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Donna Zapf

By Hanna Grimm
Communications Intern

Donna Zapf discovered Brahms and her love for music as a teenager in a box of clarinet music. Despite being a novice clarinetist, she transposed the piano parts for Brahms’ two clarinet sonatas into keys that would work musically with the alto clarinet she played in the junior high school band.

Her love for music carried her through a Ph.D. in musicology, and this education, plus her commitment to higher education, eventually led her to Duke. For the past 20 years, Zapf has directed Duke’s Graduate Liberal Studies program. Before her retirement at the end of the academic year, she sat down with The Graduate School to talk about her students, achievements, and favorite memories of Duke.

How did you feel about coming to Duke?

I remember my mom telling me: I am happy that you got the job, but I hope you don’t take it.   Most of my family lives on the west coast of Canada. However, for me Duke was an opportunity and an adventure.

When I mentioned I was going to Duke, everybody I met, naturally, said basketball.

But what I knew Duke for—because I taught in the School for the Contemporary Arts—was the Center for Documentary Studies, which then as now, has tremendous and international reach. And the American Dance Festival, and Full Frame.  This was because my colleagues and students in the SCA were artists, filmmakers, dancers, in theater or music. 

How would you describe the graduate program in Liberal Studies and what kinds of students does it bring to Duke?  

Graduate Liberal Studies keeps a space open at Duke for unusual students—some of whom might fall through the cracks if we weren’t here. They come to Duke for a rigorous master’s degree.

The kinds of students have changed since I first came to Duke. Originally, programs such as GLS were designed for people who needed a part-time graduate program. Typically, these students were already in satisfying careers, yet wanted something more: They had an intellectual curiosity to explore ideas in the context of a degree program. From its inception in 1984, GLS—it was originally called the MALS program—was organized as interdisciplinary. The central idea was that the program had the flexibility to enable these graduate students to formulate a personal degree program leading to a master’s project that was significant to them.

We still have our traditional students who are older and often established in careers. In fact, we have a fair number of students who work at Duke and we love these individuals.  They are fabulous students.

More recently, however, GLS is attracting a younger cohort who enters the program directly out of undergraduate degrees. They come from across the U.S., but also include an increasing number of international students. As a result, we have a diverse student group: diverse in ethnicity, in age, and in educational background.  It makes for a rich intellectual mix and seminar discussion. GLS is flexible in that every student has a program of study that they design to suit their interests. Many GLS students, including our international students, want the opportunity to explore ideas and disciplines. They find this at Duke.   

How have you seen the program evolve since you have been a part of it?  

When I first came to Duke, most GLS students were our “traditional” students, coming to graduate education part-time while working full-time. The biggest change has been the demographic shift—an increasingly younger cohort and an increasing number of international students. This means that we also have an increasing number of students who are studying full-time. I think that this is a most positive change.

As a program, we try to be light on our feet in a way that allows us to roll with change, and I’ve seen tremendous changes over nearly two decades.  However, what continues to amaze me are the continuities: Students of all ages and backgrounds bring intellectual curiosity and the desire for an interdisciplinary approach to their studies.

How do you go about serving the needs of these different types of students?  

We are hands-on in all facets of our work with students, with active advising throughout the program. It is labor intensive. We meet with GLS students; we know them.

Also, the faculty who teach in GLS are enthusiastic and many make personal connections with their graduate students. When GLS students reach the point of doing their master’s projects, they often find outstanding mentors from amongst the GLS teaching faculty.  All graduate students need that.

In serving international students, we partner with the international house, The Graduate School and its programs, and with many other resources at Duke. We are continually aware of, grateful and connected to Duke and the kind of facilities, programs, and opportunities that graduate students have here.

What are your favorite courses that you have taught at Duke?

The core course in Graduate Liberal Studies, The Self in the World, which I co-designed and initially co-taught with assistant director Dr. Kent Wicker.

I also developed a course with Professor Peter Burian from Classical Studies called Performing Passion, Reason, and Community: Classical Narratives in the Contemporary Imagination. Peter, of course, has written a great deal on this subject.  We were looking at contemporary renditions of classical narratives in theater, music and film.  I loved reading the original texts with a scholar such as Peter—it was an honor.

Finally, what are some of your favorite memories at Duke?

When I first arrived, Professor Debby Gold took me to a basketball game in Cameron. While there are intermural sports in Canada, I never really paid attention. I quickly learned that there is nothing like Division I athletics and nothing like Cameron Stadium. It’s a beautiful place, a remarkable building. Here’s an admission: I had never seen a basketball game at that level. It is such amazing athleticism; I was blown away. And it is wondrously aesthetic—like ballet. I’ve become a fan and my friends have helped me learn a bit about the game. That was a standout moment for me.

In GLS, we used to have a low-key graduation ceremony. Over the years this has changed. We now wear academic robes and process into the GLS hooding ceremony to a string quartet.  Faculty hood their students. It is a high point in my year and always moves me deeply. Students bring their extended families and friends. It demonstrates to me over and over again that education really matters to people.