Alumni Spotlights

Each month, the Duke Student Alumni Board brings Duke alumni to the student body through interviews published here and in their email newsletter. These brief conversations with various alumni cover diverse fields and are designed to provide (1) an “on-the-ground” perspective from those who have been in Duke student shoes and (2) advice on how to navigate Duke and life in pursuit of professional goals.


Jack Boyd ’85

Jack Boyd Class of 1985 Profile pictureName: Jack Boyd ’85

Co-Founder of Duke First and Former President of the Duke Alumni Board of Directors

“The Duke experience should be the same for everyone,” says Jack Boyd, Trinity ’85. “Every student should have an equal opportunity. You shouldn't have more opportunity because your family has more wealth.”

Boyd, zooming in from home in New York City, was himself a low-income/first-generation student at Duke. He served as the President of the Duke Alumni Board of Directors from 2016 to 2018 and is a director on the Duke LGBTQ+ Network Board. Here, he describes the purpose of Duke First, an alumni affinity group of “first-gen/low-income (FGLI) alumni, and also allies, who are interested in supporting our first-gen and low-income students. And by students we mean all students: undergrad, graduate, and professional school students.”

“I'm not saying that everyone should get to arrive driving a BMW—not at all,” says Boyd. “But if there's an opportunity for a Duke student, then every student should have that opportunity. It's part of what Duke is or at least should be.”

Jack Boyd’s story as a Duke student:

I was first-gen and low-income. We didn't talk about first-gen in those days, but obviously for me it felt different because my parents didn't go to college. And had it not been for the extremely generous financial aid that I was given, I would not have been able to attend.  My parents could not afford the contribution they were expected to make, and so I was on my own to figure it out. I had to earn enough money to contribute my part and theirs as well.

I had a work-study job in an immunology lab, which really shaped my Duke experience. The people in my lab were very much my family at Duke. The job became a critical part of my education because I was learning while working. I actually became a zoology major so that I would understand my job. I was applying what I learned in the classroom to what we were doing.

I had the opportunity during all three summers to work full-time at the lab and so I jumped at that chance. But in order to do so, I had to earn more money to cover my living expenses, so I took a job in the evenings and weekends, a second forty hours each week, working that first summer at Arby's and then as a busboy, and then the third summer as a waiter.

On alumni:

Every time I meet people from other universities, people talk about Duke alumni: “Man, Duke alumni are so committed, dedicated and enthusiastic!”

When I graduated from Duke, I thought, “I have my degree. I'm done, right?” I didn't think that I would continue being involved and it took me 20 years to become engaged as a volunteer.

Why is it important that alumni are engaged?

Number one, alumni bring tremendous value to our students. Alumni can give advice about things like moving to their city or help students find an internship or even a job. They can also help students navigate campus life or choose a career. While we are at Duke, and then after we leave Duke, we are supported by this huge network of people, just because we’re all Dukies.

Alumni love connecting to students. They remember their student experience. Sometimes it was not positive. Sometimes they're involved precisely because it wasn't positive, and they want to improve things for others. I learned so much as President of the Alumni Association; it feels like I earned a second degree. Alumni have a chance to go back and make things better, if not for themselves, then for the next generation.

On leading as President of the Alumni Association:

My priority was, how do I help people navigate Duke in a way that brings them value?

I was not a great public speaker.  I didn’t have a big network of people, just a small group of close friends. I’m not even an extrovert, as most past presidents are, I do better one-on-one than in a large group.  But one of those things I could do was connect people to each other and work tirelessly on their behalf.

What advice would you give to a student at Duke?

Get to know everything that Duke can do for you.

Don’t overlook things. By that, I mean opportunities, people, even interactions. Take time to think about what your values are and ask yourself, who are the people, interactions, connections, and situations that can help you realize and actualize them. This helps not only ourselves but also our communities.

It’s easy to prejudge and see things through our own biases. “Oh, that person is too short, I’d never date them. That person is too tall, I’d never date them.” We’re always making assumptions instead of really trying to get to know and connect with people.
You're surrounded and supported by the Duke community. This is something that I didn't realize as a student, but that I came to later in life.
And one more thing: don’t forget to sleep.

On collaboration:

Collaboration is such a beautiful thing.

I did not think that before. I came from a work culture that was more, “Here’s my idea, we are going to do this.” I thought that collaboration was code for bureaucracy, a system that watered things down.

As an alum, I learned that collaboration is really people piling on positive things until you get to the right place.

I got to the point that I am no longer afraid to have a bad idea, because I know that someone needs to start. I can throw an idea on the table and everyone else will jump in and make it better. 

How did you learn to lead people?

Trial and error, especially error.

I mean, you learn from the people around you, the people that you're leading.

I was in New York at a Duke Alums Engage committee meeting, which started at 7:00 PM. When 7:00 PM came, a woman looked at me and said, “OK, lead.”

I was a little startled. But I realized in that moment that she was right.

It was time for me to get these people to do something together.

There have been many times like that where I've been in a situation and I've known that it was time for me to say, “this is what we're going to do” and then let people question or add to that.

Every leader finds their way of leading. I realized that, for me, leadership means leading from behind. What kind of leader did I want to be? How could I find my voice to express that? How could I be authentic?

I'm in my last year on the LGBTQ+ Network board, and my goal is, how can I find and support future leaders? I think that the biggest impediment to leadership is leaders who stay in place too long. It's time for me to move aside and support the next generation of leaders.

In closing:
My best memory as a volunteer—and there have been so many: I was invited to have dinner with a few Rubenstein scholars while I was President of the Alumni Association. It was pouring rain on a Thursday evening and I went into Perkins to meet the students. A larger group of students was scheduled to join us after the dinner to talk about being first-gen/low-income at Duke.

I was so deeply touched, proud of, and inspired by these students and their stories—where they were at Duke and what Duke meant to them, how much they had wanted to be Dukies, but didn’t think they had the resources to do so. Some said they only applied so they could say there were admitted—if they were. 

They made it clear that they would only be with me from 6 to 7 pm and would leave when the other students arrived, because they had studying to do. After an hour no one left.

It was November - it was cold, windy and wet. But the students stayed for the entire 2 hours and they were just extraordinary.  Every one of them. That was when I knew that after my term as president ended, I would focus on supporting our first-gen/low income students.

Edited and shortened for clarity.



Zoelene Hill ’17

Zoelene Hill ’17Name: Zoelene Hill '17

Graduate Studies at Duke
Zoelene Hill, PhD is a 2017 graduate of the Sanford School of Public Policy. While at Duke, she pursued a doctorate in Public Policy with a disciplinary concentration in Sociology. During her time, Zoelene developed a research agenda that examines policies and programs that support the development of young children with attention to the experiences of families of different racial, ethnic, and socio-economic backgrounds. Zoelene believes it is imperative to include families and communities in developing policy solutions that support their healthy and equitable development.
Zoelene’s Current Work
Zoelene is employed as a Research Scientist for the New York Academy of Medicine (NYAM) in the Community Partnerships and Policy Solutions division. NYAM is a nonprofit organization that brings together public health and healthcare experts alongside practitioners to tackle issues of health equity for the citizens of New York City and beyond. One feature of the organization that was particularly attractive to Zoelene was her division’s commitment to participatory action research. This style of research allows residents of the local community, East Harlem, NY, to take leadership over research and advocacy initiatives. In her role, Zoelene’s job is to facilitate conversations between parents as they define policy areas of interest, identify strengths and challenges within their families and communities to reach desired outcomes and support their plans for advocacy and policy change. Further, she is responsible for developing briefs and statements designed to share the work of local groups out to the broader community. Though Zoelene has only been in the role for a few months, she loves the work she does. In particular, she feels fortunate to be a part of an organization that places value on amplifying the voices of local communities.
Graduate Training Prepared Zoelene for Community-based Work
At Duke, Zoelene trained in qualitative and quantitative research methods.  She took classes with pre-eminent thinkers in social stratification, racism, child development and gender and feminist studies.  All of these content areas provide a lens from which Zoelene approaches her research. In addition, she developed, conducted and analyzed hundreds of surveys and dozens of interviews with parents who live in low-income neighborhoods throughout Durham. She found that they were truly the experts in what they needed to support their children and families and of the challenges and needs of existing social support systems. She knew that to authentically inform social policies, her work needed to connect with families and communities.
Zoelene’s job now is to bring more parents and communities into research spaces and policy discussions so that their expertise is heard and acted on. Her team at NYAM is relatively progressive – they recently trained and IRB certified a team of mothers and grandmothers in the responsible conduct of research.  Zoelene will be working with this team of mothers and grandmothers as they generate policy research questions, develop data collection instruments and analyze and share their findings. Essentially, she is training them to be research scientists. She is primarily working with this first pilot group of mothers and grandmothers, but her goal is to raise funding to take this approach to more groups and communities so that more people feel informed, supported, and empowered to partake in research, policy and advocacy.
How Zoelene landed Her Current Role
Prior to her Ph.D. studies, Zoelene was a history teacher at West Philadelphia High School. In this role she saw that her students’ brilliance and curiosity did not have the space and opportunity to flourish because educational, health, housing and justice systems were consistently failing them. She knew that she wanted to help shape the systems that support children and families.  
In January 2021, Zoelene transitioned to a research role that more directly works with communities. Motivated by the protests that erupted in response to the murder of George Floyd, America’s racial and social reckoning and life in the midst of a pandemic, Zoelene began to question if her work was contributing to social equity and racial justice in the way she desired. Zoelene sat with herself and wrote down the type of work that she would like to do. Given her personal and professional interests, she knew she wanted to be in communities amplifying the voices of Black and Hispanic people. When the job description for NYAM came her way, she felt it closely mirrored the type of work she envisioned herself doing. Thus far, the position has been a wonderful fit!
Advice for Current Students and Graduate School Hopefuls
Zoelene offered two notable pieces of advice for anyone considering a PhD. First, she says ask yourself if you are sure that graduate training is for you. For real! Pursuing a PhD is a lot of work and is often accompanied by a number of personal and professional changes that can be difficult to process. To better understand what you’re in for, she suggests talking to people. In her experience, many folks are open to sharing their journeys with perspective students. She suggests thinking of it as your very first piece of data collection!
For those in the midst of their graduate programs, Zoelene says you shouldn’t come out of your experience as the same person who began. She encourages folks to offer themselves grace and to give themselves and their ideas the time and space to grow.

Jonas Blank '01

Jonas Blank '01Name: Jonas Blank (B.A.'01, Trinity College) 

For this month’s newsletter, DSAB spoke with Mr. Jonas Blank, a Senior Vice President in Business and Legal Affairs at NBCUniversal, currently representing the company’s largest content distribution. In our chat, Jonas talked about entertainment law and how his experience as a Duke undergrad laid the foundation for his career. 

“I did not have everything laid out when I showed up.”

Jonas explained that when he got to Duke, he didn’t really know anyone or exactly what he wanted to do. What he did know, however, was what he was good at and what he liked: writing and music. He was able to materialize his interests and skills by becoming the music editor for the Chronicle, a job he was offered when he found himself being randomly approached by the then-current music editor at a concert he just happened to be at in Chapel Hill. He was an English and Public Policy double major, both of which he thinks bolstered his pre-existing interests while also giving him an interdisciplinary academic experience that would lay the groundwork for a career in law and beyond.

“Duke students are widely celebrated as some of the most elite, but approachable”

Jonas is a prime example of the “Forever Duke” spirit, developing meaningful relationships that would persist beyond graduation. One might imagine that the transition from Duke (or any school, really) to Harvard Law School is an intimidating one. While partially true for Jonas, he explained that he applied to and started law school alongside plenty of his fellow Duke classmates. Two of his closest friends to this day are people he met at law school, but that also went to Duke before (even though they didn’t really know each other at Duke)! One even worked at the same law firm as him after their Harvard graduation, their offices being directly next to each other. 

“Not everyone’s goals in law school are the same.”

Once he decided that going to law school was the route he wanted to take, Jonas was able to find a supportive network of advisors here at Duke. He prefaced his advice by acknowledging that each person has different motivations for applying to law school and different goals. Being able to pinpoint those goals, though, is what will help narrow down your options and determine which school is right for you. In giving advice to current Duke students who might be interested in law school, he advises that you reach out to a bunch of lawyers and try to understand what the job is really like. He admits that regardless of whether you do this or not, going to law school will almost guarantee you a job afterwards. What is more productive, however, is to go into law school with your eyes open and be able to think to yourself: “once these three years are over, what is doing this job actually going to look like for me?” 

Looking back on his own experience, Jonas sometimes wishes he would have taken some time to explore the job market before grad school, rather than going straight through. He explains that this gives you the chance to really understand what it’s like to have a job, through which you gain skills that are very much applicable to law school. Taking some time to work first helps people take a “more mature approach,” treating law school like a job with structure and organization. 

 “I get to work for a product that matters to me and that I value and that I care about”

At NBC, Jonas works on the revenue side of the business — content distribution. He represents NBC in their largest distribution transactions with “dMVPDs” (Digital/Virtual Multichannel Video Programming Distributors), satellite, and cable providers.  He has really enjoyed his time at NBC, which he explains, is particularly true because he works for a product that genuinely matters to him and aligns with his values. 
On the news side, NBC informs, and on the entertainment side, it makes people happy. The entertainment industry is constantly changing, being disrupted, and can even be “crazy.” While not every minute is fun, Jonas believes that the problems he has to solve on a daily basis are making a difference, which makes it all worthwhile.

“Whatever it is you’re doing, be authentic to yourself.”

To close, Jonas’ main piece of advice for current Duke students is to just be authentic to yourself. When it comes down to it, “there’s no one you have to answer to every single day more than yourself.” He knows the feeling that is all too common for undergrads: you have to have everything figured out from the get-go. He debunks this myth, and revises it. You don’t have to know exactly what you want to do, but if you do what is actually meaningful to you, then you can treat your professional career like building a house. Essentially, all of us are “creating an edifice” and while each has a bunch of different parts, they should be able to fit together to form a coherent whole. When you’re trying to do that, the best thing you can do is just ask. Jonas encourages asking questions to people who are more experienced than you and have been in your shoes: “the worst that could happen is they don’t respond… and if so, realize that everyone is at a different point in their life and their day, so don't take it personally!”