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Improving Social Connections by Enhancing Solidarity

August 28, 2019

Whether you are at Duke as a student on your graduate school journey or fine-tuning your skills as a postdoc, this is a chapter of your life that will be filled with milestones and challenges. As part of the Emerging Leaders Institute (ELI), our team identified a challenge shared by graduate students and postdocs, and in response, devised a solution for positive changes. Through stakeholder interviews and research, we heard some interviewees express a sense of social disconnectedness; that disconnectedness, coupled with the stressors that come with being a graduate student or postdoc, raised concerns about the mental well-being of this community.  In response, we focused on a way to make Duke a happier and more supportive institution where even more meaningful relationships can be established.

The Epiphany

We did not have to look far for the inspiration or confirmation that our project is necessary. During one of our coffee breaks, team member Letitia Jones shared a story from starting her postdoc position two years ago. As a wife and mother of adult children, she was not sure how she would fit in with her younger colleagues and often felt isolated. By chance, a Chinese postdoc who was in a similar situation asked her to go on a crabbing trip, and they ended up having a great time together and formed a long-term friendship. Because she took a chance on a hobby she wouldn’t otherwise have considered, she found a good friend and a professional ally.

We saw the power of Letitia’s story in its potential reach: Duke is home to around 9,000 graduate and professional students as well as about 650 postdocs, each with unique interests, yet many never had a chance to know people beyond their own departments. If we could bridge isolation by matching domestic and international graduate students and postdocs based on mutual interests, we could create more meaningful relationships, just as Letitia and her Chinese friend did.

The Quest

There was no established blueprint for this project, and with a tight timeline, we contacted several organizations across the country, asking how their community-building programs operated.  We also reached out to Duke’s own International House Director Lisa Giragosian and Assistant Director Paige Vinson to discuss potential collaboration, which later led to the discussion of reviving the International Friends Program (IFP), established in 1986.  For several years, this had been a popular program; however, participation declined precipitously due to a new mandate requiring thorough background checks on local participating families. We believed it would be meaningful to build on IFP because the program scope aligned with our goals and provided an existing foundation. 

The Execution

To better gauge participant interest in and need for IFP, we surveyed graduate students and postdocs across 13 of Duke’s departments. Participants indicated their interest in participating in IFP, reservations they had about participating, and their ideal pair-matching format (i.e. according to hobbies, native language, gender, etc.).  Participants also had the chance to enter a drawing for one of five $10 gift cards donated by Duke Bookstores. We received 253 responses, mostly from first-year graduate students. When asked if they would be interested in joining IFP, 68% responded yes. With this level of interest, we saw an opportunity to increase awareness of IFP by updating its current marketing strategy in the form of re-designed brochures to reflect trendy images and attractive wording. (You can view the front and inside of the brochures we designed online.)

The Journey

International Friends Program brochure coverAlthough our journey with ELI has ended, our partnership with I-House carries on. We will continue to help revamp IFP by re-designing the program structure (e.g. adding a certificate track), fostering partnerships in an effort to obtain funding that will support IFP-related activities, and implementing new marketing strategies (e.g. recruiting through orientation fairs, updating the website and application form).  We’ll also consider strategies for long-term planning, safety, and security of the prospects.

As we carry forward the momentum of this project, we reflect on the reasons that we came to ELI in the first place. Applying to ELI was not motivated by a project but by ELI’s mission to prepare us to perform as effective leaders with competence and confidence. ELI has been both a journey of teamwork and self-discovery. Designing and executing this project required four individuals from different walks of life to work together.  Each of us had our own strengths and weaknesses; we each had an area we wanted to improve on, be it assertiveness, empathy or influence, which we practiced through day-to-day interactions, one-on-one coaching, and peer feedback. We drew ideas and experiences from our personal backgrounds to add to the project. This propelled us to not simply seek a mechanical solution; we internally resonated with the problem so that we could provide a solution that would be beneficial to others. Throughout, we approached every aspect of this project with organic enthusiasm, genuine sincerity, careful attention, humility, and appreciation. This project, the experience, and skill sets developed we will carry with us forever.

Acknowledgements: We would like to thank Allyson Lynch, Coordinator of International Programs at UMass-Lowell; Catherine Heimsoth, Program Coordinator for UCLA’s Dashew Center for International Students and Scholars; Quy Nguyen, Senior Associate Director of Student Life at University of Oklahoma, and Kristen Colbrecht, International Student Coordinator at University of Missouri for providing helpful information in the re-design of the IFP program. We would like to thank Duke Bookstores for donating the gift cards.  We would also like to thank Molly Starback (Director of Duke’s Postdoctoral Association) and the Postdoc-2-Postdoc program (P2P) for providing information about the postdoc mentoring community. Lastly, our sincere gratitude to the entire corps of ELI’s facilitators, without whom none of this would have been possible: Melissa Bostrom, Ph.D., Korrel Kanoy, Ph.D., Kristin Murphy, Ph.D. and Tony Laffoley.


Letitia Jones, Ph.D.

Letitia Jones, Ph.D.

Postdoctoral Scholar, Duke Human Vaccine Institute (DHVI)

Dr. Letitia Jones is a Postdoctoral Scholar at Duke Human Vaccine Institute (DHVI) where her work focuses on HIV vaccine development by mediating responses elicited by B- and T-cells. Letitia is an Air Force veteran and wife of a Navy veteran. As a result, she loves traveling and does so whenever possible with her husband and children.

Alex McCumber

Alex McCumber

Ph.D. student, Civil and Environmental Engineering

Alex McCumber is a fourth-year Ph.D. student in Civil and Environmental Engineering. His research involves modeling how bacteria from different environmental media make up what bacteria are found in the lungs. He has a B.S. degree in Biochemistry from Oklahoma Christian University and a M.S. in Environmental Science from the University of Oklahoma. Prior to coming to Duke, Alex worked at the Oklahoma Department of Environmental Quality, where he audited oil and gas production facilities for compliance with federal and state air quality regulations.

Yining Liu

Yining Liu

Ph.D. candidate, Biomedical Engineering

Yining Liu is a fourth-year Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Biomedical Engineering. Her research is in the field of tissue engineering, where she focuses on designing biomaterials with optimal biophysical or biochemical cues to accelerate skin wound healing. She received her M.Sc. in Bioengineering from UCLA and her B.S. in Pharmaceutical Sciences from Peking University, China. In her spare time, she loves doing Taekwondo, experimenting with new recipes, and writing in her blog.

Hannah Yan

Hannah Yan

Master's student, Interdisciplinary Data Science

Hannah Yan is a second-year graduate student in Interdisciplinary Data Science. Her research interests combine the rigor of data science with the creativity of interactive visualization.  Hannah’s earlier industry experiences in analytics gave her insights on how global organizations and distributed teams strategize and operate. She enjoys exploring and learning.

Professional Development Tag

  • Collaboration and Teamwork
  • Diversity
  • Emerging Leaders Institute
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