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Parents & Families

First-Year Student Blog Series: The Duke Chapel

In this week’s segment of my blog series describing “The ‘What’s,’ ‘Who’s,’ and ‘Where’s’ that Make Duke So Special”, I will introduce you to a campus celebrity who ironically happens to be one of Duke’s best-kept secrets. His name is Oscar Dantzler, his title is Chapel Housekeeper, and his wisdom is absolutely remarkable.

For anyone visiting or exploring Duke for the first time, I would certainly recommend that the first place he or she should visit is the Duke Chapel. It is undoubtedly a campus landmark and is full of history and character. On the other hand, I would recommend that the first person he or she should meet is Oscar, because he is someone who can really bring that history and character to life.

I first met Oscar in a serendipitous way during my first semester. One early morning, I entered the Chapel while it was vacant. I was in search of a quiet place to think and reflect on my own before starting another busy day. Before I knew it, a kind man wearing glasses, a baseball cap, and blue collared shirt approached me to ask how I was.

During my first encounter with this man, I learned that his name is Oscar Dantzler, and he prefers that everyone call him Oscar. Oscar quickly establishes a first-name basis with everyone he meets. He is the kind of person who you can be sure has interest in getting to know you from the very second you come across him.

In addition, I learned two more basic things about Oscar…

1. Oscar works diligently from within the Chapel.
Oscar’s job is to work daily from 5am onward cleaning the Chapel. As he likes to describe it in the words of his mother, “if you can't keep the House of God clean, you can't keep your own.”
2. The Chapel’s beauty and serenity works similarly from within him.
Having worked at the Chapel for quite some time, Oscar has truly gotten to know it inside and out. His positivity and wisdom are representative of the Chapel’s ambience and his personality is representative of its beauty.

The Chapel is one of the most beautiful symbols of Duke as well as one of the most visible chapels among American research universities. It was constructed and completed in 1932 and, since then, has served the Duke community in more ways than one. According to the Chapel’s mission, “It serves students by convening and contributing to a dynamic and diverse culture of religious life on campus—a culture that models respectful and enriching engagement in the context of profound difference.” The Duke Chapel is certainly unique, and so is everyone who walks through its doors. Sunlight pours into it through seventy-seven stained-glass windows and fills it with warmth. In addition, people like Oscar embody its spirit and further its mission of “engaging all to look to the future with faith, gratitude, and hope.”

On another note, Oscar happens to be somewhat of a campus celebrity. On the first day that I met him, he introduced me to The Philosopher Kings, a documentary about college custodians like – and including – him. The film introduces its audience to several custodians from some of America’s most prestigious universities. According to IMDb, a major movie database, The Philosopher Kings teaches us that, “wisdom is found in the most unlikely places.”

After meeting Oscar, I wouldn’t simply call him the Chapel custodian. I would call him a friend. Without knowing who I was, Oscar was genuinely interested enough in how I was doing to approach me in the Chapel that morning. I am certainly glad he did.

In the next blog post of this series, I will introduce you to another campus landmark that I admire. Wallace Wade stadium is the home of Coach Cutcliffe’s excelling Blue Devil football team… as well as some of my fondest memories of Duke athletics thus far. 


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Leaning Into Discomfort

Every day on Duke’s campus, we are faced with a subconscious decision –the red pill or the blue pill?

Every semester, 56 Duke students take the red pill. They embark on a journey about which they know nothing besides the many controversial Chronicle articles and Facebook posts. This journey ‘Common Ground,’ is formally described as “a student-led diversity immersion retreat program dedicated to exploring human relations in personal and powerful ways. “

It is easy to write this off as cliché, thinking: how could a single weekend possibly change anyone’s established ideals on race, gender, sexuality, etc.? Why would you go on a retreat with strangers to get to the bottom of any problems I’m facing?  Sadly, it is even easier to dismiss the newly “enlightened” Common Ground attendees off as “drinking the Kool-Aid.” I know these viewpoints well because, prior to attending Common Ground, I felt the same way. I was tired of all of the social media posts and articles praising the retreat for changing people’s outlook on life. I was tired of the cultish “CG Parties” I would hear about from someone who subsequently told me I wasn’t welcomed. And I was definitely tired of the secrecy associated with the event – as if people who’d went learned something that they couldn’t share with us mere and unenlightened Duke students.

Out of the 56 attendees, very few are black students. I originally wrote this article aiming to convince black students in our community that Common Ground is an experience. It should be shared by us all - whether we wanted to go for our own growth or to help others. Many of us, though we do not see ourselves as “racist,” will subconsciously align with racist or prejudice ideals. I have done so myself in my time at Duke. Without knowing anything about them, I often ignorantly assumed people outside of my own race looked down on me. Common Ground reminded me of how to look beyond color and into a person. However, it also reminded me that those prejudice ideals I had were not without basis. There are still many people on Duke’s campus who will judge me just by the color of my skin. I felt as though the retreat served a dual purpose – to prevent me from assuming certain individuals hold prejudices against me, and to open the eyes of those who are blindly prejudice allowing them to see their wrongs. I was told at the end of the retreat by a white female that I helped her “look inside of herself” and changed her perspective on a lot of things. There was an unspoken understanding; my words about life experiences had changed her perspective of black people . She was trying to unlearn racist ideals that had been instilled in her. She had acknowledged her racism and her privilege to be able to walk away from feeling her discomfort - instead she stayed and tried to learn more. Now while I thought this was a positive thing, others who I’ve spoken with feel as though this shouldn’t be our place as black students. Between Common Ground and conversations with black students who have had just about enough of defending themselves, I found myself stuck between a rock and a hard place. I tried to organize my thoughts from three completely different perspectives. The first: Your racism isn’t my problem. The second: If we aren’t speaking up, someone will on our behalf. The last: Will any of this ever really change regardless? Can I just take the blue pill and move on?

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First-Year Student Blog Series: Enjoying the Trinity Cafe and Learning More about the Duke Community

The second blog post in my series of “The ‘Whats,’ ‘Whos,’ and ‘Wheres’ that Make Duke So Special” addresses a wonderful personality WHO happens to warm our days be it with her smile or her fresh brewed coffee.     

Trinity Café is one of the most popular spots on East Campus, where all freshmen dormitories can also be found. It is located within the Marketplace (cafeteria for freshmen) and is a convenient place to swing by for coffee, a pastry, or even some sushi at nighttime.  Often, freshmen can use credit on their Duke Card to purchase café items if they do not eat dinner at Marketplace that night. As a result, many students stop by after 9pm to grab a snack or fuel up on coffee for a late night of studying. Whether stopping for a quick break at noon or a late night snack as midnight approaches, many freshmen pay a visit to Trinity at some point.

At Trinity Café, the setting is comfortable, the coffee is good, and the convenience is appreciated. In addition, though, the staff is notably friendly. In particular, Tamika is one of the baristas I have come to know. I remember running to Trinity to grab something to eat after coming from the gym one night. I was in a rush and, like on any other day, I had an endless list of things to do. However, that didn’t stop me from taking a break to talk to Tamika as she checked out the items I was buying. After pointing out a large, intricate bracelet on her wrist, I quickly learned that she loves crafting her own jewelry for herself and friends. The conversation spanned her jewelry crafting, her predilection for comics, and the snowfall that was occurring at the time. In the midst of all of that, I had not bothered to wonder how much time I spent or what was next on my to-do list. For a few brief minutes, I got to know someone who I see in passing nearly everyday. I stepped away from my own busy schedule to learn about what was going on in someone else’s life.

With all the academic pressures and prestige that surround us at Duke, we can easily forget to stop and smell the roses… or coffee! Overlooking these little things really causes us to lose perspective. In the words of famous aviator and author Anne Morrow Lindbergh, “Good communication is just as stimulating as black coffee, and just as hard to sleep after.” Fortunately, such conversations are not hard to find on campus. The positivity of on-campus employees who understand students’ ongoing lists of responsibilities and plans is tremendous. Though they are not often recognized, people like Tamika work hard to  “refuel” students – albeit with a cup of coffee or a flashed smile.

Being a student at Duke is a wonderful privilege. It is incredible to be surrounded by the driven group of individuals that make up the Class of 2014, 2015, 2016, and 2017. At the same time, it is worth acknowledging that we are part of a larger community at Duke. We, including the faculty, the administration, the bus drivers, and the baristas, all proudly wear our Duke blue. Every individual on campus is an invaluable thread in the beautiful fabric we embody.

In my next addition to this blog series, I will describe yet another beautiful feature of Duke’s Campus: The Chapel. Specifically, I will venture within it and introduce you to custodian Oscar Dantzler, who adds to the beauty of campus in his own special way.    


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A Message to Duke Families from the Dean and Vice Provost of Undergraduate Education

There is no such thing as a typical Duke experience. Opportunities are everywhere. Computer science and electrical engineering students participate in the non-stop, student-run HackDuke weekend, and come up with a way to translate sign language to speech. Art students take a class that uses drone technology to conduct a virtual archaeological dig, and then create digital reconstructions of ancient artifacts and cities. Social science students research the challenges facing refugees from a developing country who have been resettled in North Carolina, and then go half-way around the world to work with members of that same refugee population who are still living in a UN camp and waiting to be resettled.

This certainly isn’t the way I experienced college, but it’s common of a Duke education today.  Learning here is engaged, global, interdisciplinary – and highly social.   Our students still spend hours in the library writing a paper or studying for an upcoming exam, but increasingly their time is just as likely to be spent as a member of a team doing hands-on work to generate new knowledge, solve a problem, test an idea, or create a work of art.  Fundamental to our ability to rethink education in this way is the eagerness both of our students and of our faculty to engage with each other beyond the boundaries of a traditional college classroom and beyond the confines of a traditional college campus.

In this newsletter, you'll learn about some of the ways we're breaking down those barriers, connecting the classroom with the residence hall, connecting the campus with the world, and, most importantly, connecting our students with our faculty to create the outstanding living and learning experience that we call a Duke education.

You'll learn about DukeEngage, which sends students on civic engagement projects across the country and around the world to apply their knowledge for the betterment of society.  There's an update on Bass Connections, a new program that brings undergraduates together with professors and graduate and professional students from all over the university to combine research, service and classwork in addressing pressing social issues.   And you’ll learn about our Faculty-in-Residence program, in which some of our best-known and most engaging professors live just down the hall from our first-year students.

Duke is a world-renowned research university, but undergraduate education will always be core to our mission.  Our teacher-student ratio is 8 to 1.  We offer about 2,000 classes each semester, the vast majority of them enrolling fewer than 20 students.  Our many curricular and co-curricular programs, and programs that blur the line between the two, are designed to multiply the ways in which your daughter or son can find mentors and develop their passions, and to hone the skills that will enable their success when they enter today’s fast-changing, diverse, and global workforce. 

The success of our alums gives us confidence that we at Duke are on the right track with how we’re rethinking what it means to “go to college.”  It is often said, but worth repeating, that many of the jobs our students—your daughters and sons—will hold in five or ten years have yet to be imagined, let alone created.  By connecting the classroom with the real world, we’re providing a platform for teaching students how to connect seemingly disparate ideas, how to communicate and collaborate with others having different ideas, and how to take the initiative to turn good ideas into productive results.


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First-Year Student Blog: The “Whats”, “Whos”, and “Wheres” That Make Duke So Special

Like many of my first year peers at Duke, I can think of several ways in which transitioning to this University has altered my perspective.  Sometimes, I find myself gazing upward at the 210 foot tall Duke Chapel and simultaneously thinking of 210+ different things that I hope to accomplish here. It is times like these when the range of my imagination runs free and I consider the unlimited power I have to be the change I wish to see in the world.  Other times, I find myself taking a break between classes to converse with dining hall staff while I grab lunch at the East Campus Marketplace. It is times like these when I am reminded of the little ways in which we as individuals can make a difference. Whether it is a smile from my residence hall’s cleaning staff, whose members are already hard at work at 7:30am daily, or a moment of blindness as the Sun catches my eyes while walking across campus... I find meaning in the little things. These are the “Whats”, “Whos”, and “Wheres” that make Duke so special.

Allow me to introduce myself. My name is Krista Rose Niemeier and I am a freshman from New Jersey in the Trinity College of Arts & Sciences at Duke. My interests include business, neuroscience, journalism and visual media studies… which means that I have many interests! Fortunately, Duke provides an environment in which I can explore all of these through both curricular and extracurricular endeavors. It is a new environment in which many people, places, and things interest me.

Arthur Conan Doyle, who authored the Sherlock Holmes series and was no stranger to adventure, once said, “It has long been an axiom of mine that the little things are infinitely the most important.” Constant searching within and outside of ourselves often clouds our minds from acknowledging the small ways in which we impact others and are impacted in return. In just my second semester as a student at Duke, I have already come to realize how easily overwhelming it can be to think of life beyond Duke. While planning for the future is unequivocally essential in this day and age, I also think it to be of great importance that we purposefully take time to stop and smell the roses. This is the idea I hope to convey throughout this blog series, by exposing some of the “little” things, people, or places that have kept me grounded during my short time here at Duke thus far.

Included in Duke’s mission is the promotion of “a deep appreciation for the range of human difference and potential, a sense of the obligations and rewards of citizenship, and a commitment to learning, freedom and truth.” In the big picture, I am…
1 student…
in a class of 1,739…
in a combined undergraduate and graduate university of 14,600…
in a world of 7 billion.

In acknowledging that, however, I think not of my insignificance. Rather, I think of how significant each and every individual in my class of 2017 has the potential to be. We are all part of communities both smaller and larger than Duke University. Within them, as within Duke, it is important that we recognize who, where, and what influences us so that we, in return (and on small and large scales), may “be a rainbow in someone else’s cloud.” This is the message that Maya Angelou shared with the Class of 2017 at our convocation and one that I think can benefit all.

In the coming week, I plan to introduce you to one of the first people I met at Duke. Tamika is a barista at the Trinity Café. If there is one thing that Duke’s freshmen need during a late night of studying, it is coffee. At the same time, everyone can always benefit from a smile. This is exactly what Tamika provides. Coffee and positivity are two things we can be sure to find if stopping by Trinity Café while Tamika is on duty. 


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Letter to Parents from the Director of the Career Center

Few days pass in the Career Center when parents are not a part of the conversation.  Sometimes it is direct – they are visiting their son or daughter and engage us with a quick question.  Occasionally it is a parent of a student who is abroad who wants to do the work for their son or daughter – not realizing how often the Career Center engages with our students across the globe. As you might expect there are other days when the conversation is among staff - discussing parents and the challenges families face as students begin to take the lead role in setting their own career trajectory – exploring fields unknown or different from family expectations. Helicopter parents are sometimes a challenge, but most often the discussion focuses on how the Career Center team can take advantage of the positive relationship, communication, and engagement parents have in the lives of their daughters and sons.

The Board of Director Model of Mentoring
One way to take advantage of the relationship many parents have with their student is to engage the parent as a member of a Board of Directors.
The Career Center advocates that each student create a board.  A team of advisors who will get to know them in the many roles they assume. Duke students are engaged across the campus, the community and often across disparate environments. No one mentor can see the range of skills, abilities, and characteristics that make up their complexity. The board model ensures that students have a range of lenses focused on their growth and development. 

Duke students present themselves as very diversely interested and skilled individuals. They appear one way to a lab instructor/research mentor, and quite another way to their professor in engineering.  Their advisor in the Mary Lou Williams Center or the Women’s Center has a clear picture of them, but might not recognize the woman engaged on the soccer pitch or in the Start-up Challenge. Their internship supervisor from the summer may know of their independence and ability to own a project, but might never have seen their artistic creativity. And Mom and Dad remember the young woman who left for campus some months ago, but often wonder what she is like on the DukeEngage team in Kenya.

The Roles of the Parent Board Member
The beauty of the board model is that the members of the board, including a parent member (or two), have the opportunity to shift from the protector/advocate role that is so familiar, to assuming the role of facilitator.  The facilitator has many purposes, but I will address two critical roles here. 

It is up to the student to reconcile the disparate advice she receives from an eclectic board.  Given the many faces she projects, it is not unexpected that one member of the board will see a focused and introverted researcher, while another member sees an empowering leader of her peers. The facilitator can be the board member to ask the questions to assist the student to understand that the differences in perspective and advice may be accurate in how each board member has experienced the student.  While each view has merit, it is the tapestry they create when woven together that is the critical view.  The tapestry must be intentionally crafted from the disparate threads of behavior.  By asking the student to reflect on the advice she is receiving and to understand the source of the advice, the parent facilitator can empower her to become a discerning listener who hears what others are telling her and adds the new to what she already knows. A parent can be a powerful asset by asking, rather then telling!

The second critical role is to assist the student, to begin to effectively use the information she has acquired to influence future decisions. This can be accomplished by asking what they learned, what they discovered about themselves, and how these new observations can be put to work toward the future.  What changes can and should be made to their developmental plan given what they now know and understand?

In the rush to do, many students have become exceptional collectors of experience – few have become strong reflectors on experience. It is the ability to engage and then to step away, to assess the outcome that makes each experience truly valuable. The experience becomes both a part of the student’s professional narrative and it serves as a projection into the future.  Reflection that generates a change of plan, not only assists the student to grow assertively, it tells future employers how the student will behave once they become a member of their team.  The employer will have a team member who gathers information and experience, assess its value, and if appropriate, uses it to influence the future.

Parent members of the Board of Directors can be a critical professional resource, if they shift their role from decision-maker to facilitator - guiding their student to use their experiences to craft their future direction, to build their professional identity, and to launch their career, rather then telling them the answer.


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Family Weekend 2013 Recap

It was wonderful to have so many families on campus for Family Weekend 2013! In all we had more than 1,100 families that made the trip to Durham to share in their student’s college experience. This year’s programming included a wide variety of events, presentations and performances from throughout the Duke community.

Among the highlights:

  • The Family Weekend kickoff address by the Assistant Vice President of Student Affairs for Campus Life Zoila Airall
  • Class-year specific programming to address topics of career development, study abroad, major selection and college adjustments
  • Special discussions from two of Duke’s acclaimed faculty members, Dr. Christopher Roby and Dr. Emma Raisel
  • An address from President Richard Brodhead
  • Wonderful concerts from Duke a capella, jazz, chorale groups and more
  • Student performances including Duke Improv, Hoof n’ Horn

Duke Athletics also enjoyed an undefeated Family Weekend! Women’s Soccer earned home victories over N.C. State and Pittsburgh. Volleyball won both of their home matches against Miami and Florida State. Men’s Soccer earned a hard fought tie against Wake Forest. Men’s and Women’s Swimming and Diving defeated UNC Wilmington. Field Hockey was victorious versus Boston College and Boston University. Women’s Golf was 2nd at the Landfall Tradition tournament. Lastly, the now 25th ranked Duke Football team enjoyed a fantastic upset on the road against ACC rival Virginia Tech. 

We hope all of our visitors enjoyed their time at Duke. It was wonderful meeting so many of you, and please know that we really do view you as partners in your student’s success.

The dates for Family Weekend 2014 will be confirmed early next year. Stay tuned to www.studentaffairs.duke.edu/parents for the latest updates and details.

Best regards,
Parent & Family Programs


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Reflections from the Co-Director of Duke Common Ground

Dear Duke Parents,

I hope you are enjoying the colder weather and that your college student spares a few minutes to talk on the phone with you! As a senior, I can tell you that life as a Duke student is extremely exciting, busy, and sometimes (okay, most of the time) stressful! I would like to pause for a second as I procrastinate from working on a term paper to thank you.  Although we do not say it nearly enough, we wholeheartedly thank you.  We appreciate the love and support that you have given us on our life journey and would not be here without you. 

I came to Duke for many reasons. Coming from a homogeneous town in upstate New York, I wanted to be surrounded by a diversity of thoughts, experiences, and backgrounds, which sparked my involvement in Common Ground.  I am now the co-Director of Common Ground, a four-day retreat in the countryside of North Carolina that creates a unique, safe space to talk about identity.  Although the four topics of the retreat are socioeconomic status, race, sexuality, and gender, the conversations extend far beyond these systemic institutions and focus on connection through personal experience. In igniting dialogues, Common Ground fosters a campus climate of acceptance and affirmation of differences.  The retreat equips participants with the tools to be change agents by challenging offensive language, becoming allies of marginalized individuals and groups, opening up dialogues about identities, and becoming involved in activist groups on campus.

One of the most important things I have gained from Common Ground is the power of vulnerability.  Let’s be honest—being vulnerable takes courage.  At the beginning of the retreat, we create a list of agreed-upon norms for the community to interact with each other.  One of these norms is lean into discomfort, which means daring greatly to have the hard conversations about our everyday experiences of racism, sexism, homophobia, and classism. Vulnerability is sharing our story and responding to someone with empathy and understanding. In connecting with compassion, we are able to be our true, authentic selves, embracing and celebrating diversity.

To get involved in Common Ground, your student can participate on the retreat, which happens once a semester. It is completely free of charge, making it 100% worth it. You can find information about the retreat at http://dukecrr.wordpress.com/commonground/. Another way to become immersed in identity dialogues is to go to an event or a meeting hosted by students at the Women’s Center, the Center for Sexual and Gender Diversity, or the Center for Multicultural Affairs. The number of amazing lectures and events each week astounds me so encourage your student to take advantage of the wealth of opportunities.  With Thanksgiving quickly approaching, I want to challenge you to lean into discomfort. Start a conversation with your student at the dinner table about identities and how they connect to power and privilege dynamics.  Connect with compassion and authenticity, because being vulnerable means being alive.


Colleen O’Connor
Duke Class of 2014
Psychology and Women’s Studies Majors


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How do you remember to live in a state of possibility: Tips from a Duke alumna

As the Career Center reminds you to Imagine the Possibilities we want to provide the student perspective on this very topic. I recently had the chance to speak with Karen Chen, T’10 about her time at Duke. Often as a student here, you hear about amazing people doing amazing things and think—huh, wasn’t that suppose to be me? The truth is you are most likely doing something amazing- you just can’t get your head out of your books (or Shooters) to notice.

From planning a major concert in 30 days to coming up with graphics that are still used to this day, Karen Chen left her mark here at Duke. Her graphic design work for student organizations is still seen all over campus. LDOC, Major Attractions and The Center for Documentary Studies have all benefited from the creative marketing and design work Chen put together. When asked about how campus helped her imagine the possibilities she gives us three key points to remember.
Utilize your resources:
Duke gave me opportunities that I would not have otherwise had.  Through my summers, I had a chance to explore my different interest, and I am glad I did because I am satisfied with where I am now.  I entered college thinking I would be involved in politics but left pursuing a career in retail.
In her first summer, Karen participated in the DukeEngage Tuscany program. Focused on immigration issues, the program forced her to ask, "What am I willing to fight for?" Soon after, she landed on the Arts & Business Council of New York's Multicultural Arts Management Internship. There, things clicked, and Chen realized whatever she wanted to do, the job exists.  The onus was just on her to figure out what she wanted. In her final summer, Chen decided to take unpaid internships with a showroom and a marketing agency.  She says this was her best decision. She notes she traded comfort for experience and quickly learned marketing was not for her, but retail was. In her words, “I was never a fashionista but liked the idea of supporting designers through business.“   

Don’t feel the need to “Follow the Herd” Chart your own course:

I sat on the sidelines as friends applied for banking and consulting jobs that fall semester.  I felt anxious when they started receiving offers, but I knew I was not suited for the work. 
After doing some research, building her network, and being honest with herself, Chen decided to stick it out. As she notes, “I even graduated without a job.”  Chen let us know that, in the end, it was worth the wait. Before the summer was over, she started her first job.

Chen underscores that college is a time to experiment and figure out what you want.  “Don't feel bound to your major or your peers; take classes that interest you.” She also encourages you to challenge yourself by participating in extracurricular activities and taking on responsibilities, “Duke University Union was an integral part of my college experience.  Not only did I make lasting friendships but I also developed professional skills.”

Make being creative and critical thinking something you do daily:
I am creative everyday in that my role requires me to think strategically, or outside of the box.  I brainstorm with our cross-functional partners to figure out ways to improve business (e.g. changing product offering and new marketing tactics).

So remember, if a documentary-loving, concert planning, self-proclaimed not-a-fashionista can find a way to navigate this jungle, stay creative, and find what she loves—you can too.
About the Alumni Imagine Possibilities Series

We asked some alumni to consider what students might need to know about imagining possibilities after Duke—to try to help students broaden their thinking about career choices (beyond what they know).  Throughout the year, we will publish a series of blog posts from alumni sharing what they believe is most helpful.  An easy way to know when a new post comes out is to subscribe to Career News or follow us on social media.

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