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Supporting, and Being Supported: Reflections from Duke UCEM Graduate Interns

June 7, 2021

Screenshot of graduate interns and Sloan Scholars at virtual escape room
Duke UCEM graduate administrative interns Dena Zhu Ho and Zane Swanson (highlighted) pose for a photo with Sloan Scholars at the end of a virtual escape-room session that they organized during spring 2021.

By Dena Zhu Ho and Zane Swanson
Graduate School Administrative Interns for the University Center of Exemplary Mentoring

We worked together for the better part of a year as interns supporting the Duke University Center of Exemplary Mentoring (UCEM), a Graduate School-led effort to increase the diversity of Ph.D. graduates in the physical sciences and engineering. Yet the two of us have met in person only once—both at a distance and while properly masked, of course. Despite this, and all the other struggles during these difficult months, our final semesters of graduate school have been highlighted in no small part by our time with the Duke UCEM.

From Virtual Early Start in summer 2020—in which we had the task of introducing ourselves, Duke, and Durham to the newest Sloan Scholars (Ph.D. students recruited through the Duke UCEM) while stuck behind our computer screens—to the various online events and intern office hours held throughout the academic year, we received the opportunity to grow as colleagues and mentors to a group with boundless ability. Our work also involved close collaboration with the UCEM administrative oversight team, whose dedication and brilliance resulted in the awarding of a grant renewal—with commendation—for the Duke UCEM earlier this year.

In this post, we reflect on our individual internship experiences, what we’ve gained in tangible skills that we will carry into our careers, and the personal growth that will color all aspects of our lives. We are proud of what we were able to accomplish this year and thankful for all the relationships we built as members of the Duke UCEM family.

Dena Zhu HoDena Zhu Ho

Ph.D.’21 Mathematics

I knew I wanted to go into industry, so this Graduate School Administrative Internship provided the perfect opportunity for me to gain leadership and mentoring experience. As it happened, when I interviewed for the full-time consultancy job I will begin after graduating, one of the questions they asked me was about my administrative work experience. I believe this internship played a key role in me getting that job offer.

The experience of being a Duke UCEM intern really went far beyond my expectation. Despite the challenging environment that Covid has imposed on all of us, there was never a moment where I felt alone or overwhelmed about this internship. Rather, I was constantly reminded of the support system we have at the Duke UCEM, where we were truly appreciated for the work that we have accomplished. It is really a privilege to be able to build connections with our brilliant and friendly Sloan scholars, and very fulfilling to know that I took part in their journey to success.

More personally, this internship has granted me the opportunity to be part of an organized entity where I learned how I can turn voices into actions through coordinated work with the others, especially my co-intern, Dr. Swanson. The Graduate School deans working with the UCEM were never shy in giving us important tasks and letting us in on all the detailed programming. My opinions were valued, which enhanced my sense of responsibility while knowing that I was part of something big, and something where my efforts could make real differences.

As a graduate student, The Graduate School used to be just the place I check in when I first arrive at Duke or when I needed some official documents, but now I can proudly say I am truly a member of The Graduate School. My work has made an impact, and I have built so many priceless relationships with the deans, who always try their best to help us. I am sad that I am graduating and leaving, but I know that even if I am no longer at Duke, the UCEM team is still there to support me and to help me go further in my professional career.

Zane SwansonZane Swanson

Ph.D.’21 Evolutionary Anthropology

The Graduate School Administrative Internship for the Duke UCEM was more than it promised to be. When I first discussed the role with Dean Jacqueline Looney and other members of the oversight team, I envisioned an opportunity to give back to The Graduate School that I had found a home in. The reality of my time as an intern, however, was as much about personal growth as it was about helping to continue the successes of the Duke UCEM and the Sloan Scholars.

The position was dynamic, one day brainstorming the best solution to corral more than three dozen *very busy* Sloan Scholars’ schedules for social and academic events, and the next helping the UCEM oversight team as they planned and executed a grant renewal for the Duke UCEM, itself. Always working in close collaboration with my co-intern, Dr. Dena Ho, I grew as a member of a team that facilitated my development as a mentor and administrator.

My time spent with Sloan Scholars allowed me to view my academic career from a different perspective, which I hope provided the scholars with some helpful insights about their own academic journeys as they continue to stride into the future. With everything I have been able to be a part of, I now understand better the important roles that the administrative, academic, and social structures play in promoting successful graduate careers, something I might have taken for granted just a year ago.

Having said all that, when the idea of writing these reflections came up, my first thought was of problem-solving. Problem-solving, in a variety of forms, is an integral part of being a graduate student. For most of my graduate school experience this problem-solving felt insular, hyper-focused on the single goal that I was working toward. The work was meaningful, of course, but also isolating at times.

My work with the Duke UCEM was different, though. I learned and grew in an environment with colleagues, all far more senior than me, who offered respect and support toward the collective aims of the UCEM. The work felt important, and I was made to feel important to the work. In a year where it was easy to lose touch with so many things, I was tethered to the encouragement of peers and mentors. For fear of sounding too sentimental (if I haven’t already), I will leave it at this: I gained exactly what the Duke UCEM offers—a structure in which to thrive, built by those who care enough to support it.