two page memo which basically provided them feedback on, hey here's what we think as students you all are doing well, but here are also some friendly suggestions in terms of how to best reach undergraduates or consider this as you looked at your fall plans. And so that was a very effective partnership as well. So I’ll stop there, but that was in a nutshell, a little bit about this past spring, as well as a lot of what we did this summer and many, many long, long days, and I just can't thank all of the students who stepped up as well.
Grace Sullivan: Thanks for that Shrey, and thank you for your countless hours, I know, helping helping us get ready for this fall semester. I do want to transition a little bit to the spring semester. For students who are in Durham for the second semester or at home for the second semester, there is, I think a little bit of understanding of this is what our new normal looks like currently. So in that context, I wonder, in your position what are you thinking about as a new challenge or a new opportunity that you're sort of tackling and your role or thinking about for the semester.
Shrey Majmudar: Absolutely. That's a really good question. You know, one of the things that again, you know not just Duke Student Government, but student leaders across campus have been thinking about is what are some things which have been instituted over COVID-19 which we can continue during the semester, but also successfully carry on into a post-pandemic world as far away or as close as that may seem, especially with vaccinations on the rise. And so that's one of the things which I’ve been thinking of.
And you know, one of the biggest initiatives which I didn't even get a chance to highlight is something called Blue Devil Buddies this past summer. Blue Devil Buddies was a program started by myself and in partnership with two of our VPs within Duke Student Government, our Vice President for Campus Life and over Vice President for Equity and Outreach, as well as a team of about 10 plus you know DSG senators. And together we created this mentorship program which paired almost every single incoming first-year undergraduate with an upperclassman mentor. And so this was a massive initiative, and received a lot of positive feedback.
And so one example, that I’ll give to answer your question Grace is we're looking now at strategically, how can we carry over these different initiatives, which began during COVID-19 and carry them into a post-pandemic world. And so right now I’m working with Chris Rossi, who is one of our Assistant Vice Presidents within Student Affairs, as well as Landy Elliott, who is an Assistant Vice Provost in undergraduate education, and of course, Mary Pat and Gary to figure out how can we institute Blue Devil Buddies within the fabric of a residential system, especially with these Next Generation Living and Learning changes, such that students who enter Duke starting this upcoming summer and beyond, once they're assigned a quad on East campus, how can they then be paired to a mentor, who is a rising sophomore who was in the same dorm or in the same quad over on East. And so you can really create this very robust mentorship program from here on out within the fabric of a residential system.
And Grace, one of the other things that we've also been thinking about within our Academic Affairs Committee is office hours, which have worked quite well during a pandemic, and we can definitely continue afterwards as well. If you look at it from a faculty perspective, they're able to host office hours and more convenient times in the evening, because they don't have to come over to campus physically, and so they can do it from the comfort of their home. And similarly from a student perspective, instead of sitting outside in the hallway not being able to do too much work as you wait to enter a professor's office because they're in there with another student, instead you can now simultaneously be doing other homework, while just be sitting in a Zoom waiting room. And as soon as you're ready, as soon as the professor is ready, you can just hop in. So what I would say is that you know this spring, in addition to, of course, thinking a lot about the pandemic and again, how can we make sure that the student experience is best as possible during the pandemic, we've also been thinking more long term and strategically about what can we take in terms of concrete learnings from this past year and carry them forward as well, as seen by Blue Devil Buddies and perhaps office hours and partnering with faculty on that.
Grace Sullivan: I love that idea, and I think it's so critical because while so much extra attention has been given to the current time and needed to get us through this current time, we're still planning, right. And so I appreciate you sharing some of those thoughts and hopes and lessons learned for the future. As we're nearing the end of our time, I wanted to ask if there's anything else that you wanted to touch on. I know that you have done so much work and your committees and students have done so much in this last year. Is there anything else you want to leave us with?
Shrey Majmudar: Absolutely, I would just say, you know, I know that parents don't get a chance to see kind of what goes on the back end, right. They don't get a chance to see the incredible students—and I’ll emphasize again, both within and outside of our Student Government. There are so many other student leaders who have stepped up to you know, make sure that their respective communities here on campus are, you know connecting with one another, during this you know most bizarre time. And that really helps from a mental health standpoint too might I mentioned. But similarly, you know our parents and families don't get a chance to see the countless hours that our staff, faculty, and administrators put it on the back end. I mean, we have, you know people across this university—students, faculty, and staff—who've all been working tirelessly to make sure that this experience is as best as possible, and that we can make the most of it. And so I think the last thing I would say, for all of our amazing parents and families out there, is that you know I wish that you all can see the view that I have because it has been incredibly heartwarming and a true privilege to be able to you know witnesses and work alongside our students, faculty, staff, and administrators across the university.
Grace Sullivan: Thank you so much Shrey for your time today. It was a pleasure to spend this time hearing more about this last year.
Shrey Majmudar: Of course. It's my pleasure, and thank you for having me on.
Grace Sullivan: You have been listening to Grace Sullivan with Parent and Family Programs at Duke University. This concludes our interview with Shrey Majmudar. Tune in next month for another episode of our podcasting series.