From the President: Going to Duke

Reflections from a summer spent exploring Duke’s connections around the state and nation

In the summer months, as students depart and the school grows quiet, it’s my custom to visit Duke sites away from campus. Duke is anchored in Durham, but Duke isn’t only what happens in Durham. Last summer I traveled to see our medical school in Singapore and global-health and DukeEngage sites in Uganda and Tanzania. But human challenges aren’t confined to foreign countries, so this summer, I set off to watch Dukies bringing intelligence and creativity to bear on problems in our own state and nation.

The urge to reach beyond this physical campus goes back to Duke’s earliest days. In the 1930s, faculty in zoology saw the special research value of Pivers Island, near Beaufort, where the ocean flows in and out of North Carolina’s vast inland sea. Duke acquired the land and opened the Duke Marine Lab’s first buildings in 1938—only three years after the dedication of Duke Chapel.

Thanks to this early venturesomeness, Duke is now a global leader in the study of oceans, coastal ecosystems, and marine life. As our understanding of the interdependence of human and marine life increases, with changes in the marine environment certain to affect human societies in complex ways, this early investment becomes more strategic than ever. In late July, I participated in the groundbreaking for the new Orrin Pilkey Marine Science & Conservation Genetics Center at Beaufort, which will allow Duke researchers to use the latest scientific tools to expand our understanding of this crucial dimension of the world we share.

Alumni communities are another way Duke reaches out from sea to shining sea.

One thriving new example can be found in the Duke Global Entrepreneurship Network, or DukeGEN. In the past eighteen months, Duke has given heightened priority to innovation and entrepreneurship, in recognition that universities will be called more and more to deliver inventive solutions to fundamental needs.

In the process, we’ve discovered a large number of alumni who identify themselves as entrepreneurs.

DukeGEN taps into that energy and provides ways for alumni—4,500 and counting— to network and share strategies across a range of for-profit and not-for-profit endeavors.

"I saw Duke students using all their charm, resourcefulness, and generosity of spirit to lead younger, less-advantaged students forward."

In San Francisco in early June, I dropped in on a DukeGEN Angel Pitch event held at a small-business incubator called Rocket-Space—in other words, a place built to launch. Alumni and current students with bright ideas had submitted business plans in advance, and five had been invited to pitch their startups before a panel of fellow Duke alumni in the venture-capital field—as well as a packed audience of curious peers. There was no shortage of invention, but the $10,000 prize went to Ryan Luce ’94 for a platform for connecting patients with clinical trials and educating them about potential benefits. The buzz in the room was palpable as the “veteran” entrepreneurs– some just a few years out of Duke themselves—served as mentors to those starting out. Another new meaning of what it means to “go to Duke.”

Closer to home, I saw the same engaged spirit being brought to bear on another problem area, K-12 education.

Over the years, Duke has developed a close relationship with the Freedom Schools and their founder, Marian Wright Edelman of the Children’s Defense Fund. The Freedom Schools represent CDF’s attempt to stem the summer learning loss that hampers the academic progress of children from economically disadvantaged communities. Research byDuke’s Harris Cooper has shown that while children from middle-class families tend to advance their reading skills in summer through exposure to enrichment activities, children from lower-income families tend to lose ground, ending the summer up to three months behind where they started.

The CDF’s Freedom Schools have had a significant impact on this problem, and Duke has been an important contributor: We host a Freedom School for rising second- and third- graders on our own West Campus, and DukeEngage undergraduates have taught in Freedom Schools in Charlotte and Bennettsville, South Carolina, Edelman’s hometown.

When I watched them in action in their classes, I saw Duke students using all their charm, resourcefulness, and generosity of spirit to lead younger, less-advantaged students forward. I know they will return to campus with a deepened grasp of the challenges and a deepened commitment to being part of the solution. Learning how strong civic organizations operate and learning their own powers as active citizens will be a crucial part of a Duke education for these students, even if learned far from Duke.

Nowadays, to “go to Duke” still means to join in the community of this campus. But increasingly, it also means to engage a whole world of connections that Duke gives access to, adding depth to each student’s education. At Duke we believe that the training that can best prepare our students for meaningful lives is an education that is engaged with the realities of our time, envisioning solutions to real-world problems. As the footprint of our teaching, learning, and research expands, so does our understanding of the meaning of a Duke education.

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