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Faculty host students for dinner through Duke Conversations

<p>Steve Nowicki, dean and vice provost for undergraduate studies, hosted 20 students at his home last week in the first Duke Conversations event ever.</p>

Steve Nowicki, dean and vice provost for undergraduate studies, hosted 20 students at his home last week in the first Duke Conversations event ever.

Thousands of Duke students have FLUNCH-ed and FOCUS-ed, but a new program has managed to marry the two.

Duke Conversations—a new student-organized dinner discussion series—gives undergraduates the opportunity to join faculty members in an informal setting to exchange ideas on a different topic each week. Steve Nowicki, dean and vice provost for undergraduate studies, worked with senior Gayle Powell to start the program, serving as its first host and helping secure administrative backing. He said he thought the social interactions it created were particularly valuable.

“Duke Conversations is yet another way to learn from the people around you,” he said. “I’m always challenging students to get the most out of Duke, and part of the resources that Duke offers is the people who are here.”

The program fills the void left by the end of Duke Colloquium, a University-sponsored initiative that required an extensive application and interview process.

"[The Duke Colloquium] was a small, elite intellectual community,” Powell said, explaining that she wanted to instead create more spaces for students to come together and have discussions.

Powell said she wants students who are willing to temporarily remove themselves from the “craziness of Duke” to attend these conversations. She noted that one goal of the program is to push students away from their comfort zones in order to engage in meaningful exchanges.

“A lot of times, when we’re with our niche or our group, we tend to interact on a more superficial level,” she said. “When we’re with a new group of people in front of a new issue, things tend to get a lot more fun and insightful.”

A faculty member hosts each dinner, inviting 20 students to participate. Prospective students fill out an interest sheet to sign up for a professor’s discussion.

About 800 students have signed up for the group’s listserv so far, Powell said. She added that students are not the only ones who have shown interest in the program.

“When I first started emailing faculty members over the summer, trying to set up a big schedule of dinners, I had no idea how receptive they’d be,” Powell said. “Every single one of them emailed me back saying they were interested.”

Freshman Onastasia Ebright attended Tuesday’s dinner hosted by Kristin Goss, associate professor of public policy and political science, whose talk focused on millennials’ attitudes toward government service and the implications for the 2016 elections. Ebright said she enjoyed the conversation.

“I was just so excited to get to know the faculty here,” Ebright said. “These conversations are a way to personally connect with some classmates whose perspectives you’ve never heard, and they remind you that your professors are real people too.”

Other participants said they appreciated the informal setting of the dinners. Freshman Alan Khaykin said the main reason he signed up was the opportunity to spend time with faculty in an informal environment.

“I thought it would be fascinating to meet these professors who have been through the college experience and have made it out successfully,” Khaykin said.

Senior Danielle Lefland noted that she enjoyed how Goss touched on a topic she otherwise would not have been able to delve into in a class setting.

“I found it so refreshing to discuss such an issue [the 2016 presidential election] with someone so knowledgeable in this field after there was little time available to discuss it in class,” she said.