Ikee Gardner, cultivating a literary interest

Ikee Gardner, cultivating a literary interest

Megan Morr

Ikee Gardner graduated ninth in her class of four-hundred-fifty students at Whitney M. Young High School, a rigorous Chicago magnet school. The only child of an electrician father and a lawyer mother, Gardner applied to a dozen universities, including Harvard, Yale, Stanford, Notre Dame, and the University of Chicago, in addition to Duke. All twelve admitted her; she accepted Duke's offer. Not bad for a fifteen-year-old.

"When I arrived on campus, I debated whether or not I would tell people how old I was," says Gardner. "I didn't want them to tease me."

Intellectually precocious from a young age, Gardner was privately tutored (a phrase she prefers to home schooled) by her parents until middle school. She augmented her coursework with an endless supply of books. "I can't remember a time when I was not reading, writing, or hearing stories," says Gardner, recalling such favorites as The Chronicles of Narnia series and Nancy Farmer's A Girl Named Disaster.

Gardner's transition to a competitive college-prep high school was fairly seamless. She quickly became involved with a range of extracurricular activities, including the math and debate teams, and was captain of the Academic Decathlon Team. For three years she tutored her fellow students in math, science, and English, and was an English tutor through the Chicago Urban League for a year. Literature continued to capture her imagination; she completed a first draft of a 300-page novel, called The Tale of the Mage, a rethinking of Arthurian legends.

Gardner was tapped by Duke as one of seven University Scholars for the Class of 2008, a designation that recognizes students who have displayed excitement for original research, collaborative thinking, and innovative scholarship. She's wasted no time living up to the promise. A double-major in economics and English, she has written for The Chronicle, helped edit the student-run Duke Journal of Public Affairs, and researched hedge-fund investment decisions as a student research assistant at the Fuqua School of Business. She is also a member of the Cambridge Christian Fellowship.

Gardner has also branched out into spoken-word poetry, performing at numerous open mike and arts events on campus. This spring, she was named the Paul Robeson Scholar/Artist, one of several awards that comprise the university's annual Julian Abele Awards to honor significant achievements by members and supporters of the black community at Duke. Gardner's recognition was based in part on her trilogy of poems that was included in the "Images of Our Heritage" exhibit at the Mary Lou Williams Cultural Center in February.   

"I still get flutters when I perform my work live," says Gardner. "But the hard part is not so much reciting [poetry], it's writing a poem with the idea of how it will sound out loud. If I'm writing a poem to be read, I'm paying attention to the stanzas, but if I'm writing a poem that will be listened to, I'm paying attention to rhythm in a different way."

Gardner spent the summer in New York, taking courses through a Duke arts program and interning at Random House. This fall, she's enrolled in three English courses, an African and African-American history class, and an economics class in corporate finance. After graduation, she says, her future is wide open.

"Long-term, I'd like to be a writer," she says of her career trajectory.
"But for now, I'm comfortable not knowing."

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