Embracing Team Diversity

 August 8, 2017

Our society is becoming increasingly global, collaborative, and culturally diverse with evolving leadership trends across various professional disciplines. Duke University’s Emerging Leaders Institute (ELI), a professional development program co-sponsored by The Graduate School and the Office of Postdoctoral Services, is designed to prepare aspiring graduate student and postdoc leaders to work within this transforming leadership matrix. So, after receiving the email that read “…you have been selected to participate in ELI 2017,” I was excited and ready to learn and engage with expert leaders in diverse fields as well as with my peers in Duke’s graduate student and postdoc community.



On the first day of the program, I learned that I would be working with a small team of colleagues to address an issue or problem we identified within the graduate student and postdoctoral communities at Duke. I also learned that my assigned team, which included a Chinese doctoral student studying pharmacology, an American doctoral student studying literature, and myself, a Kenyan master’s student studying global health, represented just the kind of culturally diverse community I might be working with once I graduate. Not only did our team have to identify a common goal, we had to learn how to talk to each other and solve problems across disciplinary, cultural, and personal lines.

Based on the findings from stakeholder interviews, which we conducted prior to the leadership program’s first session, our team decided to focus on addressing the shared concerns many graduate students and postdocs had expressed about professional development at Duke. What is professional development? Where do we find professional development opportunities? And how do we make professional development a core component of our graduate education? We had eight weeks to assess the current communication strategies of The Graduate School, Office of Postdoctoral Services, and the Career Center and make recommendations based on our findings. And we had to do this together, as a united team.

One of the first things we all noticed was that, regardless of discipline or degree, The Graduate School has made professional development resources and opportunities a great priority at Duke, and various offices (including the Office of the Vice Provost for Interdisciplinary Studies, the Career Center, the Office of Postdoctoral Services, and The Graduate School itself) offer many pathways along which students and postdocs can address their important professional development concerns. For example, there are skills workshops, interdisciplinary offerings, a Professional Development Grant, and professional and academic programs all dedicated to enhancing professional development across many unique disciplines. Because Duke offers a wide array of professional development opportunities already, we had to figure out why our peers were still identifying professional development as an area of concern and frustration. Instead of figuring out more ways for The Graduate School and the Office of Postdoctoral Services to support professional development, we had to figure out an innovative strategy for communicating these awesome opportunities to their primary graduate student and postdoc audiences. We also had to figure out how to do this from the points of view of different departments, different cultural backgrounds, and different professional goals.

Finally, we figured out a strategy: What if we thought of ourselves as consultants and identified some of the primary ways through which we could enhance how communication gets delivered across the entire university campus? And what if we figured out a universal way of assessing student needs that takes discipline and professional goals into consideration but also focuses on when and how professional development interests overlap into broader patterns? If we thought of our project this way, could three graduate students who started out not knowing each other and not being sure how to work with each other effectively take ownership of a united approach and a coherent means by which to communicate our findings to a larger audience?

We could!

Though we were very different, we quickly identified each other’s strengths by completing the Strengths Finder 2.0 assessment.  In order to leverage our individual strengths and sync our respective interests with the team goal, we realized that we could take a three-pronged approach to our project. Our assessment and analysis expert could create a survey to evaluate the effectiveness of the Graduate School’s current communication strategies. Our resident writer and refiner could research and design a streamlined newsletter to communicate professional development opportunities to students across various digital platforms. And our attentive and energetic communicator could develop a working blueprint for a communications-centered student council designed around face-to-face interactions between administrators, students, and postdoctoral scholars. Once we put these respective pieces of the project together, we could then present a holistic strategy to more effectively communicate professional development resources, opportunities, strategies, and tips to those Duke students and postdocs who are looking for help.

This team experience was challenging at first but it was also meaningful and enlightening, and it will certainly influence how I work on future group projects. With invaluable insights from the ELI facilitators and individual assessment tools (Emotional Intelligence and StrengthsFinder), I now realize the incredible power of respecting each person’s point of view and leveraging individual strengths and skill sets to achieve a shared goal. I also understand the importance of continually striving to enhance self-awareness to my disciplinary, behavioral, and cultural predispositions. Knowing myself and understanding how I can use my background and strengths to contribute to and help lead a project towards its goals has been empowering and has continued to help me evaluate my own strengths and goals beyond the bounds of the Emerging Leaders Institute program.

I could not have written this post without the contribution and support of my teammates, Meghan O’Neil (Ph.D. candidate, English) and Yi Ding (Ph.D. candidate, Pharmacology and Cancer Biology).


Loise Ng'ang'a
Loise Ng'ang'a, M.S.

Recent M.S. graduate, Global Health

Loise Ng’ang’a received a Master of Science in Global Health from the Duke Global Health Institute in May 2017. Her professional interests focus on improving health disparities among underprivileged populations.