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Interdisciplinarity, community, and mentorship: more than added plusses, these elements are pivotal to the success and well-being of graduate and professional students. They’re also at the core of Duke’s University Scholars Program, founded in 1998 and housed within the Office of University Scholars and Fellows.

2023 USP Retreat group photo
Graduate student "Unis" pose for a group photo at the 2023 USP Fall Retreat.

In her director’s message, Victoria “Tori” Lodewick writes that “the University Scholars Program attracts undergraduate, graduate, and professional students who are as talented as they are creative, who are as well-rounded as they are attuned to the details of their scholarly work, and who are as hard working as they are fun.”

Current graduate student “Unis” (as the scholars are affectionately known) reflect positively on their experiences with the program, highlighting the ways that their research and worldviews have been expanded through regular breakfasts and seminars, a Fall Retreat and Spring Symposium, and the opportunity to both mentor and be mentored in warm, non-hierarchical settings.

USP Graduate Consuls

Each year, any graduate student Unis beyond their first year may apply to become graduate consuls, who help coordinate activities and provide direction according to the needs and interests of current graduate students. This year’s graduate consuls are Adriana Stohn, a fifth-year Ph.D. candidate in Electrical and Computer Engineering, and Hannah Kania, a second-year Ph.D. student in Biology.

Group photo of Unis holding books outside The Regular Bookshop
A group of Unis stand outside of The Regulator Bookshop, following a USP social event called "Reimagining the Book Club." Embracing their varied interests, each student selected the book they're holding; after reading, they plan to exchange the books with each other for informal discussion. In the front row are Stohn (left) and Kania (middle).

The graduate students they represent come from a range of home departments, from the humanities to technical fields—an admixture that requires an “ongoing conversation” about “how to reconcile” their varied interests, according to Stohn.

Nevertheless, Kania adds, “there's just this respect that comes across that facilitates some awesome friendships that are cross-generational and interdisciplinary.”

Graduate consuls work alongside two undergraduate consuls and USP's director, brainstorming and implementing social events that can appeal to the diverse group.

Stohn and Kania say that being part of USP allows them to avoid the “tunnel vision” that can come with pursuing graduate research; moreover, it allows them to practice mentorship that centers on friendship and “meaningful connection.”

Collaborative Mentorship

In USP, each undergraduate is paired with two graduate or professional student mentors. Ashleigh Harlow, a fourth-year Ph.D. candidate in Nursing, describes USP mentorship as a form of growing together.

Headshot of Ashleigh Harlow
Picture of Ashleigh Harlow working as a bedside nurse in pediatric intensive care before starting her Ph.D. in Nursing at Duke

“My undergrad mentee is a senior this year, just accepted into medical school,” Harlow says. “It's cool because we started at the same time, you know—she started as a freshman at the same time I started my Ph.D. program.”

Harlow’s approach to mentoring is to be “supportive and encouraging,” and to help her undergraduate mentees refine their focus or figure out their direction. Still, she emphasizes that learning goes both ways, and that generational gaps can be quite beneficial.

“I graduated in 2008 with my BSN. We were not talking about health equity. We were not talking about social justice. Some of the things that I have to really put effort into learning are part of their vernacular. So I learn a lot about how I talk about and conceptualize some of those things.”

An Object Lesson in Interdisciplinarity

John Choi with a long-billed dowitcher
Fourth-year Uni Jon Choi holds a Long-billed dowitcher in Corpus Christi, Texas.

Fourth-year Jon Choi, a Ph.D. candidate in Marine Science and Conservation, also credits USP with providing a valuable interdisciplinary frame: “The thing that I really enjoy about the University Scholars Program is that talking to people, and seeing the kinds of seminars that are sent out to the listserv—it's a reminder of the vibrancy of the broader intellectual community.”

Choi, who also earned his J.D. at Duke, looks forward to a career in environmental policy, bridging the worlds of science and law in order to advocate for stronger wildlife protections.

Delving deeper into USP’s impact on his research, Choi adds: “When you have a problem like ‘How do you conserve the red knot?’ you have to think about the horseshoe crab fishery industry, the conch fishery, and pharmaceutical manufacturing in the Delaware Bay. You have to think about habitat loss and destruction in the Orinoco River Valley, and the eventual climate change implications of the Arctic, and whatever land use problems are happening in South America. Unless you can actually tease apart this broader story and engage in different sections of it, you're not going to succeed. I think having those kinds of interdisciplinary skills through a program like USP is vital.”

Grounded in Community

Kamakura with tech team
Renata Poulton Kamakura poses with two undergraduate Morton Arboretum Research Technician Fellows, with whom Kamakura collected data on tree health in Chicago's West Side during the summer of 2022.

Renata Poulton Kamakura, a fourth-year Ph.D. candidate in Ecology, likewise stresses the importance of being in community with others whose perspectives can help fill gaps.

For Kamakura, being a “good collaborator” is essential, and it requires “humility and being willing to be wrong and changing your opinion on things."

USP has enabled Kamakura to collaborate with fellow Unis on community-led projects—for example, a Bass Connections project with Jon Choi. It has also helped them gain access to professional opportunities like the NatureNet Science Fellows program.

“I interact with people who tell me things I would have never considered,” Kamakura shares. “I think it’s also just been fun to, I think, become a more well-rounded person in the world.”



The USP Spring Symposium

Keep an eye out for USP’s upcoming Spring Symposium! This year’s theme is Autonomy and Automation: A Dialogue Between Us and Our Tools. Inspired by AI/Machine Learning tools like ChatGPT, this symposium will include presentations from undergraduate and graduate students across disciplines, offering reflections on how tools can both enhance and detract from scholarship.