The Great Young Trustee Bake-Off

 January 27, 2021

Editors’ note: Kelly Tang’s application process to serve as Graduate Young Trustee occurred during the 2019-20 academic year. The 2020-21 selection process reflects some changes from Kelly’s experience, but we hope that the core of her advice in handling the three major ingredients will still rise to the occasion. As a current Trustee, Kelly will serve on this year’s Young Trustee Nominating Committee. The views expressed in this piece are her own.

Last quarantine spring, I binged on The Great British Bake-Off, a lovable reality TV competition about amateur bakers bravely confronting the canon of pâtisserie. I began my indulgence not long after becoming the 2020-2023 Graduate Young Trustee, through a process I began to reflect was itself quite like the three weekly challenges that structured each episode of Bake-Off. I will frame my reflection about my Young Trustee nomination journey through my own love of baking and Bake-Off in the hope that my perspective will help you to digest the sweet complexity of this unique experience. I want to see more graduate students from diverse identities and backgrounds applying for one of the most important service roles at Duke, but I recognize that the role and the process can seem intimidating.

At each step of the Graduate Young Trustee nomination process, I had to develop my own processes and methods and be willing to ask for help almost every step of the way. Here is how I approached the three main stages: the written application, the interview with the Graduate Young Trustee screening committee, and the short speech at a Graduate & Professional Student Council (GPSC) meeting.

Signature Challenge (Written Application)

This challenge is for the bakers to make recipes that offer their own interpretation of the week’s theme (e.g. Bread Week). The bakers might prepare something that they routinely make for their family and friends.

The three basic ingredients you need for the written application are who you are, why you are interested in applying to the position, and your understanding of issues the university and stakeholders confront. The questions are straightforward, but they require thoughtful deliberation.

To start, I recommend attending the fall information session (watch the GPSC newsletter for the advertisement). Hearing from the panel of current Young Trustees, members of the screening committee, and the Secretary to the Board of Trustees is valuable research. Although the session tends to focus on the undergraduate nomination process, which is very different from the graduate one, you will be able to start identifying which current Young Trustees you might want to reach out to with questions about their experiences, how to prepare, and what you might offer that is unique.

Observing the panel of current Young Trustees also made evident to me that, while serving as a Young Trustee is a singular experience, you do share it with other students. The role has been around since the 1960s, and each Young Trustee serves either a two- or three-year term. I came to realize that there is not a prefabricated, Young Trustee-shaped mold. At any given Trustees meeting or committee session, there are always multiple Young Trustee voices present, each informed by their own experiences and perspectives. Because only one graduate student is selected each year, it is easy to think of the role as becoming the Young Trustee, instead of becoming a Young Trustee. I found that it was difficult to compare myself to the imagined ideal of the perfect Young Trustee (which does not exist). Instead it was far more reasonable to consider what kind of Young Trustee I would be.

When it came time to compose my essays, I approached the writing task as a conversation between me and a close colleague, someone I knew and with whom I felt at ease while making a mess of words and ideas. So, I reached out to a friend and we held a weekend afternoon chat over tea and cookies. Her scribbled notes became the basis of my application.

Find space for yourself to knead your ideas. Give them the structure and lift they need to become something more. Once the dough is in the oven, there’s nothing else to do except wait. You know you used quality ingredients and tried-and-tested methods, even when you can’t taste the final product just yet. I was fortunate to have the sympathetic ear of someone who knew me well and believed that I could succeed in the role. Especially when you’re accustomed to regarding Duke from your perspective as a student in one department, a patient but discerning listener who will tell you when something sounds underbaked is going to give you the awareness you need to present yourself to the screening committee.

Technical Challenge (Interview)

This challenge requires enough technical knowledge and experience to produce a certain finished product. The bakers are all not told beforehand what the challenge will be. Once the challenge has begun, each are given the same basic recipe with minimal instructions. The finished products are judged blind.

The second stage of the nomination process is the interview. What goes on in a Young Trustee interview feels like it might as well be obscured under a red gingham tablecloth. There is simply no way to know what questions will be asked in the interview, so how could I prepare? At this point, I thought the best preparation I could summon was to listen and learn from as many diverse university stakeholders as I could.

First, I reached out to Erika Moore, Ph.D. ’18, who served as graduate Young Trustee in 2017-2019. Erika and I had a conversation that was an informational interview about her experience on the Board of Trustees. Talking to a previous Young Trustee can be both reassuring and daunting, but Erika was every bit enthusiastic and encouraging. I also reached out to a current graduate Young Trustee, Amy Hafez, Ph.D. ’18, later in the nomination process to help prepare for the election. Like many networking-averse graduate students, I felt wary of writing cold emails. But because I knew I would get the best information from people who had gone through the process and succeeded, I set aside my shyness. Everyone I reached out to was generous with their time, offering not only additional resources and contacts, but also positive cheer.

Next, I had a meeting with Dean Jacqueline Looney, Senior Associate Dean for Graduate Programs and Associate Vice Provost for Academic Diversity. At the time, she was also my supervisor and mentor while I served as a Graduate School Administrative Intern in Graduate Student Affairs. Dean Looney bestowed wisdom to soothe my imposter syndrome, and it was also thanks to her suggestion that I informally surveyed a dozen students I knew from various departments/divisions about what they felt were the big issues facing graduate students and the university. If cold emails led me to new connections, reactivating existing mentoring relationships reaffirmed and strengthened my personal Duke community.

When the day of the interview arrived, I was all adrenaline. I got lost in the building trying to find the interview room (every interviewee’s worst nightmare). But by the time we all sat down around the conference table, the jitters stayed in the hallway. Unlike job interviews, no one in the room—not even the interviewers—had held the Young Trustee position. I relaxed when I noticed that the screening committee was composed of other graduate students, just like me.

The turning point in the interview was reconnecting with what was happening in the room and the people I was sitting with at the table, rather than trying to adhere to my prepared talking points simply because I had prepared them. Recipes are not guarantees. A temperamental oven or inaccurate baking times call for flexibility and discernment. You bring more than your explicit preparation to a new situation; you also bring your senses of taste, touch, smell to help you through.

Showstopper Challenge (Speech)

This challenge is for the bakers to showcase their creativity and mastery of baking techniques in an eye-catching centerpiece. Creations are judged on taste, appearance, and level of difficulty.

A short time later, I was delighted to learn that I was a finalist. After The Chronicle published their profiles of the three candidates, it was time to prepare for the showstopper: a brief speech in front of GPSC General Assembly representatives and a completely open-ended Q&A session.

In shaping the presentation, I did not want to use my usual academic “armor” to overpower or impress people. Armored behaviors, which emerge as our individual tactics for dealing with feelings of vulnerability and exposure, include presenting as a “knower” instead of a “learner,” and displaying leadership through compliance and control, instead of through shared purpose and commitment. I knew I could not be the Young Trustee I wanted to be, sitting shoulder-to-shoulder with distinguished Trustees, and not also feel the discomfort of being a young person, a person of color, a woman, and a newcomer to the Board. I needed to convey that I was not only ready for the pressures and expectations that such an impressive opportunity brings but that I could hold my own and add value to the discussion as myself: a graduate student who struggles with finding community on campus, with paying for her last year of dissertation writing, with gaining employment in her post-graduation job search, and more.

In the weeks leading up to the day of the presentation, by happenstance I was reading Oliver Jeffers’ book The Working Mind and Drawing Hand. Jeffers is known for his poignant illustrations and idiosyncratic handwriting. I came up with the idea to hand-write my slides on paper, scan them, and load them into PowerPoint. What could be more “me” than my handwriting and my lifetime love of color and drawing?

A hand-drawn slide from Tang's presentation to the Graduate and Professional Student Council (GPSC) General Assembly.

The day of the speech I was twitchy with nerves and dread. In the half-minute before I started speaking, standing alone before my handmade slides, glowing on two gigantic projection screens like the radioactive pages of a middle school diary, I regretted ever lifting a marker.

Then I made eye contact with 70 expectant faces, said words, breathed (I think), and the speech was over. Five minutes went fast.

There was no time to reflect or wallow because the Q&A began immediately after my last word. The GPSC representatives wanted to know more; questions popped around the room. As the questions kept coming, those slides stayed up like billboards. They were so bright I could see them from the corner of my eye as I listened to students’ inquiries. They rooted me to the humbler beginnings of my story. I was transported to a memory of a Durham weekend, when it was just my friend and me, our academic armor set aside, trying out novel combinations and mixtures in an effort to distill the complex essence of graduate students’ experiences at Duke.

Prior to the Young Trustee speech, I would have never considered integrating my personal creative sensibility into a professional presentation of any kind. The decision to try something new on the eve of a special opportunity (and in public!) was weighted with the risks of appearing incompetent or worse, disconnected from the concerns of different departments and schools. Trying the unexpected invites failure. But combinations that one previously could not imagine—like matcha and white chocolate or guava and cheese—are not truly limits on your choices. They are the flavors of a greater world opening up to you.

Star Baker

Yes, becoming Graduate Young Trustee was an involved and intense process. It was also inscrutable and required me to improvise on my own. It seems harder than many difficult things graduate students readily undertake, such as preliminary exams or a year of fieldwork, in part because the majority of graduate students don’t know what the Board of Trustees is. And so it stays an unknown, uninterrogated challenge.

Bake-Off teaches us, every week, every season, that amateurs who bake homey treats for friends and family do have what it takes to present glossy chocolate mirrors and glittering choux towers. It turns out the bread, pies, and cookies you’ve been turning out all this time, and the awesome people you have been sharing these crumbs with, have made you into the one-of-a-kind baker you already are.

My Young Trustee nomination process was a journey of firsts, so each step felt like a potential misstep. It is probably this way for every Young Trustee hopeful, even if they seem like the most polished and qualified people you’ve ever met. If you choose to enlist in this adventure (and I hope you still will!) you will be terrified at times. But this unusual excursion is wholly enmeshed in the longer journey you have already begun when you matriculated at Duke: one of deepening your self-understanding and demonstrating your sincere commitment to the ideals and values of higher education. You have what it takes to try the role on for size.

I believe every Duke graduate student has the potential to succeed in the Graduate Young Trustee role. There is no time more critical than the present to help guide the university to a better future. The oven is pre-heated. Your apron is tied. You’re craving something you’ve never made before. Ready… set… bake!

Tang-graphic 2.jpg
Photograph by Breanna Bradham. Courtesy of the Duke Chronicle



Kelly Tang
Kelly Tang

Ph.D. candidate in Art, Art History, and Visual Studies

Kelly C. Tang is a Ph.D. candidate in art history and is completing her dissertation with the support of a doctoral fellowship from Gender, Sexuality, and Feminist Studies. She researches and writes about modern Chinese art, identity, and migration. Kelly is a current Graduate Young Trustee serving a three-year term on the University’s Board of Trustees. She held the 2019-2020 Graduate Administrative Internship in Graduate Student Affairs. Follow her on Twitter.