Your bus pulls in late, and you and your eighth-grade classmates are split hastily into three groups, everyone trying to make up for lost time. Meanwhile, you’re taking in the enormous church that stands above you, the wide grassy spaces, the buildings of mismatched stone. You’ve come all the way from Charlotte to see Duke University.
Each of the three groups is led by a Duke student, and your guide starts you off at the church, which she calls the Chapel, and she tells you about the pipe organ inside, which has 50,000 pipes. She says she’s from Raleigh. Your group walks along the sidewalk, and you follow just off her shoulder and tell her you’re a football player, that you want to play in college, and she says if you work hard enough, maybe one day you could play here. Then your group turns the corner, and all you can see is trees, brick and students everywhere. To you, this is an ideal Duke, and it’s an impression provided courtesy of the guide, junior Charlotte Mabe, a member of Dukes and Duchesses.
A student organization within the Office of Special Events and University Ceremonies, under the umbrella of the Office of the President, Dukes and Duchesses is comprised of 52 freshmen, sophomores, juniors and seniors, all of whom essentially function as student hosts and hostesses for guests of the University. In this capacity, they give out nametags and do coat-check at events, including awards dinners and the men’s basketball banquet (a sought-after function usually reserved for senior members); volunteer at Hart House receptions and Board of Trustee meetings; and provide tours to interested parties, which range from foreign doctors to potential donors to underprivileged middle and high schoolers. Although the group is often thought of as primarily catering to the rich and powerful, this last group—impressionable students, who can come from as far away as Atlanta—comprise just as substantial a part of their service.
“Our tours are strictly informational, and that distinguishes them from admissions tours,” said junior Hilah Almog, the current president of Dukes and Duchesses. “We’re not selling the school, we’re just telling you about it.” Almog knew she wanted to be a part of Dukes and Duchesses since freshman year, when she was impressed by their presence at a Nasher Museum of Art event.
Referred to as ambassadors for the school, the group’s purpose is largely to act as a sample of the student body—albeit an attractive, intelligent and expressive sample.
“Oftentimes at banquets, we do at the beginning and end a lot of setup and clean up,” Almog said. “But during the event, people converse, they ask us questions—they love talking to the students, and if they could they’d talk to everyone. When there’s only a handful of us there, it’s easy for them to approach us and ask.”
For people who don’t often get the chance to chat with students, these conversations might be the only sense they get of what it’s like to attend Duke, and the type of student that Duke cultivates. And when these guests are wealthy donors, or kids whose attending college is hardly a given, their impressions carry weight long after they’ve left campus.
Every Sunday night, the members of Dukes and Duchesses meet to assign events for the week and conduct internal business: recruitment discussions, the selection of officers, etc. At the April 3 meeting, held at the new Local Yogurt on Erwin Road, the feel was of a top-tier co-ed Greek organization discussing philanthropic efforts as if they were the main concern. The D&Ders, as they refer to themselves, convened loosely to one side of the establishment, conversations taking place in fours and fives; everyone seemed comfortable.
“There’s this camaraderie,” said Mabe, the group’s event coordinator. “Working events is a lot of fun, because every time you work an event with someone you haven’t worked with yet, you become all that much closer to them. We all impress each other—I’m impressed by them and they motivate me.”
Mabe is like Dukes and Duchesses personified. She is a member of the club soccer team and Delta Delta Delta sorority who, as a neuroscience major, works in a lab on campus and volunteers at Durham Regional Hospital. Her mother, as a senior, was one of the inaugural members of Dukes and Duchesses’s precursor, Mabe said.
Gregory Morrison, a senior in the group and last year’s vice president of D&D, also cited the group’s duties as a major reason for its close-knit nature. (In addition to Dukes and Duchesses, Morrison is a Chronicle columnist and was last year’s executive vice president of Duke Student Government.)
“We genuinely enjoy each others’ company, and there’s a sense of mutual responsibility to each other,” Morrison said. “It’s pretty clear that we work for the office of Special Events and represent the Office of the President; what we do reflects on President Brodhead.”
Takeaways from watching D&D: first, as a whole, they’re one of the best looking groups of Duke students I’ve ever seen; two, each one of them can assert themselves and hold their own in a crowd; three, they talk and banter with the casual ease of born socialites; and four, racial diversity prevails—I was reminded of a scene from an admissions brochure. The only demographic D&D seems to be short of is engineers, though not for lack of trying; Almog said far fewer applicants come out of Pratt, from which D&D had only one student before this year’s recruitment.
Originally started in the ’70s as an all-female hosting organization that was part of the athletics department, Dukes and Duchesses have been co-ed for decades, said Terry Chambliss, director of Special Events and University Ceremonies. Now, the group is the “first face” for many of the University’s visitors.
For the administration, this means a few things. “First of all, a very welcoming face is important,” Chambliss said. “Again, that approachableness, so that if guests do have questions, they feel they can approach the student and talk to them.”
“I think it’s inherent in the students who apply to be a Duke or Duchess, that they do have that love of Duke,” added Audrey Dail, senior program coordinator for Special Events and University Ceremonies. “It’s almost just part of their make-up, and that’s why they want to be in this group.”
“That’s why they’re chosen,” Chambliss said. “For being able to express that—they’re enjoying their experiences here, and we look to see that they are able to articulate their experiences.”
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In short, Dukes and Duchesses’ efficacy depends 100 percent on its personnel, which explains why recruitment is such a thorough and arduous process.
“[Recruitment ] is about finding that part in somebody that makes us think that they would fit in, and that they would be proud to be a Duke or a Duchess,” Almog said. “A lot of times it’s hard to discern who genuinely wants to give back to the University and who genuinely wants to have something like this on their resume.”
Let’s say you want to join, as either a freshman or a sophomore, or sometimes both—Mabe said students who get rejected their first time around often try again.
Obstacle one is a Duke University history test. A downloadable study packet can be found on the D&D website, and perusing it, the sense is of a hybrid history/sociology/geography exam, complete with a quasi-Biblical Duke family tree. So, you take the test, and let’s say you’re one of the 50 or so percent who move on to the next round; you’ll attend an open house, and then it’s the first interviews, in this case with two senior Dukes and/or Duchesses.
As seniors, members take on a different role within D&D. “We’re repositories of experiences. A lot of the events that we work are annual events, so we serve as the people that get to say, ‘Heads up, the WaDuke sometimes runs out of coat-check tags, just be on your toes about where you put the coats,” Morrison said. (Many D&D anecdotes seem to involve coat-checks, a reminder of the less-than-glamorous roles these ambassadors often play.) The seniors also pass along knowledge of people and administrators, and they play a major role in recruitment.
“I was vice president last year and ran recruitment, and I paid a lot of attention to input our seniors gave,” Morrison said. “They have a good idea of what the challenges are and whether the potential new members can handle those challenges. You pay attention to the vibes your seniors are getting during recruitment.”
If passed through the first round of interviews, a potential new member has to prepare for the final stage: interviews with members of University staff, a rep from the Alumni Association and senior Dukes and Duchesses. Here, the group looks to determine whether an applicant will hold up well as a representative of students, and if their motivations for applying are sincere.
“When we’re interviewing people, we’re looking for those who, when they’re giving tours or sitting down with people, can talk about an interesting aspect of their undergraduate life at Duke,” Mabe said. “If [during an event] someone turns to them and is like, ‘I’m thinking of donating to your university, what are you doing?’ ‘Umm, well, I take classes’—crickets. You don’t want that to happen.”
One individual who often functions as an interviewer in this round is Cynthia Brodhead, President Brodhead’s wife. The Brodheads play an important role in Dukes and Duchesses, which is, after all, a part of the Office of the President. As such, members of D&D get more regular, intimate access to him than the vast majority of students.
At a school with roughly 6,000 undergrads, hardly everyone can have a close relationship with the President, and Brodhead isn’t notoriously accessible. Getting to know Brodhead was one of the reasons Charlie McSpadden, Trinity ’10 and The Chronicle’s former film editor, joined Dukes and Duchesses. One of his most cherished memories from Duke, he said, was when the President stopped, during the flow of graduation, to say hello to him and another D&D member.
Mrs. Brodhead sees Dukes and Duchesses as, among other things, a way for Duke to effectively convey itself to the public.
“Duke has many missions, and I think one of them is to help people understand what’s going on here, to tell our story both to people who are familiar with the University and love it—current students, faculty, alumni—and also to tell our story to people who are not so familiar with it,” Mrs. Brodhead said. “A group that particularly enjoys the contact with the Dukes and Duchesses, as well as with other student groups of course, is the Trustees. It’s really a great opportunity for Trustees to sort of talk informally with students outside of more formal group settings, to chat and get to know them a little bit.”
This accessibility is what the University intends for the group to provide. Students’ own motivations dovetail considerably with those of Duke. What they get out of it, however, can often be a more microcosmic experience.
“When I was giving a tour to a group of fourth graders, one kid in particular loved it and kept right by me the entire time I was giving the tour, asked a lot of questions,” Almog said. “At the end, he was like, ‘I don’t want it to be over,” and it was really sweet, and then he said, ‘Now I really want to go to college.’ He was someone who, in my conversations with him, made it clear that no one in his family had attended college… That was like, wow, I’ve made a serious impact on someone’s life.”
Packy McCormick, Trinity ’09 and a former president of D&D, didn’t get into the group as a freshman and then, after applying again, was accepted as a sophomore.
“I definitely felt overmatched compared to a lot of the other members, but that in itself was a positive because it challenged me to improve myself to get on their level,” McCormick wrote in an e-mail. “Equally as important, the interpersonal skills and much-needed maturity that I developed as a member of D&D have served me very well post-graduation. I was able to do a lot of cool things at Duke, but none of them had the same high level of expectations as D&D did.”
McSpadden also voiced that notion; currently working in the film industry, he said his engagement with figures of prominence while an undergrad allows him now to encounter similar individuals without being cowed or intimidated.
For junior Vinayak Nikam, the standing vice president of D&D, he sees the position as having a certain responsibility and decorum involved: a service organization more than anything else, founded on facilitating and providing a functional event. Even if the Dukes and Duchesses are frequently sought out to provide some kernel of the undergraduate experience, there remain other reasons for their presence.
“A lot of people have the idea that Dukes and Duchesses is very glorified” in the sense of speaking to and associating with guests, Nikam said. “Hosting is literally what we do; I wouldn’t even say working. Hosting is the operative word for our organization as a whole.”
What Dukes and Duchesses seems to provide for the University is a hand-picked selection of its most talented, socially savvy students, an elite corps of official greeters. And what it provides for the students is a method of giving back to Duke while becoming an even more integral part of the school—a way to get the most out of the Duke experience. Ambitious, intelligent, charming and impressive, Dukes and Duchesses are us at our best.
Mrs. Brodhead put the group’s true significance like this: “It’s really important for us to be able to have some students on the scene who can talk easily to people, who can represent what other students are talking about and thinking about and who are themselves really—I would use the word representative, but I would also use the word idealized Duke students.”