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Leo Biggs, Ph.D. (any/all pronouns), recently joined The Graduate School staff as Senior Program Coordinator for Assessment and Inclusive Excellence. They graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill with a Ph.D. in geography after receiving a Master’s degree in geography from UNC-Chapel Hill and a B.A. in Spanish and environmental studies from Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania. In this Q&A, learn more about Leo and how they landed at The Graduate School.

Could you explain what you do in your new role as Senior Program Coordinator for Assessment and Inclusive Excellence at The Graduate School?

I am the Administrative Coordinator for the Duke University Center for Exemplary Mentoring (Duke UCEM). Specifically, I offer administrative support and am a point of contact for the Sloan Scholars. I help make sure their records are in order and they have what they need to succeed at Duke.

Another big part is the assessment piece. That is, working with data within Graduate Student Affairs—specifically, data about our programs and who we're serving, how we are serving them, if we are serving them well, and how we could be serving them better.

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Leo Biggs in graduation robes for their hooding ceremony
Leo at their UNC hooding ceremony in 2023.
You’ve worked as both a researcher and a museum consultant in the past. How are you using the skills you acquired in those roles in your new position?

It all comes down to working with people and working with data. In my roles as a researcher and as a museum consultant, I was thinking about how programs were working and what kinds of experiences people were having, like in my dissertation.

There are the technical skills, like working with Qualtrics, like qualitative data coding and Nvivo. Those kinds of skills I am actively using are absolutely carried over. And then also more of the "soft" skills of connecting with people and thinking strategically about how people are being served and supported, both kind of the individual experience and what that means about the broader structures in place.

 
You graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill. How do you feel about starting at The Graduate School after graduating from UNC? What's it like to be on the other side of Tobacco Road?

Everybody has been so warm and so welcoming. It's funny, within The Graduate School staff, there are a lot of us with ties to UNC, so I don't feel out of place at all.

I do still have a lot of love for UNC. But I don't see that as negatively impacting my time here at all. When I was interviewing for this job, it was the team, the people. I was like, "This seems like a really good group. It seems like they really like and respect each other." My instincts were correct. It's been a smooth transition.

What work have you done in The Graduate School so far?

There have been a couple of different data projects. There have been requests for data regarding a couple of different subsidy programs that the Graduate Students Affairs team manages. One is a child care subsidy and one is medical and hardship. Graduate students can apply, and we have a committee that meets and decides which applications to fill. So the question of how many applications have there been, and of how many have been filled, is of great interest to leadership in The Graduate School and also to grad students themselves.

In my second week, I did a really deep dive into the existing data for those subsidies, and I'm already thinking in collaboration with some other folks about ways to make that data even more accessible.

So that's been a big thing, as has this survey for the English for International Students program. That program is being evaluated, and my first day I sent out a survey. That data has come in. I'm working on pulling that into a report, which is great fun.

Of course, there was also the Ph.D. Hooding Ceremony, which was an amazing project for my first two months here! I got to work with so many people from TGS and beyond to help put on these incredible events. It was a fantastic learning experience and a real honor to get to be part of this extremely special day.

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Leo Biggs with their dog, Linus
Leo and their dog, Linus, a miniature Bernedoodle.
Tell me about yourself. Who is Leo Biggs?

I moved down here to North Carolina in 2018. My partner is from Durham, and the two of us met up in college outside Philadelphia. I grew up in East Tennessee, and the two of us bonded over how we both wanted to leave the South. So we met in Philadelphia. Our first apartment together was in Washington, D.C. And then we moved to Spain for a year. And then we moved back to D.C.

My partner got into the occupational therapy Master's program at UNC, so that's why I started looking around down here. That's how I got connected to UNC. I did this Ph.D. in geography. I got very into this project with the North Carolina Division of Historic Sites. I got to work within five different sites across the state; it was really interesting to be in a program thinking about public memory in 2020 when suddenly everyone was thinking about public memory. Being able to see the kind of work that is being done in the North Carolina State Historic Sites was exciting.

I have a dog who's extremely cute and also very high maintenance. So I spend a lot of my time thinking about or engaging with him. His name is Linus. He is named after the main character in a book called The House in the Cerulean Sea.

I love reading fantasy novels, and I also enjoy writing poetry and short stories.

You received a Fulbright scholarship to study in Spain—can you tell us a bit more about that experience?

I was given a Fulbright grant to teach English and to do an independent research project, and my partner came with me. It was a really interesting experience. From a teaching perspective, it was hard. There's actually a lot of skill that goes into knowing how to teach and teach well. We were doing a lot of curriculum for them of activist vocabulary, "Vocabularies of Resistance."

The [Fulbright] project I was doing was researching urban gardens in Madrid. There's a really long, interesting history of urban agriculture in Madrid that goes way back. If you think about gardens as both ornamental and agricultural, it goes back to Muslim rule in the Iberian Peninsula in the 8th and 9th centuries. But then, more recently, the urban agriculture in Madrid —you can trace it through the Spanish Civil War. I did all these interviews basically with urban farmers in Madrid and also did some archival research about the histories of urban farming and activism in Madrid. That was August 2016 through June 2017.

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Carriage Trail at Somerset Place Historic Site
Carriage Trail at Somerset Place Historic Site, in Creswell, NC, was one of Leo’s three historic sites for their dissertation. Pictured is a modern-day walking trail that follows the path of the white enslavers’ carriage trail.
What are you looking forward to doing in this position?

Something that I'm looking forward to is doing more with the Sloan scholars. I look forward to taking on more of the administrative role. I've also been meeting with (and am continuing to meet with) ten different departments connected with the Sloan scholarship—I'm meeting with the Directors of Graduate Studies and the DGSAs (Director of Graduate Studies Assistants). They have all this knowledge, all this institutional memory, so I’m meeting with these folks to ask like, "How does this program work in your department? How is it going? What do you need from us? What do your students need from us?" It’s been really sweet just to get some face time with people like that and to hear from them about what is working and what can be improved.