Something wise this way comes

At Duke, advice comes from many corners, in many ways. And students aren't just asking about course selection.
February 8, 2019

It really wasn’t a case of sophomore slump. His return from a DukeEngage summer in Vietnam, where, among other projects, he had taught English to rising high-schoolers, was a tough transition point for Grant Besner. He was struggling with “the many privileges of my upbringing and also of the material excess that defines so much of the American experience, particularly at an elite institution such as Duke,” says Grant, now finishing his senior year. He felt out of touch with his Duke friends: He had immersed himself in Vietnam’s culture, and he found it difficult to readjust as he was “thrown back into college life.”

So he went for advice. He visited with Heather Settle Ph.D. ’07, a director of academic engagement for the social sciences and a cultural anthropologist. Grant says he didn’t have many other outlets for processing the summer.

For her part, Settle has plenty of insights as an outsider. Originally from Oklahoma, and from a high school that sent few graduates to college (and even fewer out of state), she was a first-generation college student. After college, she did ethnographic research in a working-class barrio of Havana. When, in Grant’s words, they talked about “culture shock and how to cope with the cognitive dissonance of feeling like an outsider in your own culture,” there was a lot to be shared.

“I start out by asking students about their academic interests,” Settle says. “That often detours into other kinds of experiences.” She is always asking the “why” question; it’s a mechanism to inspire reflection. “If a student says, ‘I want to study abroad,’ I say, ‘Why do you want to study abroad?’ If they say they want to study public policy, I say, ‘Why do you want to study public policy? What do you like about that? What’s important to you about it?’ Advising is one of the few spaces where you have to just talk about what you’re thinking, and why. And you have to slow down a little bit to do that.”

The first meeting, and those that followed, veered in lots of directions. “She is just an open and consistent presence,” Grant says of Settle. “Even though I’m not always the best at scheduling appointments or following up, she’d reach out to me and encourage me to come see her.”

With that kind of encouragement, Grant has looked to Settle and other advisers for exploring the person he might become—“how to lead a good life and how to be a better person, friend, student, brother, member of a community.” That large view of advising reflects the outlook of Duke’s rather dispersed advising network, according to David Rabiner, director of the Academic Advising Center. A survey of the newest class showed that 94 percent wanted advising to be more than transactional—that is, more than basics like signing off on course selection. As to what such open-ended advising might look like: Ninety-five percent said they wanted help in thinking through career plans, and 75 percent in solidifying personal goals and values.

Those advising relationships can offer support for students who, more and more, as national surveys demonstrate, show signs of stress, anxiety, and depression—who feel the pressure to succeed and who, presented with a universe of curricular and co-curricular possibilities, likewise feel the pressure to land on the right choices. And so assistance in navigation is an imperative.

It’s more than a navigation aid: Advising, Rabiner says, can be a counterweight. It can push back on the peer pressure that steers students toward the “right” majors, which are, often mistakenly, assumed to be the sole path to lucrative job offers. Students are found in majors all over the curricular spectrum, but there is a clustering phenomenon: More than 600 members of the current junior class are majoring in either economics, public policy, or (like Grant) computer science. Department-specific advising, Grant says, hasn’t been among his key advising relationships: “My ‘required’ meetings with my major adviser have been more or less slotted appointments where the adviser’s graduate student asks if I am taking the correct classes for the following semester, clicks a few buttons, and sends me on my way.”

Outside any specific major, and within the Academic Advising Center, there’s a small group of professional advisers who, like Settle, work as directors of academic engagement. Some DAEs have knowledge specific to an academic division—arts and humanities, natural and quantitative sciences, or social sciences. Others have specialized knowledge of global or civic opportunities.

Under the center’s auspices, a much larger group, about 280 (largely) staff members from all over campus, work as college advisers. Each engages with six or so first-year students and about the same number of returning sophomore advisees; students later will commit to a major, computer science being a popular example, and are assigned to a faculty member in the department. Because the work can be time-consuming on top of a full-time job, Rabiner sees considerable turnover from year to year. Still, he says, some 85 percent of last year’s sophomore class, as they declared a major, rated the overall guidance they received from their college adviser good or excellent.

As students go, Grant would have to rank as excellent in making connections. But his pattern of connecting reveals a lot about how, and for what, undergraduates seek advice. The two of us met after I had read one of his columns for The Chronicle. (That first meeting led Grant to sign on with me for a writing-oriented independent study.) The column was about a tradition he began as an eighth-grader, when a waiter at a Chinese restaurant impressed him as “the nicest guy in the world.” Back home in South Florida, Grant has continued to snap a photo of the two of them once a year.

Such “random connections” might “offer a window into the kind of person we are likely to become,” as Grant wrote. Some windows, though, can slam shut: Shortly before his column appeared, the restaurant, facing sixty-two healthcode violations, disappeared.

He wrote that column as a sophomore. His senior year coincides with the first year for Gary Bennett Ph.D. ’02 as dean of undergraduate education; Bennett is also a professor of psychology and neuroscience.

Grant and Bennett met through Duke Conversations, a program that connects students and faculty informally and that’s run through Bennett’s Office of Undergraduate Education. This past semester, with Grant helping to facilitate, the new dean hosted a Duke Conversations dinner at his home. It was a get-together meant to serve up advice on “Getting the Most Out of Duke and Preparing for Your Life.” Life Preparation seems to be the greater theme of Duke Conversations. “We talked about how my wife and I met, about how we structure our lives as two reasonably busy professionals,” Bennett says. “It helps students to see me as something other than my bio sketch. And I love it.”

Bennett considers Duke Conversations a model of advising. Effective advising “is about listening, and in more than a performative sense,” he says. “The best advising one does, in my opinion, is the kind of advising where there is an imbalance in the amount of time spent talking. We should just listen more.”

Along with listening, he says, is some level of “reliability and predictability”—maybe a monthly walk through the Sarah P. Duke Gardens, or occasional “flunches” (subsidized campus lunches for a faculty member and a student), or a text message check-in. The important thing for the student is that “there is someone who is available to me and who is keeping an eye on how I’m doing,” he says. “That’s really it.”

In Grant’s world, the most influential professor has been Aaron Dinin ’05, who teaches in the Innovation and Entrepreneurship program. “I love it when students come and talk to me during my office hours, or want to have lunch with me,” Dinin says. Often they’re curious about what he calls his “really weird” combination of pursuits—undergraduate English major, a Ph.D. in English (his dissertation is titled “Hacking Literature: Reading Analog Texts in a Digital Age”), software engineer, founder of technology companies. Dinin’s scholarly imagination has led him to look at software development and literary production as parallel technologies, both of them involving information storage and dissemination.

Students may see him as a natural adviser because, as he puts it, his teaching style is candid and personal. “I don’t talk down to them. I try to think of them as collaborators in the classroom.”

Dinin doesn’t separate out teaching and advising. Teaching, he says, is “talking about yourself, sharing your stories and experiences, and knowing that you’re trying to take the lessons you’ve learned and distill them into something actionable for students.” One big lesson—often a tough one in the competitive context of the campus—is to not always be measuring yourself against the presumed successes of your peers.

As Dinin puts it: “You have to double-major, have a minor, get good grades everywhere, get the right internships. Anytime I have a student who says, ‘I really hate my classes, but I’m majoring in X,’ I say, ‘Well, what do you like?’ ‘Oh, I really like Y.’ And I go, ‘Okay, why aren’t you majoring in that?’ ” The usual answer comes down to job prospects. “Anyone who’s ever wanted to hire me for software engineering, not one of them has ever cared an iota about whether or not I had a major in computer science.”

Grant was in Dinin’s “Learning to Fail” course. That kind of course, which merges learning and life advice, illustrates a trend: A “What Now” seminar series, through Duke’s Kenan Institute for Ethics, now has first-year students pondering themes like stress, identity, wellness, the good life, and what it means to be free.

Each week, “Learning to Fail” students were given a failure challenge, a seemingly impossible task. On the very first day of class, as the students sat down, Dinin gave each of them a candy bar with the instruction to trade it for breakfast at a campus eatery. Grant had steeled himself for disappointment, though he recalls having been awarded a mushroom and onion omelet with a side of hash browns. In his view, the course was really about risk-taking: What happens when you put yourself out there? And how can you make the best of it?

“Learning to Fail” was a success story: He earned an A+, though perhaps a grade of F, he told Dinin, would have taught him even more about recovering from failure.

Grant says the advice he took from the course was to pursue your own path. And he translated that advice into action by deciding to transfer to Trinity from the Pratt School of Engineering. This past semester, on top of his computer-science requirements, he took courses in psychology; “World Philosophy”; and “Self Knowledge and the Pursuit of Wisdom,” in the classics department. These days, he readily shifts from talking about the intricacies of a multilayered coding project to the intricacies of Aristotle’s varieties of friendship.

After switching out of engineering and spending a summer, between his sophomore and junior years, backpacking through China, Grant found himself in a rethinking mode. Should he follow a longstanding interest in a career in comedy?

He got in touch with Amy Unell ’03, director of arts engagement and partnerships at Duke and a former producer with NBC. As a Duke student, she had taken the Duke in L.A. semester, much of which is built on internships. Grant investigated the same semester program, through which, prodded by Unell’s advice, he ended up interning with a television production company and late-night show Conan. (Back on campus he took in a weekend with DEMAN—the Duke Entertainment, Media & Arts Network—which draws hundreds of students and alumni and for which Unell organizes sessions like “Break Into Hollywood: Script to Screen.”)

Grant didn’t become particularly enamored of L.A. or the entertainment industry. Still, while there he took to heart Unell’s theme of relationship-building, and he tapped into Duke’s online alumni network, which is tailor-made for connecting: Apart from his internships and his classes, he met with about thirty professionals for one-on-one conversations, most of them alumni.

Before taking off for L.A., Grant was required to meet with Leanne Brown, an assistant director in the Career Center, whose official portfolio includes the arts, media, and entertainment. It was the first time he had ever gone to the Career Center, a place he had associated with pre-professionalism and “networking,” two concepts he found alien to the values of a liberal-arts setting.

But he was surprised by the “authentic and genuine” conversation they had about her career and her family. “It made me reconsider the judgment I had passed on the Career Center, but also on professionals.” In L.A., he felt prepared to reach out to people to ask for advice. “That’s all ‘networking’ really is: learning about other people’s stories.”

Brown’s own story is zig-zaggy: She’s been an entrepreneur, a sales manager, and the founder of a nonprofit. Back when she worked at Intuit, she brought on a lot of college interns, and she found herself “really invested in helping them.” That led her to graduate work in college counseling and eventually a position with the Career Center, initially as a graduate assistant. She thinks of her current work as being like her time as a hiring manager. “Each student is like a puzzle—figuring out what makes them tick, what motivates them, what might be holding them back.”

Brown comes across as a nuanced advice-giver— and, like Grant, as someone interested in other life stories. “One thing that I think makes me good at what I do is that I don’t like to receive advice. Ask my mother. Since I was about twelve, I haven’t liked being told what to do. So I’m particularly sensitive to the language around advice. I ask people for their thoughts all the time. But I don’t like to have anyone instruct me to do something.”

Part of her job is to arm students with the basics. She reminds them that a prospective employer isn’t going to be all that impressed with a résumé ticking off accomplishments. Here’s the real challenge: Can the student show the skills and experiences to solve a problem or create an opportunity for that employer? And about that résumé: Does it somehow break the stereotype of what defines a student in a particular major, so the employer thinks, Hmm, how intriguing, I’d like to get to know the person and not just the piece of paper.

Advising hardly hinges on the résumé—learning about the student in full is now a familiar refrain of the advising landscape—but, particularly for a career expert, the résumé can provide a good starting point. (For Grant, the inevitable “Interests” section lists “Cross-Cultural Dialogues,” “Meditation,” and Avatar: The Last Airbender, the last referring to an animated Nickelodeon series.) Brown will spark student conversations with questions that force a non-formulaic response: “What was your favorite part of that class?” Or “Why did you hate that internship?” If students spend time processing some experience, she says, “that will help them mindfully  pick the next experience to inform that big choice—who am I going to be?”

The résumé attached to another Grant adviser, Elana Friedman, would hardly be straightforward. She’s now the campus rabbi. In college, Friedman majored in environmental studies; she went on to work in environmental and election campaigns, and eventually entered rabbinical school. When I meet her at the Freeman Center for Jewish Life, she greets me in an office that displays four guitars, which she lends to students for music-making. She’s been in a couple of bands, and at Duke she has a weekly radio show on WXDU, where guests, Grant among them, talk about how their musical preferences fit with the “Music and Spirituality” theme.

Friedman advises students to connect with others as a relief from the “demanding, difficult, and competitive” work of college. “Despite being rich with opportunities, Duke can be really lonely. And how do we combat loneliness? Being part of something bigger than yourself, being part of a community, and understanding your spiritual self within that community.” She also encourages them to see their Jewish identity as a quality embedded in their larger identity. “If we’re talking about academics, if we’re talking about career paths, if we’re talking about friendships, if we’re talking about hopes and dreams—to me, that’s all deeply Jewish, because it’s all about purpose and meaning, about identity formation.”

In the realm of religion, students can find advice in lots of places and around lots of traditions. There’s the Congregation at Duke Chapel, of course, along with the Duke Catholic Center, the Buddhist Meditation Community, the Duke Asian InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, Hindu Life at Duke, Muslim Life at Duke, and dozens of other faith-minded networks.

Grant—conspicuous in what he calls his “vibrant Chanukah cardigan, my signature (and only) piece of seasonal outwear”—says Friedman “has shaped the way I look at my Jewish identity and how I view community.” Before coming to Duke, he wasn’t especially religious, he says. This past summer, he joined Friedman for a one-on-one “coffee conversation”—she estimates she does 150 or so every year—and then began attending Shabbat services every Friday at the Freeman Center.

“Some students are coming in looking to explore their Judaism for the first time in their lives,” Friedman says. “Some come from super-strong Jewish backgrounds and are looking for ways to practice their Judaism authentically, though in a context that makes it sometimes challenging to do so. Then there are students who already feel comfortable in their Judaism. But it’s the first time they are practicing Judaism on their terms.

“And just what does that mean? They leave home, and they no longer have obligations to their parents or other authorities in their lives. So how do they become Jewish in an adult way?”

On the cusp of adulthood and particularly of college graduations, students like Grant, however dismissive they might be of pre-professionalism, are career-minded. That’s where Jono Schafler ’07, who volunteers with Duke’s Innovation & Entrepreneurship program, enters the picture. An I&E online platform is a resource designed to direct students to potential alumni mentors, with whom they schedule thirty-minute phone calls. Schafler is with what he describes as “a venture builder company,” which raises capital, develops business models, and assembles teams for start-ups. Earlier he had a career in investment banking and private equity.

In many ways Schafler sees versions of his younger, still-developing self in students like Grant, and he considers himself having been well-mentored at Duke. He signed on as an I&E adviser as a way to reciprocate.

Schafler, based on his own experience, has steered Grant away from investment banking. He’s encouraged Grant to be researching start-up companies deeply—not simply looking at job listings, for example, but rather studying the portfolios attached to venture-capital firms. The bigger piece of advice is to consider a job as an emotional investment: You should be all in, excited about it to the point that it’s essential to your identity.

Reflecting the widespread student sensibility, Grant seems to be excited around technology and innovation. On campus he works for the Innovation Co-Lab, a “creativity incubator” focused on using technology to “reshape the research, academic, and service missions of the university.” There he’s a technical consultant for, among other needs, 3D printing and “CNC” milling (computer numerical controlled milling—I had to look it up). He worked last summer for a digital-marketing company, as its awesomely titled “optimization strategist.”

Post-graduation, he’ll be joining, for the summer and perhaps a bit longer, a Tel Aviv-based entrepreneurship program. It has young Israelis and Americans come together to form early-stage ventures, working on everything from figuring out a viable product to developing pitches for investors. It’s a version of Schafler’s current work.

As he’s worked to process who he’s going to be, Grant has followed—really, exceeded—the advice of Gary Bennett, the dean of undergraduate education. Bennett tells students (in a video message, among other places) that they should find at least one mentor on campus.

Bennett’s own history shows a consistent characteristic of advisers: They all benefited from years of receiving advice that, in some way, was transformative. At Morehouse College, there was the English professor who pulled Bennett aside, in his first semester, and told him, “You know, I think you have the potential to be a really good writer. Would you like to be better?” And the psychology professor who brought him on as a research assistant in her lab. Bennett learned about science, but, more important, how to lead a lab team.

One of the challenges for Duke, Bennett says, is to find advising mechanisms for students who are not quite Grantlike. “Universities are structured to favor students who are extroverted and charismatic. We have to be very careful to be open to the introverted students who are bookish and scholarly and socially withdrawn, or students who have more limited social networks.”

Grant, in his senior year, has somewhat refashioned himself: He’s started giving advice. He’s been quite public about that, writing a column in The Chronicle called “Dear Noah.” The column offers advice to his younger brother, a Duke first-year student—and really, to all students trying to find their way through Duke. It stretches across the advice-giving spectrum, from dealing with the distractions of the campus, to forging community bonds in the face of hate.

A typical strand from the column talks about the “giant mistake” Grant made in considering classes, along with a major, as merely an avenue to a job. College should be a time to “follow your natural curiosity.” As he wrote, borrowing some advice from Mark Twain, “Don’t let school get in the way of your education.”

Even in his current role as a sort of advice columnist, Grant retains a zest for advice-gathering. (Though within limits: His parents, Beth Cohen Besner and Brad Besner, both ’84, avoid influencing his decisions, he says, “which may be a reason why I’ve invested so much in relationships with adult mentors on campus.”) For the inquisitive student, the student who loves collecting stories and experiences, advice comes from many directions. And it can come in ways that seems incidental or unintended.

Tennis, anyone? The two of us have become competitors across the net. My recommended reading to him has included David Foster Wallace’s tennis-driven collection of essays, String Theory. There’s a place in String Theory where Wallace is writing about wearing down a more nimble opponent. He’s employing a certain style of play—steady, nothing fancy: “He was a Slugger; I was a Slug.”

In our initial tennis encounters, Grant was a Slugger. He had shown the predictably reckless play of youth. Sadly for his athletic pride, that translated into balls smashed wildly out of bounds. No longer. My game—cautious, consistent, relentless, reliable—is now his game.

Power and speed? He’s given up on those attributes, he tells me. “Who knew that the advice I was seeking from you would benefit my tennis game?”

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  • As editor, Bliwise has overall responsibility for editorial direction and content and for representing the magazine to its various constituencies. He also teaches a seminar in magazine journalism through Duke’s Sanford School of Public Policy.