Allison Vernerey is not having a typical junior year. Then again, Allison Vernerey is not a typical junior. At six feet, five inches tall, Vernerey stands out in any crowd—in line at the Loop, in a study corner in McClendon Tower, even in Cameron Indoor Stadium, where she is among the tallest women's basketball players in the ACC. Recruited to Duke from Alsace, France—where she captained the French national team for players under eighteen—she has contributed mostly as a backup center during her first two years with the Blue Devils. Last season, she averaged 5.9 points and 4.1 rebounds in nearly nineteen minutes a game, primarily in relief of senior starter Krystal Thomas.
Now, with Thomas off to the WNBA's Seattle Storm, Vernerey will compete with highly touted freshman Elizabeth Williams for a spot in the starting lineup. As the sole junior on a roster with only two seniors, she will be expected to take a leadership role on Duke's young but talented team.
"We stopped in the Elite Eight the past two years, but I think we have a pretty good team and a pretty good season ahead," she says. "Actually getting to the Final Four would be a big goal to attain as a team."
Reaching the Final Four in Denver may be Vernerey's top goal for her junior year. But it's not her only one. This past summer, she served the Duke Cancer Intstitute (DCI) as an intern, which sparked her desire to become more involved in cancer fundraising and outreach. She recently launched Blue Devils Versus Cancer, a student organization that is working to raise awareness and money for cancer research. The group, which has a core of about fifteen members, has helped the DCI promote events such as the Think Pink coupon project with Tanger Outlets, a national network of shopping malls with thirty locations, including three in North Carolina.
"Surprisingly enough, there is really not that much connection between [Duke] students and the Duke Cancer Institute," she says. The new group aims to bring student assistance to DCI through volunteering and fundraising efforts.
Working with DCI was a natural fit for Vernerey, who says close family members have been affected by cancer. Her coach, Joanne P. McCallie, is the face of Strike Out Cancer, a campaign led by DCI and the Durham Bulls, and she helped make the connection for Vernerey's internship.
The job proved valuable on multiple levels, not the least of which was that she gained work experience outside the classroom. She quickly proved herself as able in an office environment as she is on the court. Among her responsibilities, she assisted in organizing Ramblin' Rose, the first women's half marathon in North Carolina. The October race drew more than 1,900 participants and more than 6,000 spectators. Working with partners at Duke, including the Women's Center, Student Affairs, Residential Life and Housing Services, Athletics, and Duke Intramurals, Vernerey was charged with heading up marketing for the race and recruiting volunteers for the event. "She's done a great job," says David Mainella, DCI's deputy director of development. "I'm thankful that we were able to connect."
"David was really great with letting me do things. It was pretty exciting," Vernerey says.
So exciting that Vernerey has continued to work a few hours each week for DCI during the fall semester. "They actually gave me the opportunity to keep working, even now that school is back on," she says. "I go as much as I can. I just loved feeling like you're a part of something bigger. I don't know if you're making a difference, but at least you're trying, and you're doing something meaningful."
Meaningful or not, it's easy to imagine those activities getting sidelined once basketball season begins. Vernerey's day starts hours before most of her classmates are awake, with 7 a.m. workouts involving weight training, running, or both. From there, she typically heads to class, followed by whatever time she can spare at DCI. Then it's another afternoon workout, a quick dinner, and some studying at night.
Such demands can limit athletes from taking full advantage of everything Duke has to offer. Because most varsity sports are active in both spring and fall, for example, athletes who want to study abroad are usually limited to summer programs, rather than the semester or yearlong programs that are typical among juniors.
But then, Vernerey already is studying abroad.
Growing up, Vernerey knew she wanted to study and travel outside France, and so she focused on studying English early on. When Mc- Callie traveled 4,000 miles to Alsace to sell Vernerey on Duke, she already knew all about its academic reputation: One of her uncles had received an M.B.A. from Duke in 1988. She is majoring in economics, with a minor in cultural anthropology and a certificate in markets and management.
Her studies also reflect her international perspective. In a class on the uses of economics, she felt a particular affinity with a research project on immigration. And a current class, a graduate- level course on the microeconomics of international development policy, especially appeals to her because of its real-world applications. "It's about the way policies are implemented in places like Africa and about how to implement policies more efficiently," she explains. "Once you can apply it, it's pretty cool."
The delicate balancing act Vernerey has built for herself took hard work and patience. "My freshman year was a little tough," she says, the first hint of a cloud over her otherwise sunny disposition. "Getting used to being away from my family and learning English was hard sometimes. When I first got here, I was really focusing on learning English, so I was trying to hang out with American people. But I wish I would have been involved more with the International House and more French activities. Every time I get to speak French or meet somebody French, I realize that somebody has the same experiences that I do, and I get excited."
After months of speaking English exclusively, Vernerey finds that French occasionally eludes her when speaking with friends from home. "They tease me, but I'm like, it's not my fault!" she laughs. Her French friends also keep asking her if life at an American college is similar to the version in movies. In some ways, Vernerey thinks it is. "Here, you're a part of the school; you're a part of Duke and it's a whole world in itself, whereas in France, it's not really [like that]. We don't really have campuses that big," she says.
She also was surprised by the peculiar American style of eating. "When I got here, I was like, these people never sit to eat. In France, food is food," she says. "But [here] we always get food to go—sometimes we're not even in a hurry! And my teammates will be like, let's take it to go, and I'm like, why? Why are we doing that? But now I do it, too."
Eating on the run is one of the concessions she's made to her busy schedule. But it's a tradeoff that keeps the rest of her life in balance. "What else would I be doing? I don't know, having a regular student life? Resting, sleeping, I guess," she jokes. Maybe she can catch a nap on the plane to Denver in March.
Center of Attention
Junior Allison Vernerey expects big things this year—both on and off the court.
November 30, 2011