When Amy Lazarus, Trinity ’05, was an undergraduate at Duke, she co-founded the Center for Race Relations and Common Ground, a popular retreat that aims to spur social change on campus. Lazarus currently serves as executive director of the Sustained Dialogue Campus Network, an organization that seeks to develop leaders who support the formation of relationships among members of their communities. SDCN has a presence on 14 campuses, including the University of Virginia and Harvard University. Recently, Lazarus was one of eight recipients of USA Network’s 2010 Characters United Award, which recognizes efforts to fight prejudice and discrimination while increasing tolerance, respect and acceptance. The Chronicle’s Chinmayi Sharma interviewed Lazarus about her work and her memories of attending Duke.
The Chronicle: What activities did you engage in on campus at Duke?
Amy Lazarus: I entered college with the intent of becoming pre-med and going to medical school, but I always felt a strong pull towards civic service and continuing my high school passion for fostering healthy race relations. The best advice my adviser gave me was to force me to ask myself which one of my interests [I could] postpone. I came to realize I could go to medical school at any point in my life, but the opportunity to create a student-run organization based on my interests was limited to my four years at Duke. I helped to write the business plan as the co-founder for the Center for Race Relations, an organization my peers and I were interested in creating. The next semester I wrote the business plan for Common Ground as its co-founder.
TC: How did you decide to found CRR and Common Ground?
AL: I think college is the first time where people are forced into an environment where they have to interact with people very different from who they are. I am from Shaker Heights, Ohio which is 50-50 black [and] white, so I have been very privileged, unlike those who hail from homogenous neighborhoods. There’s a lot to learn form being in such a rich, diverse environment, but when people aren’t choosing to step outside their comfort zone, it’s a detriment to the opportunities we have to learn form each other. So CRR was really there to create a place for sustained and meaningful interaction.
TC: Did you think Common Ground would be as large and significant now when you started it then?
AL: It’s wonderful to hear the powerful words about Common Ground being a life-changing experience. It has grown beyond my wildest dreams, and the students in charge of it now have done an excellent job in pushing it to grow and expand. I think it is a great example of student administrative partnership because we couldn’t have done this without the professors and administrators who facilitated the process. Part of the reason the program has such an effect on people is because we were constantly evaluating the reasons why it was “life-changing,” why it had an effect on some people and not others, and took input from the members on how to make the experience better.
TC: When did you first know what you wanted to do with your life?
AL: It was in [professor of the practice at Sanford School of Public Policy] Tony Brown’s entrepreneurship class that I came to the realization that my passion could be my work and my work could be my passion. I moved on to work at the [Center for Multicultural Affairs] and got paid for something I loved to do. I was shocked because I would do it for free. I wanted to do this work full time.
TC: How did Duke enable this work?
AL: I think that Duke is fertile ground for anyone that has an idea that addresses a need to make it happen and test it out. It sets Duke apart. Duke invests in entrepreneurs and values leadership. Making my dreams come true is not something that happened overnight. I did some jobs that I didn’t really enjoy, and I did this in my free time. You have to be patient when shooting for the stars. It is great being in a place where obsession with a passion is the norm because it is inspiring being surrounded by directed passion. But Duke takes that and gives you the skills and the ability to communicate your vision and create a budget to make your dream come true. You also need a team so you learn to work with your peers towards a common goal.... The atmosphere here is never something you can get at another school. You are constantly stimulated, constantly challenged and constantly inspired.
TC: Do you have advice for any Duke students unsure of what they want to do with their lives or how to get there?
AL: Do good work now to set yourself up for life. I regularly interact with my peers from Common Ground and CRR in my day-to-day life. Identify and follow your passion. I ended up not going abroad junior year because Common Ground was finally taking off, but it was worth it because now I have left the legacy of Common Ground for students to take advantage of. Be open to new interests. Duke has so much to offer—it is overwhelming, especially with DukeEngage now. Maximize the resources at your disposal. Oh, and take a year off between undergraduate and graduate school. Get some life experience.
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