What it takes to be a winner

Eight was a big number for Duke this past academic year. It's the unusually hefty count of student recipients of postgraduate international fellowships. Here those students reflect on undergraduate experiences, from working to contain a tropical disease to researching the history of the book, that were particularly meaningful for them—and that helped propel them to standout status.
June 13, 2018

In my sophomore spring, I spontaneously signed up for an “Archives Alive” course titled “History of the Book.” I worked with an eighteenth-century manuscript in the Rubenstein Library and pieced together the stories of those who had owned it through the years. The comprehensive nature of this kind of “detective work” got me hooked on archival research, and I began my own independent research of similar manuscripts. When it came time for me to propose a senior thesis, the Rubenstein allowed me to combine my passion for classics with my newfound love of the archives: My thesis traces the development of papyrology in the U.S., and the Rubenstein houses the records of the American Society of Papyrologists, along with the papers of esteemed historian Michael Rostovtzeff, who worked extensively with papyri. I credit my experiences with archival research for not only training me as a researcher but also for giving me a visceral reminder of the human element of history. —Gabi Stewart, Rhodes Scholar

Collecting oral histories through my senior thesis has been the perfect culmination of my four years at Duke. As an ROTC cadet and council member of the Duke Program in American Grand Strategy, I’ve studied the military’s role in foreign affairs. But after learning that the single greatest indicator of a state’s peacefulness is how its women are treated, I wanted to know why women’s empowerment wasn’t the most important consideration in our conflict-resolution efforts. I was also curious about the positive impact women are having in regions of conflict. I identified three countries in three different states of conflict: Afghanistan was my in-conflict case; Israel, my conflict-ridden civil society case; and Rwanda, my post-conflict case. My goal was to capture women’s stories in their most honest form and to celebrate some of their accomplishments that have gone largely unrecognized. I heard stories of women in Afghanistan, for example, defending their schools against terrorist groups. Those oral histories opened my eyes to my own capacity to influence positive change as a leader. —Amy Kramer, Schwarzman Scholar

The Baldwin Scholars Program taught me to abandon the idea of being a “good girl” and comfortably own the idea of being a confident, bold woman. Everything I had done before Duke had been to fulfill my role as perfect daughter to immigrant parents who, hoping to offer me the world, had sacrificed their own goals. I couldn’t afford to take risks if it meant not following the course charted out for me. But Baldwin mentors and peers taught me about indifference to healthy sexual relationships and left me determined to create a Sexual Health Resource Center on campus. Following Baldwin conversations around independence, I worked with a team in Ethiopia, through DukeEngage, to understand what secondary schools needed from their sexual-health curriculum materials. My goal was to provide a new, culturally appropriate curriculum, even as I struggled with wanting to include themes that—in a country where homosexuality is illegal—weren’t culturally accepted. —Riyanka Ganguly, Schwarzman Scholar (below, left)

The director of the Program in American Grand Strategy, Peter Feaver, stresses that college is important for the relationships we forge and the initiative we take. As a sophomore, I found myself organizing the AGS staff ride to Grenada—a deep dive into the 1983 U.S. intervention on the island. I played the role of Captain (today General) John Abizaid, who was among the first paratroopers deployed in the assault. I not only had to outline the key details relevant to my character’s experience; I also had to defend his decisions on the ground, whether right or wrong. Abizaid’s push to lead his company on an immediate offensive northward seemed foolhardy at the time. But that decision ended up saving many American lives by destroying the Cuban anti-aircraft guns. In the classroom, it’s easy to condemn mistakes or celebrate heroism. During the staff ride, I learned a different form of analysis—examining the root causes of decision-making and inhabiting the perspective of a leader who has to make difficult judgment calls with imprecise information. —Aron Rimanyi, Schwarzman Scholar (above, right)

What most inspired me at Duke wasn’t the Gothic stone but rather the workers who, every graveyard shift, cooked and cleaned. In my four years there, I made so many lasting friendships: McDonald’s staff who invited me to family quinceañeras; bus drivers who taught me “You don’t know where you’re going, until you know where you’ve been”; housekeepers who talked with me, over 5 a.m. coffee, about organizing strategies for unions. While I am indebted beyond measure to the countless faculty who have mentored me, I emphasize the staff, because they, overwhelmingly Latinx and African American, reminded me where I came from. This community taught me to fine-tune my advocacy, to be a better leader. In them, I saw my father, returning from work with his waiter’s vest every night, with a commitment to provide for his family. Every time I ordered a McCafe, I saw my parents’ generation, laying the foundation for their children behind kitchen fumes and industrial-strength sprays. It was with their struggle in mind that being president of La Unidad Latina, Lambda Upsilon Lambda Fraternity Inc., was so rewarding. Our small cadre organized LARP (Latino/a Access to Higher Education Recruitment Program), a four-day, annual school trip for sixth-to-eighth-graders to visit and experience our university. We do this work because we hold steadfast to the belief that when they see us here, they can see themselves here, too. —Antonio Lopez ’16, Marshall Scholar

In the spring of my sophomore year, I had the good fortune to meet Professor Douglas Campbell, who encouraged me to pursue a graduate certificate in Duke Divinity School’s Prison Studies Program. I then took a course in which, alongside inmates at Butner Federal Prison, we examined the modern applications of Gandhi’s teachings. My final paper explored the manifestation of Gandhi’s notion of ahimsa—the principle of dynamic, indomitable nonviolence toward all living things—as it plays out in restorative justice. The most interesting exchange I had all semester occurred after our first class. I struck up a conversation with an older inmate who had committed a slew of armed robberies as a young man; his past forty-one years had been spent in prison. Long ago, he said, he had outgrown his penchant for crime, and he had much to offer society. It was a revelation to see the shortcomings of our criminal justice system through the eyes of men captured in its grip. Jackson Skeen, Mitchell Scholar

One day, I happened to watch a video on schistosomiasis, the deadliest of what the World Health Organization classifies as “neglected tropical diseases” (NTDs). I wanted to learn more. I scraped together money from a few grants to fund a summer working on a public-health control program for schistosomiasis in Tanzania. I recall speaking with one old man in particular. He had grown up in the area and once hoped to send his two little girls to college. He could not afford to pay their primary-school fees; his disability from chronic schistosomiasis infection had robbed him of his wage-earning capacity. In him, I saw glimmers of my own grandparents, who had once lived in a rural farming village in China. I came to realize that while NTDs don’t kill people, they kill hopes and dreams. I’ve also done mathematical modeling around NTDs. That’s revealed to me that simply treating individuals with NTDs is insufficient: People become re-infected. Preventive vaccines need to be developed, and my hope is to make that my life’s work. —John Lu, Marshall Scholar

Through Program II, Duke’s design-your-own curriculum, I’ve been able to tackle a core question: What does brain function or dysfunction tell us about ourselves? I sliced through both human and animal brain tissue to find the anatomical structures that allow us to move, think, and feel. Program II also led me to Oxford, where I lived above a bagel and ice-cream café in the heart of the city. I spent the days conducting empirical neuroethics research and meeting academic stars, while spending the evenings running in Oxford’s cow- and duck-friendly meadows. Just this past year, I ran my own qualitative study in Kathmandu, interviewing more than fifty doctors and medical students to investigate their thoughts on mental health. As I write my thesis, I draw from epidemiology, anthropology, neuroscience, ethics, global health, and more to flesh out an understanding of phenomena like stigma and social suffering. I find myself returning to the conflicts between free will and determinism, global and local cultures, theory and practice. I’ve gained so much knowledge while working in diverse academic and physical spaces; yet I’m left with these aching, fundamental ponderings on self, subjectivity, and humanity. —Meghana Vagwala, Marshall Scholar