Frosh Faces

Members of the Class of 2012 are academic achievers to be sure; they're also genuinely interesting individuals—a fact illustrated by portraits of five standout first-years

The more than 1,700 students who matriculated in August attended large public schools and exclusive private academies, lived in big-city high rises and small-town suburbs. They have strong academic credentials: 585 of the 3,814 students offered admission were valedictorians, and 1,570 had SAT scores of 1,500 or higher.

But hometowns and test scores only begin to tell the story of these first-year students. They are deeply committed to public service: Many applicants cited the appeal of DukeEngage, which provides funding and faculty support for domestic and international civic-engagement opportunities.

Most were born in 1990, which put them in middle school when 9/11 happened; for most of their lives, either Bill Clinton or George W. Bush has been president of the U.S. Hundreds of them have already "met" each other through social networking sites; the Duke Class of 2012 Facebook group includes threads about purchasing textbooks and the mandatory alcohol-education program, and links to dorm-specific chat groups. Instantaneous communication with strangers half a world away is second nature to these young adults, who are coming of age as global politics and shifting economies portend tremendous challenges for their generation.

Here are five of Duke's most recent arrivals.

Paul Salem: at ease. Credit: Brownie Harris

Paul Salem

Hometown: Washington

Paul Salem's decision to enlist in the U.S. Marines straight out of high school was met with mixed reactions. His guidance counselor at Maret, a Washington, D.C., prep school, told Salem that the last time someone opted to follow that path was during the Vietnam War.

"People would approach my mom and tell her they were sorry, as if I were already dead," recalls Salem. But the way he figured it, the war in Iraq was the defining conflict of his generation, and he wanted to be where the action was. As a sniper in the 2nd Battallion/2nd Marine Regiment, Salem was deployed to Iraq, where he was involved in counterinsurgency operations, and to the Horn of Africa, where he and his regiment ran joint patrols with the Kenyan army.

Salem decided to apply to Duke, which he did from the Mojave Desert, because it met his criterion of having a sizable graduate and professional student population, the better to acclimate as a twenty-two-year-old freshman; and because of its top-ranked medical school and teaching hospital, where he could augment his premed curriculum with experiences shadowing physicians and patients. He plans to pursue a career in emergency or trauma medicine.

Sergeant Salem mustered out of the Marines in July.

Lauren Brown
Lauren Brown: exit stage right. Credit: Frank Fournier;
Lauren Brown

Hometown: New York

Entranced by graceful dancers whose fouettés and grand jetés appeared effortless, Lauren Brown began taking ballet lessons when she was six. By the time she entered high school, all other extracurricular activities had been abandoned.

Brown enrolled in New York's Professional Children's School, arranging her courses around rehearsals and classes at the prestigious School of American Ballet, and pushed herself even harder. Her senior year, she applied to college—Duke was her top choice—but then decided she wasn't quite ready to give up her all-consuming passion. She auditioned for several professional companies and was invited to join the Pennsylvania Ballet.

Duke agreed to let her defer admission for a year. The life of a professional dancer was as glamorous as she had imagined (among other roles, she performed as a snowflake and flower in George Balanchine's The Nutcracker and as a mermaid in Christopher Wheeldon's Carnival of the Animals) but even more grueling.

After seeing firsthand what it would take to make dancing a full-time profession, she decided it was not the life she wanted after all.

Brown is considering majoring in psychology, teaching dance in the local Durham schools, learning Hindi or Arabic, and rediscovering tennis, long ago forsaken when dance was everything.


Phyllis Mbewe

Phyllis Mbewe: a chance to flourish. Mags Alexander.

Phyllis Mbewe

Hometown: Lusaka, Zambia

Phyllis Mbewe's journey from Lusaka, Zambia, to Durham, North Carolina, began when she and her three older siblings lost both parents to illness. With help from their mother's side of the family, the children worked the family farm, growing crops and raising pigs and goats. They scraped together the mandatory fees to attend school.

When most classmates began dropping out to take whatever manual-labor jobs were available, one of Mbewe's teachers recommended that she apply to the Pestalozzi International Village Trust, a school in East Sussex, England, that educates exceptional young people from the developing world who could not otherwise continue their studies. After three days of in-depth interviews and exams, she was offered admission.

At Pestalozzi, Mbewe lived with students from six countries. She became accustomed to international cuisine, diverse cultural norms, and a stimulating academic environment.

When a Duke admissions officer came to Pestalozzi, Mbewe for the first time began to consider attending college in the U.S. It seemed a world away, she says, 
but Duke's engineering program was a strong inducement. Mbewe, a University Scholar, is determined to help Zambia strengthen its infrastructure, particularly its roads and highways.

Paul Harraka

Paul Harraka: built for speed. Two Rock Media, Inc.

Paul Harraka

Hometown: Wayne, New Jersey

Paul Harraka is fast—a fast talker, a fast thinker, and most of all, a fast driver. In his first professional go-kart race as a nine-year-old, he captured first place in the New Jersey state championships in the eight-to-twelve-year-old age bracket. Since then, he's racked up 158 wins, including the World Karting Association Triple Crown, thirteen national championships, and six go-kart world championships.

He made the transition to cars in 2005 and, last year, he was named the All-American Speedway's NASCAR Rookie of the Year.

Harraka plans to major in mechanical engineering but will continue to race professionally—his ultimate goal is to win the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series—while maintaining a demanding course load.

Needless to say, he has already endeared himself to Duke's Formula SAE (Society of Automotive Engineers) Competition team, a student-run group that designs and builds open-wheel racecars to compete in the annual national competition that attracts more than 140 colleges.

Taylor Clarke

Taylor Clarke: close up. Frank Fournier.

Taylor Clarke

Hometown: New Canaan, Connecticut

Coming soon to a television monitor or computer screen near you: Taylor Clarke and her high-quality online broadcast channel for the Duke community, from video clips for prospective students to in-depth documentaries on medical breakthroughs and features on successful alumni. The broadcast is just an idea right now, but if anyone can make it happen, it's Clarke.

She's written and produced documentaries on the Beijing Olympics and advancements in neurosurgery, and covered the America's Cup Challenge in Spain and the Aspen Ideas Festival. As a high-school sophomore, she launched a public-access television show, View From the Top. One show featured the heads of ABC, NBC, and CBS Sports discussing the business of sports. In another, former Morgan Stanley CEO Stephen Roach and General Electric CEO Jeffrey Immelt talked about business and globalization.

Clarke says she was able to get to these heavy hitters through a combination of letters, cold calls, and dogged persistence.

At Duke, Clarke plans to capitalize on that experience as well as the many resources available to her as a Robertson Scholar—journalism courses at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, summer travel and research opportunities, and especially Duke's "entrepreneurial spirit."


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