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Student Experience

Nurture the Personal and Intellectual Growth of Students by Building Community in Social, Civic, and Academic Realms

Sy Mauskopf, history professor, chats with first-year students in Trinity Cafe
Sy Mauskopf (second from left), history professor and director of the FOCUS program, chats with first-year students in Trinity Café.

The quality of the student experience is part of achieving institutional excellence. We have listened to our students in assessing how we might best build on our rich traditions to create a future even more conducive to the nurturing of all students, whatever their background and age. The ideal experience blends housing, on-campus student life, and off-campus experiences. Our plan as a whole calls for increased intellectual collaborations. So too it must call for increased community building in student life, as well as enhanced interactions with the local community, its agencies, and institutions.

One way we build community is by strongly encouraging students to volunteer. More than 80 percent of Duke students perform some kind of community service work while at Duke, according to the Community Service Center. Break-for-Change, a student-led organization, promotes social action through alternative spring breaks each year and courses taught by students. The Duke Chapel sponsors about 150 students who travel in groups on mission trips to Third World countries such as Honduras, facilitating interaction between Divinity School graduate students and Duke undergraduates. More than 300 students tutored last year in schools and community centers affiliated with Duke through the Duke-Durham Neighborhood Partnership Initiative. These types of civic engagement not only foster individual growth but also forge bonds both within the campus community and beyond.

Greater associations between faculty and students and between undergraduate and graduate students are also important and encouraged. “The quality of graduate students’ interaction with undergraduates can have an enormous impact on young students who are deciding about their future,” says Kathleen Pryer, an assistant professor of biology who earned her doctorate at Duke. “Doctoral students are also valuable colleagues to faculty, bringing novel and sometimes riskier approaches to research that can result in exciting breakthroughs and long-term collaborations.”

Part of the beauty of our freshman FOCUS (First-year Opportunity for Comprehensive Unified Studies) program, is that, in addition to providing students in small groups the opportunity to delve intensely into a subject, it fosters close faculty-student interaction through dinner seminars. The program also builds connections through stimulating field trips, such as a trip to St. Petersburg for students studying “Changing Faces of Russia” or a visit to Athens for those studying Greek culture.

The nurturing of personal and intellectual growth through the creation of a true learning community rests on four foundations: recruitment of an intellectually engaged and multi-dimensional student body, reduction of barriers to interaction among diverse populations, attention to the personal well-being of every student, and maintenance of a healthy, safe, learning environment.