Kenan Moral Purpose Award Benner

What role does a liberal arts education play in creating a full life? Duke senior Kimberly Perez and UNC-Chapel Hill senior Adesh Ranganna provide answers in their Kenan Moral Purpose Award-winning essays, given to the best student papers on the topic from the two schools. In her essay, “Knowledge is Power,” Perez reflected on how her coursework at Duke led her to both dig deeper into and reconsider questions of faith and religious belonging. Ranganna used his essay, “What Ignorance Reveals,” to explore how studying Rawls’ philosophy of justice changed his perspective on what makes public health interventions just and fair.

Kimberly Perez, T’19 (Major in International Comparative Studies with Minors in Chemistry and Global Health), “Knowledge is Power

Adesh Ranganna, UNC ’19 (Majors in Nutrition and Public Policy with a Minor in Chemistry), “What Ignorance Reveals

The annual Kenan Moral Purpose Award is given for the best undergraduate student essay on the role a liberal arts education plays in students’ exploration of the personal and social purposes by which to orient their future and the intellectual, emotional, and moral commitments that make for a full life. Established in honor of the Institute’s 15th anniversary at Duke and subsequently expanded, the award represents a partnership with the Parr Center for Ethics at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, with one winner selected from each school. 


2018 Award Winners

The winners of the 2018 Kenan Moral Purpose Award essay competition are Catherine Ward (Duke) and Keegan Barnes (UNC). Catherine (T’18) is a resident of New Bern and will graduate with an English major, an Education minor, and a certificate in Ethics & Society. Keegan (’19) is a Durham native double-majoring in Physics and Philosophy.
“Duke has given me opportunities to see the world and study oppression occurring at home and abroad…We need to take the time, after problematizing everything, to build things back up.”  — Catherine Ward, Duke ’18
“If we were both settled in our views, why spend the time engaging at all? …I pieced together why I found such meaning in these discussions. Usually, they weren’t centered on what, but how… Morality, which we both took so seriously, was somewhat of a bridge between our two very different world views.”  — Keegan Barnes, UNC ’19
Read their 2018 winning essays:
Catherine Ward (Duke ’18): “Building It Back Up” and Keegan Barnes (UNC ’19): “Plastic Pitchfork

Meet the 2019 Kenan Summer Fellows


Kenan Summer Fellows

Congratulations to the 2019 Kenan Summer Fellows

What does it mean to live an ethical life?

Kenan Summer Fellows spend a summer exploring—in a variety of ways—the answers to the question: What does it mean to live an ethical life? A Summer Fellow might design a project at home or abroad, implement a community-based intervention, compose a musical, volunteer with an NGO, write a play, or curate an art exhibition. Summer experiences can and do provide a thoughtful, novel perspective of how to live an ethical life.

Read the Kenan Summer Fellows blogs


Noah Breuss-Burgess

Noah Breuss-Burgess Kenan Summer Fellow


Noah is a first-year undergraduate from London, currently undecided but interested in majoring in ICS and Religious Studies, with a certificate in Documentary Studies. I am an active member in my campus ministry, Every Nation Campus, a keen participant in Crux Conversations, and write for FORM Magazine. He will explore what it means to live the Christian ethical life, and specifically how the Christian notion of absolute Truth interacts with an increasingly secular world – i.e. how do Christians approach their responsibility to share Truth with others? He will explore this question through engaging with the core beliefs, practices and experiences of various Christian communities in North Carolina and London, UK.



Alex Johnson

Alex Johnson Kenan Summer Fellow

Alex is a sophomore studying Public Policy and French. She loves reading and baby goats. She is researching best practices for reporters to ethically interview vulnerable populations. She will be coming up with guidelines for these practices and interviewing refugees from the Democratic Republic of Congo to show that ethical reporting can also be interesting. 


Anna Kasradze

Anna Kasradze Kenan Summer Fellow

Anna Kasradze is a Georgian-American sophomore from Houston, Texas. She studies literature and Russian, and is especially interested in literature’s construction and deconstruction of the mentally ill subject. Her project explores how works by Nikolai Gogol and Daniil Kharms subvert the psychiatric case history and propose alternative paradigms for madness. She hopes to better understand how Russian literature engaged with the ethics of psychiatric practice in Tsarist Russia and the advent of psychoanalysis. Her faculty mentor is Carol Apollonio and her project is based in Moscow, Russia.

Lucas Lynn

Lucas Lynnn Kenan Summer Fellow

Lucas is a Trinity freshman from Wetumpka, Alabama pursuing a Program II major consisting of cultural anthropology, statistical science, and mechanical engineering geared towards mixed-methods problem solving. On campus, he is a member of Air Force ROTC, marching band, basketball pep band, and Spire Fellows. He will be staying at and conducting miniature ethnographies of three homeless communities and six tiny-home homeless communities across the United States. Through interviews and observations, he will examine the successes and pitfalls of these communities while he tries to define what home truly is for American homeless communities.

Taylor Plett

Taylor Plett Kenan Summer Fellow

Taylor is a rising junior from southern California studying English, documentary, and public policy. At Duke, she focuses on impactful storytelling through a variety of artistic mediums, with particular emphasis on communicating the human stories at the heart of environmental issues. Her project will take her to Stockholm, Brussels, and Zurich, where she’ll interview the young activists of the school strikes for climate change as modeled by Greta Thunberg. Beyond investigating the why and how of these large-scale, student-led strikes spreading across borders, Taylor hopes to illustrate the distinct experience of being an aware but politically powerless child facing the apocalyptic outcomes of the climate crisis.

Audrey Vila

Audrey Vila Kenan Summer Fellow

Audrey is a rising junior studying Public Policy and History. She is originally from Seattle, and she loves to travel and explore places around the globe to learn about other cultures. Her project is a comparative study of Durham, Seattle, and Brooklyn to engage with community members affected by gentrification and displacement while analyzing policy within the greater context of local racial history. She seeks to find and help preserve the displaced community strength and culture that is often overlooked in the primary narrative of gentrification. Through interviews, community members are given the opportunities to share their stories, ones that have too often been silenced and ignored, and the interactions with policymakers, activists, and journalists are an effort to promote change through the lived experience of those closest to the issues.

Walter Sinnott-Armstrong: What we can do to Reduce Polarization and Extremism

Chauncey Stillman Professor of Practical Ethics Walter Sinnott-Armstrong recently penned an essay in Aeon. Following up on some of the points he put forward in his most recent book Think Again: How to Reason and Argue, he talks about how easy it is to develop extremist points of views and hide in echo chambers and provides four steps in combating political polarization.

Andrew Carlins Discusses His DukeEngage Dublin Experience on the POLIS Podcast

Kenan Insider author Andrew Carlins was on a recent episode of the podcast put out by Duke’s Center for Political Leadership, Innovation, and Service. Listen to his thoughts on political engagement, comparisons of different attitudes to service and political participation in Ireland, and his experiences working on refugee issues below:

Arabic Medicine in the World of Classical Islam: Growth & Achievement

The Religions and Public Life program at the Kenan Institute co-sponsored a two-day symposium on Arabic medicine in the medieval period that began with a tour of Duke University Libraries’ collection of medical books from the period and was followed by a keynote address by noted scholar of Medieval Islamic medicine, Cristina Álvarez Millán (UNED, Madrid). 

Dr. Millán emphasized the role of Muslim scholars and practitioners of medicine played in organizing and elaborating on the Greek and Roman medical knowledge that had passed down from Antiquity.  In so doing, Dr. Millán argues, Islamic societies bequeathed essential resources to Western centers of medical knowledge, like Montpellier in France, that established the Western tradition of medicine.

Dr. Millán’s talk provided an overview of medical advances and innovations in the medieval Muslim world from the 10th century to the 14th century, a period dominated by rival Muslim dynasties in al-Andalus (modern day Spain and Portugal), North Africa, and the area around Iraq and Iran.  One great strength of Islamic societies in this period was that, in their bid for political prestige, political rivals in these regions patronized scientific production and vibrant collaborative traditions among medical philosophers and practitioners that saw knowledge about human health transmitted across trading networks from East to West.

Some of the knowledge about medicine exchanged in this way would be familiar to people today: surgical charts, new drug treatments based on plant extracts, and treatment protocols for vulnerable populations (the poor and migrants).  Some Muslim scholars, like Averroes of al-Andalus, were more interested in theoretical aspects of wellness, while others, like Abu Bakr al-Razi of Baghdad, became famous for their clinical practice.  Indeed, Dr. Millán made clear throughout her talk that Arabic medical practitioners cared deeply about their patients: adhering to the principles of the Hippocratic oath and adjusting drug treatments so that they tasted and smelled better.

Throughout the talk and discussion period, Dr. Millán acknowledged the difficulties of studying the evolution of medical practice and theory during this period.  Not many case studies exist from which to accurately pinpoint medieval diseases and those records we do have come from a group of well-known physicians who tended to the political elite of the time.  Thus, a fuller understanding of the social history of medicine (doctor-patient relations, for example) elude us especially with regard to middle-class and poorer groups in society.

A Profile in Purpose: Sangjie Zhaxi

Profiles in Purpose: Sangjie Zhaxi, cultural anthropology, Duke 2020

“We cannot preserve a tradition, but we can preserve the knowledge of a tradition.”

For Sangjie Zhaxi, being at Duke has meant going to the other side of the world, both literally and figuratively. The style and rhythms of life he experiences here are a far cry from his childhood in the eastern edge of Tibet. Moving between such vastly different environments has been difficult going at times, but Sangjie finds purpose in bridging and connecting his experiences. He hopes to make a home for himself in the United States without ever leaving Tibet altogether.

“I did not realize how different my childhood was before I lived in mainland China, and later in the US,” Sangjie says. Born and raised in the Tibetan Plateau in Qinghai Province, Sangjie’s early experiences were not dissimilar from those of generations of his family before him. He looked after yaks, sheep, and horses, moving with the seasons. But increasing development in China’s interior meant that Sangjie did not stay to herd with his family. Instead, he went to school and learned Chinese and eventually English. A scholarship to attend Duke brought him away from everything he had known thus far.

At the same time, Sangjie found that Duke offered a wealth of opportunities to continue to study issues about which he cared deeply. In his first two years, he took courses on religious studies and Chinese language, subjects that formed the core of what educated people in his region were expected to know. Moreover, he found a new lens for understanding his community and its stories in cultural anthropology.

After his first year at Duke, Sangjie went back to Tibet to research Buddhist rituals and to teach English in the rural communities in which he was raised. The nomadic lifestyle of many people on the Tibetan Plateau makes formal schooling difficult, and so many of Sangjie’s peers do not speak or read Chinese, nor do they speak English.

Being back in Tibet also drove home some of the changes that have been occurring in the region. Infrastructure projects like electrification and road improvements are changing the landscape, while government policies are pushing previously itinerant people to towards permanently settling in more urban areas. He thinks communities like his will mostly be resettled in a matter of years, not decades.

In the spring of his sophomore year, Sangjie enrolled in the Kenan Purpose Program. His coursework elicited reflections on the two sides of his life. He hoped to reconcile his desire to be connected to his homeland, a place that is changing rapidly in response to more concentrated development in western China, and his desire to grow as a scholar and continue to put down roots in the West. The following summer, Sangjie worked with Ganglha, an NGO focusing on cultural and environmental preservation in Tibet, to collect oral histories of elders his home region while it was still possible to do so. He hoped he would like this work, but he wasn’t sure. He is both of this place but also apart from it now, and he found that he was treated accordingly.

For Sangjie, the way forward is to continue to be connected and yet somewhat apart from eastern Tibet. Documenting the language, culture, and ways of life of families like his before they dissolve in the face of development is naturally very personal; it has become perhaps professional as well. “We cannot always preserve traditions,” he notes, “but we can preserve the knowledge of those traditions for future generations.” In order to do that, he needs to be far away for a while, developing his skills as an anthropologist and documentarian. He has some time left at Duke, but he is currently planning to pursue a PhD in cultural anthropology.