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GPSC Retreat 2013

In early February, members of the Graduate and Professional Student Council (GPSC) executive board and some of the general assembly representatives had lunch with President Richard Brodhead, as part of a series of luncheons GPSC has set up to create a dialogue between Duke administrators and Duke students. With only about 15 people sitting around a conference table, it was an excellent opportunity for lively conversation, and for the President to share many pearls of wisdom from his rich life and experiences, and especially the excitement he finds in the vibrant community at Duke. He emphasized the unique accomplishments that could come from a diverse group, highlighting many exciting academic pursuits that have crossed departmental lines. We asked what our group, with representatives from every program in every department of every school of Duke, might offer the university, beyond what we already do. He said that during an alumni event, he was speaking to an alum who shared that when he was at Duke, he felt so plugged-in to the community and so at home on Duke’s campus that he felt that he ‘owned the place.’ President Brodhead challenged us to figure out ways to reach the students who do not normally participate in our events, to motivate every graduate and professional student to plug in more, and to let everyone feel that they ‘own the place.’

We were inspired by this new mission, which immediately sparked some exciting conversations at subsequent executive and general assembly meetings; it seemed like the perfect goal of our imminent GPSC retreat. Professor Joseph LeBoeuf, a professor at the Fuqua School of Business, was equally excited about our new mission, and agreed to help us with the retreat. Prof. LeBoeuf served in the military for 34 years and retired as a Colonel in 2003; since then, he has been a Professor at the Fuqua School of Business, teaching leadership and management as well as serving as a senior mentor and faculty advisor to fellows in the Coach K Center of Leadership and Ethics (COLE). His research and focus are in leadership development and organizational culture, and his experience and success in these areas throughout his life are second to none. With his help, we set out to organize a retreat with the goal of, as a group, achieving a tangible outcome to meet the president’s challenge. Along the way, we hoped that the event would help build our community within GPSC, and strengthen relationships and trust.

Over 50 graduate and professional students, all members of the executive board or the general assembly of GPSC, gathered at the R. David Thomas Executive Conference Center at Duke’s Fuqua School of Business, which generously provided the space and equipment free of charge. After a welcome speech by Prof. LeBoeuf, the students were divided into seven teams, with each team having representation from at least five of the nine graduate and professional schools of Duke University, creating groups as ‘academically diverse’ as possible. Prof. LeBoeuf guided the students through a team building exercise and, after gathering as a full group again to debrief, everyone headed to the dining room for an excellent dinner, during which the teams brainstormed ideas to address the president’s mission and, over dessert, each team chose the best idea. Following dinner, everyone went into breakout rooms to really work on their ideas as teams, building outlines, plans, timelines, and resource requirements that they wrote out on foam boards. When all the teams were ready, the boards were placed in a circle, and teams rotated through the projects, providing and receiving feedback on the projects. Then the original teams came back together to revise their plans. At the end of the retreat, each team gave a one minute presentation of its idea to the whole group, and everyone voted on their favorite ideas.

As the outline for the retreat came together prior to the retreat, it was presented to Dr. Jacqueline Looney, Senior Associate Dean for Graduate Programs and Associate Vice Provost for Academic Diversity, who was just as excited as we were about the potential of this retreat; so much so, that she provided funding not only for the retreat itself, but to support the ideas that came from the retreat, so that they could be realized in the months ahead! Some of the ideas from the retreat included:

• creating a system to quantify participation in GPSC events, to determine what percentage of students we are reaching and whether there are particular groups or schools for whom we can do better;

• coordinating groups from different schools who are interested in the same thing, including, potentially, the leaders of the various student councils, to pool resources and encourage interdisciplinary collaboration toward a common goal;

• hosting a day of engagement where all graduate and professional students are invited to meet each other, participate in Olympic-like games in teams, create time for a community forum, and end the day with a formal dance or social;

• following up on the day of engagement with a community-wide online forum;

• encouraging continued small-group formation among GPSC representatives, to facilitate involvement from the constituents of each representative on a more personal level;

• facilitating multidisciplinary research projects at the student level;

• implementing a program-specific showcase, where each school welcomes the rest of the graduate and professional student community to their school to demonstrate the exciting things happening at their school, perhaps in a TED-talk style.

I do not think there could have been a better outcome to our retreat than these amazing ideas; the energy in the Thomas Center was palpable for the full three hours, and most of the participants stayed for hours afterward, continuing their conversations. A committee has been established to follow up on these ideas, combine the ones that make sense together, and polish the ideas until they can be implemented. None of this would have been possible without the strong support of several people, including the inspiration from President Brodhead, the strong guidance and teaching of Prof. LeBoeuf, and the monetary support from Dr. Looney and the Graduate School. We are excited to have the opportunity and the means to do something truly meaningful for our graduate and professional student community. On behalf of GPSC, thank you so much.

—Shannon O’Connor, Ph.D. student, Biomedical Engineering, GPSC vice president