A Duke Connection Starts in Paris

A send-off party brings together two families in a surprising way
October 13, 2015

Freshman Melissa Gerdts was on a European cruise in celebration of her high-school graduation when she found herself in Paris for a stopover. Little did she know that the chance visit would reveal an unexpected connection with a fellow Duke family halfway around the world.

Gerdts was in Paris on July 2, the date of the Duke Send-Off party to welcome the university’s newest class.

Every year, the Duke Alumni Association holds parties throughout the U.S. and the world to give new Blue Devils an opportunity to meet other students and alumni from their cities. This year, alumni hosted sixty-six parties from Atlanta to New York to Paris—which is where Gerdts says she couldn’t leave without first checking out the party.

That night, Gerdts, her sister, and her parents— Carolina Pryor-Gerdts and Alexander Gerdts—arrived at the Educational Consortium on the Boulevard Raspail, where Duke students study with French students every year as part of an exchange program.

Gerdts, who took a semester of French at her Miami high school, says she was nervous. “I didn’t know what to expect and how they were going to react to a stranger being there.”

One of the first people the Gerdtses met was freshman Tae Markey and her mother, Olga Low. Gerdts says that as soon as she began talking to Markey and Low, she recognized their accents. She thought they were Colombian. (Gerdts was born in Colombia and came to the U.S. when she was three.)

It turns out Low is Colombian. Markey was born in Washington and spent her childhood in Colombia, Venezuela, and France.

And there was something even more familiar about the family than their accents.

The two mothers—Pryor-Gerdts and Low—thought they recognized each other. While chatting, they discovered they had gone to the same middle school in Bogota and were in the same group of friends long ago.

Chris O’Neill ’95, senior director of DAA’s Regional Engagement team, attended the party and says he was intrigued by the connections that unfolded in such an unlikely place.

“That connection was extraordinary but not completely surprising. Duke has a tendency to bring together exceptional people from similar backgrounds,” O’Neill says. “The fun comes from leveraging alumni engagement to strengthen this nexus.”

It’s the kind of connection that DAA wants to foster at Duke Send-Off parties all over the world, he says.

By the end of the night, the moms had exchanged contact information, promising to stay in touch. Pryor- Gerdts invited Markey to Thanksgiving if she couldn’t make it back home to Paris. And the two Duke freshmen hit it off too.

“We already made plans to see each other once she comes to Duke,” Gerdts says. “And hopefully she’ll spend Thanksgiving with us.”