Transformation: At the Heart of Our Mission

Growing up in New York in the 1970s, Michael Marsicano ’78, M.Ed. ’78, Ph.D. ’82 loved the English horn and the oboe. But with his sights set on medical school, he couldn’t see himself going to a conservatory. Instead, he chose Duke—a place known for training doctors that also had an outstanding wind symphony. Under the leadership of longtime music professor Paul Bryan, Michael went to Vienna with the Wind Symphony for a semester-long study-abroad program and concert tour. Immersing himself in music and art history, he realized what he really wanted was a career supporting the arts.

Today, Michael serves as president and CEO of the Foundation for the Carolinas, working to ensure that the arts are an integral part of the cultural life of the city of Charlotte—and as a Duke trustee, he has infused that same support for the arts into our educational community.

Michaela Kerrissey ’05 came to Duke in 2001, already an accomplished writer and poet, as part of the first class of Robertson Scholars. While majoring in English and political science, she deepened her understanding of community engagement through successive summer experiences in Atlanta, Cuba, and South Africa. After graduating, Michaela was awarded a Hart Fellowship to spend a year in Uganda working on an HIV-prevention project.

One year turned into three, and the pilot program she designed and implemented is now achieving results throughout East Africa. To add theoretical complexity to her insights gained in the field, she completed a master’s degree in public health at Harvard in 2010. She now is poised to make substantial contributions to the vocation she found at Duke: addressing challenges of global health.

These stories are about transformation. I don’t simply mean change; transformation suggests a more fundamental development of the very essence of a person or thing. In human development terms, it can mean a process of finding out who you are, what’s important to you, and what you are meant to be. Creating possibilities for self-discovery is at the heart of our mission here at Duke.

Cell biologists describe transformation as the process whereby a cell, under certain favorable conditions, can become permeable enough to take up DNA from its environment and alter its genetic code. Transformation through education happens in this same way: A student takes in something new and is changed forever.

To serve as an agent of transformation, Duke needs to do two things. We work to create an ever-richer environment that can stimulate students, strike sparks, and open vistas in hundreds of directions. The DukeEngage and Engineering World Health programs, our new initiatives in innovation and entrepreneurship, and the equally new Duke in D.C. program are only the latest additions to this roster of opportunity.

Equally important, we work to bring students to Duke who are open to new experiences and willing and eager to engage.

Put the two together and the result is explosive. The energy that’s so palpable on this campus is this energy of engagement and exploration leading to self-discovery. We can’t say in advance who will be awakened by what opportunity during their time at Duke. The mystery of individuality plays a role in that; an experience that’s mildly interesting to one person can produce a life-defining revelation for another. The key is for students to find the thing they care about, the thing that fulfills their peculiar personal promise—whether that be the arts, or global health, or any of the thousand things the world needs talented people to pursue.

To employ another scientific metaphor, Duke can be a catalyst to trigger a reaction. It’s not a coincidence that Michael Marsicano and Michaela Kerrissey found themselves transformed here. We seek new ways of catalyzing students so that they, like so many others before them, can find their passions and emerge transformed to have an impact on their communities and their world.

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