Oct 202017
 October 20, 2017

As the start date for the Young Women’s Empowerment Group at Durham School of the Arts approaches, I am re-thinking using the adjective, empowerment, as I did not consider how my own privileged identity may have influenced my previously positive perception of the term.

The Oxford dictionary defines empowerment as “the authority or power given to someone to do something” and “the process of becoming stronger and more confident, especially in controlling one’s life and claiming one’s rights.”  While empowerment has been used to describe a wide array of initiatives, in this post, I am going to argue that the popular use of “women’s empowerment” as an apparatus for social change presents numerous obstacles for the fight towards gender equality. Today’s concept of women’s empowerment ignores structural obstacles, blames women for their own secondary status, and also excludes many groups of women.

In order to critique the contemporary concept of women’s empowerment, it is important to examine its complicated history.  Barbara Solomon, in her 1976 publication of Black Empowerment: Social Work in Oppressed Communities, initiated the conversation of empowerment as a tool for assisting marginalized populations in expressing themselves and gaining power from a dominating class. In the 1970’s, empowerment began to gain agency “in research and intervention concerning marginalized groups such as African Americans, women, gays and lesbians, and people with disabilities.” (Calvès).  Throughout the 1990’s, particularly in Southeast Asia and Latin America, feminists latched onto “empowerment” as a tool for advancing women’s rights in international development.

Although feminists in the Global South, such as activist Srilatha Batliwala, argued that “power relationships can only be changed through… transforming the structures and institutions that reinforce and preserve existing power systems,” some liberal feminists were reluctant to acknowledge the culpability of institutionalized socio-political structures in perpetuating gender inequalities. (Calvès, Stanford Encyclopedia).  At the turn of the twenty-first century, liberal feminists advocated for empowerment that would enable women to realize the rights and privileges afforded to them by society and wield them to combat their own oppression.  I would argue that instead of this individualistic approach, liberal feminists should have instead placed a greater emphasis on questioning the lack of choices available to women and acknowledging systemic sources of oppression, such as sexism.

Furthermore, some feminists critique the liberal feminist model of empowerment as exclusionary, since only women already equipped with a certain level of power can further elevate their status.  A 2016 New York Times article, “How Empowerment Became Something Women Could Buy,” explains that “the ready partici­pation of well-off women in this [empowerment] strat­egy…are, by definition, already there.” As social scientist, Anne-Emmanuèle Calvès notes, “institutionalized programs for empowerment…often only benefit the women who are the least marginalized.”  I would argue that Sheryl Sandberg, Beyoncé, and even Wonder Woman, all sell a glamorized view of empowerment that excludes many women who would arguably benefit the most from it.

Oct 102017
 October 10, 2017

Last week Pratt professor and women’s global health advocate Dr. Nimmi Ramanujam, gave a talk on her recent invention: the pocket colposcope, expected to be a breakthrough tool in the fight against cervical cancer, making screenings more accessible and affordable.  But for Ramanujam, that there is an ongoing fight against cervical cancer is frustrating. Despite the HPV vaccine and early detection mechanism, cervical cancer remains common. According to the most-recent National Institute of Health data, there are 8.1 cases per 100,000 women in the United States. It is the fourth most common cancer for women world-wide.

Like many diseases that afflict only women, there are significant ethical and logistical challenges to overcoming them. Ramanujam attributed some of this gender gap to the nature of medical research. There is far less drug testing on women and female cadavers are used less frequently. Paradoxically these differences emerged as way to protect women (and their biological children) but are not clearly having unanticipated consequences.

Ramanujam’s argument is based in themes also present in the work of Colombian surgeon and artist, Dr. Libia Posada.  The doctors noted the importance of listening to the population that they would be assisting.  While developing the pocket colposcope, Ramanujam explained that she consulted physicians and patients in countries, such as Peru and India, whom she stated would be the primary beneficiaries of her invention. Posada believed that the Hippocratic oath entails not only going through the motions of examination and treatment, but also engaging with the patient. While I had contemplated this relationship in the context of service work, I had not realized that it may also act as a guiding principle for medicine.

I wondered if a motivating factor in the design of the pocket colposcope and Posada’s artwork was to emphasize compassion in the physician-patient relationship.  Indeed, Ramanujam explained that the pocket colposcope would eliminate the use of uncomfortable tools and the physical space that occurs between a physician and patient during a traditional colposcopy.  I questioned if the physical distance between the bodies of the physician and patient may be conducive to an emotional distance as well.

Intentionally using the white coloration throughout her artwork, Posada explained that for her this color symbolized the sterility of medicine.  I wondered if Posada also used this color to criticize the stoic relationship that can occur between physician and patient.

While listening to both female doctors describe their work, I thought they embodied what feminist theorist Carol Gilligan describes as an “ethic of care”.  Gilligan argues that women gravitate towards forming lateral relationships and that women are inclined to find strength in “nurture” and “interdependence”.  Prior to hearing these lectures, I was not as aware of the role that ethical concepts may play in shaping the medical field.



Sep 222017
 September 22, 2017

Having just taken the LSAT, I thought I would dedicate this week’s post to discussing some of the ethical issues which I encountered during my internship at the Durham District Attorney’s office. I am fascinated by how the legal system undergirds all of our political and social institutions and as a result, serves as a proxy for our moral values.  It was an eye-opening experience to be able to witness first- hand, the “conspiracy theory” that Michelle Alexander outlines in The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, laying out the case that the recent phenomenon of mass incarceration is part of a larger systematic effort to keep a disproportionate number of black and brown men behind bars.  Ironically, while the criminal justice system aims to strengthen and protect our communities, policies and decisions undermine trust, deepening racial divisions.

Even though less than 44 percent of Durham’s residents are black, in nearly every case I observed, the defendant was an African American man.  Alexander notes that the problem of mass incarceration stems from the fact that “black poor in ghetto communities makes the round-up easy” and indeed, Durham’s McDougald Terrace was cited over and over again as the scene of various crimes. Observing court cases, I also noticed the ethical dilemma that the judges, prosecutors, and defense attorneys faced while attempting to seek “justice” in a system that seems heavily contaminated with pervasive racial bias and structured to keep the same people cycling in and out of prison.

This tension surfaced in many juvenile court cases: almost every defendant was a young, black man, a fact seemingly inescapable to the judge and prosecutors constrained by the legal system in terms of adjudication. Studies show that white teenagers commit crimes at similar rate to minority offenders, but either evade detection or charges.  For example, many of the juveniles were convicted of non-violent misdemeanor offenses, such as shoplifting, possession of marijuana, or underage drinking, crimes that are committed by both black and white teenagers alike. In fact, according to a 2000 study by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, white juveniles use cocaine at seven times the rate of their black peers, they use crack cocaine at eight times the rate of black juveniles and they are seven times as likely to use. Furthermore, white youth ages 12-17 are more than thirty percent more likely to sell marijuana than black teens.  Nonetheless, the juvenile court room was characterized by an overarching sense of community and urgency in getting the juveniles “on the right track” in order to prevent them from having a permanent, adult record, oftentimes, the judges, at the request of parents, issuing lengthier sentences of probation and supervision “for the good of the child.”  As Chief District Court Judge James T. Hill repeatedly stated, “children belong in the classroom not in the Court House.”

However, prosecutors told me, that despite the actions the criminal justice system take, ostensibly for the benefit of the children who flow through the courthouse, many of the juveniles offenders would reappear, as adults, in the district court system.­

Sep 122017
 September 12, 2017

Earlier last week, Families Moving Forward hosted their after-school enrichment activity kick-off event.  The activity to promote the Young Women’s Empowerment club was for the young girls, who were all in elementary school, to cut out an image from a collection of magazines that they thought best represented their answer to “What does it mean to be a girl?”  Watching the girls flip through the glossy magazine pages filled with images of stick-skinny models or advertisements for make-up, highlighted consumerism’s restrictive definition of femininity. Indeed, the mass message that the media sends is that a woman’s value is tied to her sexuality and level of attractiveness.  According to the National Eating Disorders Association, 69% of elementary school girls report that pictures in magazines influence their idea of the “ideal body shape”. What I noticed most as the girls at Families Moving Forward were flipping through magazines pages, however, was not just how detrimental magazine images would be to a young woman’s self-esteem, regardless of her race, but especially how alienating they would be to a woman of color.  Besides the occasional picture of Rhianna or Beyonce, almost every feature and advertisement was of a white woman. Through the exclusionary content within the pages of Allure, Glamour, and Shape, Eurocentric standards of beauty are upheld as desirable, casting women of color as less than.


Indeed as journalist Maisha Johnson finds, while more publications are beginning to feature women of color, they still embody more Caucasian features, such as lighter skin or more relaxed hair.  Furthermore, recent research conducted at Duke found that “just the suggestion that an African-American person is of mixed heritage makes them more attractive to others.” As the study’s author, Robert Reece states, “It’s also just partially racism – the notion that black people are less attractive, so being partially not-black makes you more attractive.”

Although Black, Latina, Asian and Native American, comprise more than a third of the total U.S. population, a recent report of the demographic of New York Fashion week’s models revealed that 83% were white.  As Maisha Johnson writes, so according to the media, “it’s my skin color that’s wrong, not the limited selection of foundation colors.”

The poor representation of women and especially women of color, however, extends beyond the pages of ditsy beauty magazines. It is a media-wide phenomenon. According to a recent study conducted by the University of Southern California, when women are actually on the screen, they are four times more likely to be in “sexy attire, three times more likely to show some nudity and nearly four times as likely to be referred to as physically attractive.”  The American Society for News Editors reports that less 30% of news reporters are women and that less than 5% are Latina, Asian or African American women. Furthermore, the USC study found that NONE of the film distributors evaluated, including Walt Disney, received a passing grade for inclusion of gender, sexual identity or race.  This is especially problematic considering the fact that Walt Disney’s primary audience is young, impressionable children.

Although popular TV shows, such as Scandal and How to Get Away with Murder, have received fairly positive reviews for making strides towards representing women of color in prominent roles, many more, such as Orange is the New Black and reality TV shows, such as Basketball Wives and Real Housewives of Atlanta, still depend on negative, stereotypical portrayals of Black women.  Essence surveyed over one thousand women about the images of black women in media and found that respondents felt the images were “overwhelmingly negative,” falling typically into categories including: “Gold Diggers… Baby Mamas…Ratchet Women… Angry Black Women… Mean Black Girls, Unhealthy Black Women, and Black Barbies.” Considering the powerful influence that the media exerts throughout our lives, the grossly disproportionate negative portrayal of African American women is extremely concerning.

Through activities designed to boost self-esteem and monthly meetings with diverse women mentors, the Young Women’s Empowerment Group will work to combat the negative stereotypes that the media and society perpetuate


Sep 072017
 September 7, 2017

To start things off, I will begin by telling you a little bit about me. I just graduated from Duke, majored in Political Science with History and Women’s Studies minors, as well as the Political Science, Philosophy and Economics certificate. I am fascinated by the interdisciplinary connections between politics and social justice and am extremely interested in issues involving women and children, as well as the criminal justice system. Over the summer, I interned at the Durham District Attorney’s office where I was able to observe various aspects of the criminal justice system, such as jury selection for a homicide trial, several domestic violence cases, and juvenile court hearings.  However, I will save my experience at the District Attorney’s office for a later post!

During my first week at Kenan, I was immediately propelled into Project Change, a week-long pre-orientation program in which incoming freshman students are exposed to ethical issues that are especially pertinent to the Durham area.

As a quasi-leader, I decided to latch onto the cohort of freshman who were placed at Families Moving Forward, a homeless shelter downtown that provides families temporary shelter for up to ninety days and then provides continuing services to help facilitate an easier transition for the family back into the community.  Although FMF welcomes two- parent households, the majority of the families are single mothers with young children.  During our time at the shelter, we were charged with soliciting donations from local businesses for one of FMF’s fundraisers (photo of FMF underneath).

Prior to journeying down 9th Street and into the Brightleaf district, we were cautioned to avoid using the word “homeless” in our pitch in order to prevent the immediate negatively-charged reaction that the word engenders.   Indeed, some have pointed out that we treat stray cats and dogs with greater respect than a homeless person. Why does homelessness carry such a strong stigma?

Furthermore, who or what causes homelessness in the first place?

Wrestling with these questions and being the Poli Sci major that I am, I instantly thought about American philosopher John Rawls’s theory of justice.  Rawls’ postulated that a “veil of ignorance” or an oblivion as to what our role and position in society would be should guide how we construct societal and political institutions. It is implied that the rational person would want to live in a society that would be habitable and tolerable no matter what family he or she were born into. Clearly, however, with more than three million people estimated to experience homelessness every year, with about fifteen million children living below the poverty line, and with more than thirty million Americans still without basic health insurance, the veil of ignorance has done little to guide social policies.

If we did not know how much money we would make, what the color of our skin would be, or the possible challenges life would throw at us, wouldn’t we want to live in the most supportive society possible?

In addition to the inequalities that neo-liberal institutions present for impoverished populations, they also result in undeniable inequality between the sexes.  Throughout my young adult life, I have become increasingly aware, even hyper-cognizant, of the disadvantages that women face on a day-to-day basis.  As a white woman, I know that I will most likely be earning 74 cents for every dollar that my male peers earn and for Black and Latina women, that figure is significantly less.  In addition to the economic disadvantages that women face, they are also subjected to much more physical and sexual harm. Tragically, more than twenty percent of women will experience severe violence by an intimate partner in their lifetimes.   Although I recognize that my identity as a woman disadvantages me to a certain extent, I am also aware that many doors are open to me that are shut for other young women.  I know that I will always have a roof over my head, food to eat, and a college degree.  In addition, I have been fortunate enough to be surrounded by strong, powerful female mentors.  The network of women that I have has been invaluable to me and something that I want to provide other young women in the Durham community with as well.

For the first “installment” of my ongoing project, I will be leading a Young Women’s Empowerment group at FMF that will provide an enriching experience for the young women residing at FMF as well as the Duke student volunteers that will help guide the program.  One segment will feature a “Woman of the Month” day in which women in the community, such as Judges and physicians, will share their experiences and careers with the participants of the Young Women’s Empowerment Program.  Furthermore, I want to interview our featured women in order to preserve their stories in the Sallie Bingham Library, adding to the growing collection of interviews of powerful women.  By fostering these connections between the young women at FMF, Duke students, and female leaders in the community, I hope to create an enriching, positive, and uplifting experience for all those involved.  Eventually, I plan to enlarge my network of Young Women’s Empowerment groups to other locations around Durham, such as Durham School of the Arts.

While I am confident that my project will be beneficial as it will build community amongst the young women residing at FMF and also help bridge the divide between Duke and Durham, I am also anticipating several challenges.  Perhaps the most forthcoming challenge that I expect, will be the fluctuation in the Young Women’s Empowerment group population. Many of the young women at FMF will most likely be in the program for less than ninety days.  Furthermore, with such an oscillating and dynamic group, it may be more difficult to build trust between members.  And finally, while we all hold a common identity as women, the stark contrast in life experiences between the young women at FMF and the Duke student volunteers may impose additional obstacles to fostering trust.

During my year as a Bear fellow, I am excited to see how my project unfolds and develops, engage with the questions that I have left unanswered, and depart with a better understanding of what it means to lead an ethical life.


Sep 012016
 September 1, 2016

As I sat down to write my final Kenan Insider blog post, I reread the 29 weekly posts from the past year. I was reminded of how diverse my year has been. The Kenan Insider has given me a way to document my journey through the year and the process of connecting my experiences back to ethics and Kenan’s mission.   Over the past year, I tried to emulate a sponge soaking up information. After many talks, however, I was left with more questions than I had come with and few answers. Writing for the blog helped me work through this uncertainty.

In my time as the Stephen and Janet Bear Postgraduate Fellow at the Kenan Institute for Ethics this year, I have had the opportunity to explore the intersection of food, culture, and ethics. The position allowed me to draw on past experiences and study new challenges. I have worked on two farms that are environments where ethics guides their missions: the Ohio City Farm, an organization that works with resettled refugees, and the Duke Campus Farm, which, like Kenan, facilitates interdisciplinary ways of approaching learning. The time I spent on these farms unintentionally foregrounded the events I planned at Kenan. Mentors from both farms were able to lend me their expertise to bring in speakers about southern hospitality and food and understand how farming can be utilized as a form of empowerment.

As I began the position last summer, I was adjusting not only to how to deal with the sweltering heat but also adjusting to Duke without the support of the majority of my recent undergraduate peers. No longer required to attend class, I was released from the pressure to take copious notes, to write a paper, or to be tested on the subject matter. I felt like I was able to pursue my own interests and learn for learning’s sake. I spent my first month at Kenan researching everything there was to know about foods and ethics. Some of the topics I had been exposed to through undergraduate classes; others I discovered as I took new paths on the research trail. As part of my research, I met with the Duke Farm staff and academics at Duke and joined the Duke food working group to gain a scholar’s perspective. I also examined different government programs and national, regional, and municipal food and water issues (and their connections to human rights), in addition to what corporations were doing to tackle these same issues. The quantity of information was overwhelming. However, with the help of others, I was able to continually refine and focus in on more chewable sized topics.

My goal was to discover ways to communicate through food themes the ethical choices students make each day as they choose what to eat on campus, to find potential speakers to bring new perspectives to campus, and to design programming that would get engage the Duke community in a rich dialogue not yet taking place on such a crucial topic. In turning this research into programming proposals for the year, I learned how difficult it is to zero in on a more finite topic and how to work within resource constraints. As I began to plan and implement the programs, including the annual film series and a series of events that included diverse panels and an interactive refugee-cooking workshop, I learned how to think through these topics and how to engage others in doing likewise. In the process, I became a more ethically intelligent person—one with tangible skills making things happen.

One of the most memorable things I did as a Bear Postgraduate Fellow was the Free Food Challenge. Many of my friends thought it was a joke when they heard that I was eating free food for an entire month, a manifestation of my natural extreme frugality. Despite the initial chuckles about the project and questions about the logistics of “surviving” for a month on the free food offered at academic events at Duke, my friends eventually were impressed by the purpose of the project and framework of rules I set for myself. The rule that was the least difficult was to engage with audience members and speakers — I needed to discuss the challenge with one or more participants, and also explore the topic that was being presented at the event. Critically thinking about how the unrelated talks I was attending each day connected to one another was a much harder rule to follow, but helped me to hone my critical thinking skills.

This year has given me the opportunity to explore what it means to see ethics in every aspect of living. I have taken the mission of Kenan to heart, and it has shaped the way I think. Each of the aspects of my position, be it research and program planning, writing, or helping students run the Ethics Couch, has contributed to my development as an adult and my decision making about the next paths on which I will venture. Right now, my next big step is my move to Dublin, Ireland in September. Although I have no set job plans, I have some leads related to food and ethics. Despite the uncertainty of my next move, I am certain that the experiences I have gained from Kenan over the past five years will allow me to adapt to anything Ireland (and life) has to throw at me.

Jun 202016
 June 20, 2016

As a freshman I participated in Kenan’s LEAPED DukeImmerse program. Whenever I describe the program, I talk about the field research component – how we visited Bhutanese refugee camps in Damak, Nepal and collected life story interviews. While the travel part of the program is the easiest to describe to others, the preparation for the travel and ethnographic research aspect is something I rarely talk about, but that I constantly reflect on.

Leading up to the travel in Nepal, I learned about the importance of capturing personal moments and landscapes while being mindful of consent. As a rule of thumb, we were taught not to use the zoom lens on the Kenan cameras that we carried around while in the camps – zooming meant that we should move closer, so subjects were aware of the picture being captured. If we could not get the shot without a zoom, then we were being intrusive unbeknownst to the subjects. Another lesson that we were taught as researchers: we are “always in the field.” We should not leave refugee camps and forget to observe and take field notes, nor should we use zoom lenses on our personal cameras. As a reminder, we had matching string “always in the field” bracelets.

These lessons have stuck with me over the past five years. Now, be it a research project or a holiday I am taking with my family or friends, I am conscious of my presence and how I take photos. I also always carry a field notebook to make observations and quick sketches.

I recently took a trip to Greece and Turkey with my parents and a friend. Despite being excited to go hiking and see Byzantine and ancient Greek architecture, I was apprehensive. Apprehensive to see what the situation on the ground was like for incoming refugees, having read many news articles. Apprehensive to be traveling and seeing similar sites that many migrants might pass through on a completely different journey. Wondering if I could be both a tourist with the intention of focusing on ancient historical sites and ancient conflicts, yet learn too about Greece’s current situation and its struggles as it is overwhelmed by more than 57,000 refugees and migrants bottlenecked in the country, largely due to Macedonia’s border closure in March.


Graffiti at a ferry pier in Greece

We did not notice refugees in Greece until we took a wrong exit heading to the ferryboat pier.   We drove past a group of tents with apparent refugees in the woods beside a decrepit gas station. From that moment on, though, I became much more aware of their presence, albeit slightly hidden. They were near the our hotel, in abandoned buildings on a side street that the concierge said to avoid; they were near the port, just off the highways; they were in the commercial square of Athens as we bought pastry for breakfast. Until taking a wrong exit as we headed to a ferryboat, more apparent than an influx of refugees was that city looked economically depressed: graffiti everywhere, stray cats and dogs, and parks and facilities from the 2004 Athens Olympics that bore the traces of a once well-kept facilities that had been left to slowly degenerate. It was apparent that Athens was in need of the money that tourism brings. Vendors echoed this sentiment and said it was difficult to keep their businesses a float. In addition, the local population was not consuming as much with the minimum wage at about €4 an hour.

Turkey looked better than Greece, at first blush.   We arrived in Istanbul at night and ventured out to Taksim Square to grab a bite to eat. Despite it being 10pm, there was lots of activity and many restaurants were open for dinner. As we walked through the square we passed folks gathered around flower vendors, toy vendors, musicians, and just enjoying the weather. Yet, unlike Greece, where refugees were “out of sight and out of mind,” mothers were sitting with children with containers in front of them ready for offerings. They did not come up to people passing by to ask for money. It seemed they were embarrassed to ask. I did not take a picture or make a quick sketch because both gestures felt intrusive and wrong.   However, the image of mothers holding their children will forever be imprinted in my mind. Shopkeepers told us how hard life was becoming now that tourism was down 27% from the prior year. And our visit was a week before the June 7 bombing of the area around city’s historic Beyazit Square neighborhood (a major tourist attraction) that will undoubtedly further frighten potential visitors from travel to Istanbul.

While I did not resolve my unease of traveling as a tourist who is focusing on historic sites, yet who is aware of the current refugee situation and the plight migrants to Greece and Turkey face, I did find myself thinking a lot about difference between my situation and others. For example, we visited Crete via ferryboat. Nearly at the same time, one June 3, about 340 migrants were rescued and nine bodies were pulled from the sea after a boat capsized in the Mediterranean Sea, 75 nautical miles (140km) south of Crete. I could not stop imagining the conditions these individuals faced on that boat, or the small dinghies that refugees are packed into to flee to Greece. In contrast, our party of four had a small room with two bunks and a private toilet with a shower.

I did try to maintain an “in the field” mindset, I did not see the trip to Greece and Turkey as a vacation that was a complete escape and disengagement from the world and the problems associated with daily life. Rather, it was an opportunity to see firsthand how two nations are meeting the challenge of assimilating some of the world’s 65.3 million refugees in 2015, as reported today by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) (a 5.8 million increase from 2014). Kenan’s teaching of an “always in the field” ethos has changed the way that I approach foreign travel, I think, for the better.

Jun 132016
 June 13, 2016

For the past week I have had flashbacks to the end of high school and the agonizing process of writing a paper worthy enough that a college would allow me to attend. ­­I have been helping my good college friend brainstorm different ways to draft her medical school essay demonstrating her desire to become a doctor. My friend was trying to seek the optimal way of distinguishing herself from other applicants. She was worried about the cliché that she was entering the profession “to help people.” That was one of her motivations, but she feared that many applicants would have the same goal.

My friend had many examples related as to why she was interested in medicine and wanted to be a doctor. However, at first glance her vignettes appeared unrelated and disjointed. After some serious brainstorming, we determined that they had the central theme of crying. She used crying to as a thematic link to create a cohesive paper.

She sent the personal statement to her mom, sister, our high school English teacher, and some of our friends from college to give feedback and constructive criticism. Everyone loved the statement, as it captured my friend’s intellectual and general curiosity, her sincere desire to help others, and her insightfulness that medicine is wonderful but by no means a magical cure-all profession.

Her health policy mentor was not that impressed. He was concerned that medical school admissions officers would read the essay and consider the crying theme as “too feminine.” Upon learning that my friend was going to rework the entire essay to fit into his concept of the ideal candidate, I was indignant that she should abandon her sincere analysis of why she was choosing medicine. Was I mad because this was a man critiquing my friend’s piece? If a woman had said it was “too feminine,” would I have been equally upset? What the heck does too feminine even mean!?!

As I watched her essay go through five more revisions, I saw my friend bend over backwards to try and appease everyone’s opinion of who the ideal candidate should be, what characteristics they should possess, and aspirations they should have. Some readers thought that she should demonstrate her detached analytical ability. Others liked her ability to show empathy toward patient care. My friend became increasingly reluctant to finish her essay as each new reader had a different mold that they wanted her to fit into.

Watching her agony led me to think about why, to be accepted, we need to pander to who others want us to be. We shape our image to conform to what we think other people are looking for. My friend was struggling with how to stay competitive with such an enormous applicant pool that all want the same thing and are all extremely qualified. The difficulty was imagining what the competition might write about, so as to write something different, and simultaneously imagine the ideal qualities of young physicians-in-training as medical school admissions people might see them.

Fitting in and being accepted as one of the team is a skill we all have to learn. As we transition into new and unfamiliar spaces, we feel the pressure to revision our self-concept. Different groups shape our identity and our priorities through selection.

Some of my friends struggle with the concept of “being fake,” the idea of changing our outward actions to fit the mold of what others feel most comfortable around. It feels unauthentic initially to “put on a face” for new groups. However, I recognize this as a necessary measure we have to adopt to make forward progress getting to know anyone. When we show a commonality with others, even if it at first feels insincere, it facilitates the opportunity to connect and bridge our differences. We need the ability to see things from others’ perspectives so we can share our humanity. I believe that human beings have the capacity for multiple genuine faces.

Thus, reflecting on my initial reaction to her male mentor’s comments, I could more objectively understand why he critiqued her work. Although I disagree with how his criticism was framed, he was able to share the perspective of how a gendered reader might view the essay.

May 172016
 May 17, 2016

One of the main reasons that I chose to come to Duke for college was for the weather.  Hailing from Cleveland, Ohio, I’m used to erratic weather.  Hence, when my sister sent me a video of snow in Cleveland this weekend (May 14-15), I was reminded again why I live in Durham, the city that (usually) provides perfect weather for graduation.  All weekend long, we had warm, but not too hot weather, sun, and clear skies.  My graduating roommates have funny-looking tan lines from their excursions to the gardens and forgetting to put on sunscreen with their mortarboards.

With the undergraduate and Kenan’s Ethic Certificate Program graduation ceremonies, there was much “free food” to collect.  The Tupperware that I now bring to most events out of habit from my Free Food Challenge in the fall semester filled up quickly.  Much to my roommates’ chagrin, our refrigerator is way too crowded with leftovers.  However, another more important result of attending the assortment of ceremonies was being able to snap pictures and listen to all the speeches and remarks.  It seemed as though all the speakers wanted to squeeze in last minute tidbits of wisdom before the graduates slipped away.  As I listened to these final messages, I noticed that all of the speeches had a similar underlying theme: pride.

Pride that graduates had made it to this day; pride that students had picked the best department; pride that they were graduating from “the greatest institution in the world.”

It seems important to visibly denote the end of a life chapter and the start of a new one. Otherwise, we may not recognize that we have moved forward.  The physical reminder of a degree, the diploma, or the cap and gown we wear at graduation allow us to take stock of what we have accomplished. It’s both hard to get into Duke and hard to stay—the coursework is demanding; you have to work hard.  Degrees and awards represent the hard work and challenges overcome.  The graduation ceremony is the pat on the back on a job well done.  It also allows family and friends to celebrate with us a milestone to which they were an integral part of getting us.   All the frills and formalities are just as much for the parents as for the graduates.

Graduations also come with mentors for the future — models of who we might emulate with our new degrees.  These are the speakers who are highly acclaimed for what they have accomplished.  They try to inspire us to action, yet due to the blur of the graduation day — running from convocation, to major/minor/certificate ceremonies, picture taking, and switching a tassel from right to left — we remember that there was a speech, yet we often cannot recall the message itself.  Rather, we remember the sun shining, the crowds of our fellow graduates who we may not see again, and trying to move out all our things amidst the hullabaloo of the weekend.

Since I was not graduating this year, I was able to concentrate more on the speakers’ messages during the ceremonies.  I found that they consistently applauded Duke University for its institutional reputation and the quality of its programs.  Listening to all the rhetoric of pride for being distinctly Duke, I was not sure if I should be “distinctly” proud of the fact that I am a Duke and Kenan graduate.  Certainly, my Duke degrees are “valuable” in the sense that people assume certain things about me by dint of having received a degree from an elite university (sometimes the things assumed are less good).  As I stated, a Duke degree is testament to the hard work required to earn one.  I was raised to be proud of the things I had worked hard at.  But with this degree from a highly-selective University comes the risk of elitism, something I am less proud of.

Nearly all the different orators in their graduation remarks were selling how great Duke was. Almost as if being part of the institution was better than the hard work that has gone into earning the degree.  Yet, what I also heard repetitively was that Duke gives its graduates a critical lens to look at the world and our everyday interactions with others. Whether it’s a critical lens from the Women’s Studies Department, the School of the Environment, or the Kenan Ethics Institute (the three ceremonies I attended this year), those who attended Duke will be able to analyze, problem solve, and voice opinions.
It still seems like a giant fluke that I ended up with a degree from such a fantastic establishment. One of my roommate’s grandparent kept saying the whole weekend “you all are so smart and gonna go so far in life.  You are just so intelligent and lucky you went to such a great school like Duke.” It is easy to think that you’re average in a fishbowl like Duke, surrounded by so many intelligent folks all day everyday.  But the “lucky” part has really stuck with me.  I constantly feel as though I have won the lottery having gone to Duke.   And I feel compelled to do something worthwhile with this prize.   If this credential doesn’t get put into practice in some way later,I will have to wonder what it was for. I think it’s important to take stock of what we have and make sure we persevere utilize this winning lotto ticket to do good .As Coach K said in his commencement speech about teamwork and perseverance, we Duke graduates must to move forward as “good persons.”


May 132016
 May 13, 2016

Around the office it’s been unusually quiet.  Due to the Kenan baby boom, there are fewer staff members in the building and with finals done most students are staying far away from academic buildings.  Many students have headed for the beach to get some rest and relaxation before they go off to their various internships, DukeEngage programs, or other assorted plans.  Hopefully during this time students will get a break to get their book lists that have been pushed aside, or catch up on TV shows neglected during the semester.

Seniors are getting ready to graduate this weekend and leave Durham.  I also feel like I’m in the same boat as my year-long will soon conclude.  Right now I’m in that brief interlude that precedes a rollercoaster plunging downhill.  You know you’re secured safely in your seat because brilliant engineers, mechanics and safety officers have worked to design this thrilling adventure.  But, your gut is in this ominous state of not knowing what’s going on before things return to normal.  Your head tells you that everything will be fine in a few seconds but your gut can’t take a hint.

LinkedIn founder, Reid Hoffman, wrote an article In Startups and Life, You Need Plan A, B, and Z.  As the title suggests, Hoffman recommends having backup plans for you backup plans.  He emphasizes the importance of being a flexible yet persistent individual to accomplish the things you want to do.  While I currently have a Plan A, B, and “Z” for the next year, I often feel totally lost about what my long-term plan should be. During a break in our recent spring Advisory Board meeting, one of the Kenan Board Members explained to me that most recent grads have to balance the trifecta: fulfillment at work, lifestyle, and location.  Typically most will not “have it all” and have to figure out which things are the most important.  In my case, during this next year I have been completely uncompromising on my “location.”  I will be in Ireland for a year, be it via my Plan A working for a non-profit and picking up a part time gig, Plan B attending a year-long graduate program, or Plan Z wwoofing.   While I continue to wait for opportunities to shake out, I’m excited and hopeful for this next chapter of my life.  I can only wish the many graduating seniors the same excitement for whatever lies next in their lives plans or no plans.  Congratulations Class of 2016!

Congrats 2016!