With fifty-four majors, fifty-two minors, and twenty-one certificates that can be combined in any way, Duke students certainly have a lot of options. Some of Duke’s specialized majors are designed to be completed as “co-majors” in conjunction with another field of study. When these degrees are paired with experiential learning requirements, such as the global health co-major, students effectively carve out a specialized niche in their field. The school told us that “more than 80 percent of Duke students go beyond their major to obtain a second major, a minor, and/or a certificate.” However, these options provide something beyond variety. They help students probe a subject and really figure out what it is that interests them the most.
Becca Ward ’12, a public policy major who now works as a legislative aid for a U.S. senator, explained how this process affected her career: “I have always known I wanted to work in the environmental conservation/protection space, but it was a nebulous idea when I matriculated. While I am still trying to find my exact path, Duke gave me insight into different perspectives and concentrations within conservation and public policy influence the way I approach my job everyday.”
Duke offers ways for students to further customize their education and degree beyond the established majors. Ana Homayoun (’01) raved about one such opportunity: “One of the greatest opportunities Duke gave me was the chance to be a Program II major. Program II is a self-designed curriculum where a student is allowed to design a curriculum around a personal interest. At the time mine was International Health Policy. I took classes in the graduate school and at UNC School of Public Health, and it was quite interesting in so many different ways. But the most important thing it taught me is that there is no one pre-set path to success, and there are ways in which you can create your own blueprint for success. Duke gave me the opportunity to be an entrepreneur of sorts when it came to shaping my education, and I took that confidence in starting a business shortly after graduation.”
Duke encourages students to become the authors of their own educational and career paths, which students at Duke take very seriously. This collective sense of agency and self destiny has a powerful effect. “In aggregate sense,” Becca Ward explained, “the opportunity to be surrounded by so many incredibly passionate and intelligent peers and advisers helped me understand that there is no right or standard path, and inspired me to be brave and unapologetic about forging my own.”
DukeEngage is another way that Duke allows students to customize their education and gain practical experience through socially conscious efforts. “This is a program where students identify an opportunity to provide a service anywhere in the world and Duke will help fund your travel, immunizations, lodging, etc.,” alumnus Jin-Soo Daniel Huh told us. “DukeEngage also provided training that prepared us to perform service in communities. Students can go as individuals or professors will sponsor groups to work on a project. I had the opportunity to go to Mali and work with an international development group and help measure the impact the schools they were building in rural areas were having on the communities.” DukeEngage service projects last a minimum of eight weeks and take place in seventy-eight countries around the world. Thanks to an endowment from The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Duke Endowment, the program has covered the cost of 2,800 students since its 2007 inception. “It was an incredible opportunity to apply the skills I had developed in class in a tangible way,” he added. “To do this with the financial support and programmatic support of Duke made it an even more meaningful experience.”
Members of Duke faculty are among the most respected in the world. While they are public intellectuals who hold appointments in the National Academy of Sciences and provide expert testimony to the United States Congress, they “are [also] committed to giving students the individual attention that pushes them to excel. . . . Undergraduates, even in their first year, interact with senior faculty on a regular basis,” the school told us. A 8:1 faculty to student ratio certainly means that Duke students can get plenty of face time with their professors. But Duke encourages these interactions further with “programs like ‘FLunch’ where a student can invite their professor to lunch at the college’s expense, and have an hour-long chat about their classes, their experiences & future plans, as well as hearing about what the professor does,” Dr. Mohamed Noor, a professor of biology told us. A casual, hour-long chat with a world expert and free lunch? Who could say no? Based on the success of FLunch, “Duke recently also started ‘FINvite’ to have students and professors have longer interactions such as a group dinner and games at a dorm or going out to a restaurant,” Dr. Noor explained. “I’ve participated in many of these each semester, and the interactions they stimulate are great . . . those are some of the kinds of interactions that make me love my job.”
Dr. Noor explained how these relationships strengthen over time and told us that, “students who’ve worked directly on research with me are like family . . . they come to our lab meetings, have regularly scheduled meetings to go over their research progress, and join the lab social network. These undergraduates often operate, in effect, like starting PhD students, often leading to publication of research, too.”
Faculty gain valuable perspective from these interactions as well, which helps them when it comes time to make decisions about the curriculum. Duke faculty, Dr. Noor told us, enjoy a great deal of control over the curriculum. “[We] are currently involved in a committee that is reimagining what general education requirements we offer to all Arts & Sciences undergraduates, and our committee is thinking about the impact not just about ‘classes’ but also about the totality of student experiences—undergraduate research, study abroad, even extra- or co-curriculars."
Prominent alumni like Elizabeth Hanford Dole, a former president of the American Red Cross, and Benjamin Chavis, Jr., civil rights activist and former executive director of the NAACP exemplify Duke’s commitment to leadership and service. And that is a nice group to join. A current biomedical engineering student told us, “Duke has a very strong alumni network, which makes for great connections when coming out of school and looking for opportunity all over the globe in the professional world.” Part of the value of a Duke degree lies in these extensive alumni networks. Alumni connect and collaborate through two primary channels: through groups that focus on particular regions of the world, which can be a huge help when moving to a new community, and through “affinity groups,” such as the Duke Global Health group or the Women as Leaders group. Becca Ward is currently in a mentoring program through the Duke Politics and Policy group, and she told us “I am constantly amazed at the supportiveness and warmth of the Duke alumni network.” Since the 2008 economic downturn, grads in the Young Alumni group have been able to check out “a series of online conversations with knowledgeable Duke alumni to answer questions relating to ‘what to do now,’” according to the university. Leave it to a university that focuses on leadership and service to produce alumni networks that are so consistently helpful.