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Archana Ahlawat emphasizes improving experiences of underrepresented groups in Young Trustee campaign

Double majoring in computer science and political science, Young Trustee finalist Archana Ahlawat, a senior, has used technology to address social issues and enhance students' lives on campus. 

Ahlawat served as president of Duke Conversations, an organization that hosts dinners with professors and students in faculty homes. The group hosts about 70 dinners each year, attracting about 500 unique Duke students, she said.

When she served as president, Ahlawat increased the number of STEM professors in the program from about zero to nearly half of the hosting faculty, the senior said. 

“The mission of the organization is not just to create spaces for these conversations, but to really break down social and academic barriers between Duke students,” Ahlawat said.

Ahlawat created an automated process to screen applications so that students can apply to Duke Conversations on a name-blind system. The goal is to ensure students from different groups can participate in the dialogue. 

“One thing Archana is so great at is building community,” said senior Grant Besner, former president of Duke Conversations. “[She] started having community dinners and adding a social component to the organization when she realized that if people knew each other on a personal level and were able to connect they would be able to work better together.”

Beyond Duke Conversations, Ahlawat is interested in technology policy. She works on the Data and Technology for Fact-checking Bass Connections project, which created automated fact-checking technology so that journalists can check the accuracy of statements in real time. The technology was tested during Tuesday's State of the Union speech. 

Ahlawat has been a teaching assistant for four different computer science classes in the last three years. She said that she hopes students have a better experience in  computer science classes than she had. 

“I’m making the material accessible and not being intimidating," she said. "I want to make sure people are comfortable in that environment where they feel like they can actually thrive.”   

She previously served as the technology chair for Duke Association for Business Oriented Women (BOW), but she was frustrated with the group's homogeneity. Ahlawat then created the position of diversity and inclusion chair on the executive board which she held last year.   

Amy Arnold of the Duke Technology Scholars Program described Ahlawat as a talented software engineer, a deep thinker and a supportive person.  

“What really struck me was how she feels like she’s been given a lot of resources and a great education, and feels it’s imperative for her to give back, and figure out a way at every stage of her life to make a difference for other people,” Arnold said. 

Ahlawat noted that the University should pay more attention to its diverse student body by enriching student experiences on campus.

“I think Duke has to expand its commitment to financial aid, yes, but it also really has to focus on the actual experiences of people who historically haven’t had access to universities like Duke," she said. "We have to actually create support programs.” 

Duke should devote to serving society, Ahlawat added. 

“We really want to be promoting education for a purpose," she said. "We’re not just here for our own self-promotion, we’re trying to live out a goal of the University as an institution of social change.” 

She also aims to make the Board of Trustees more transparent. 

Ahlawat expanded Duke Conversations to include dinners hosted by Board members, such as Betsy Holden, a senior advisor with McKinsey and Company, who currently chairs the Next Generation Living and Learning Experience Strategic Task Force. 

“We really need to not just think about how to prepare students for the outside world and how we can be on the cutting edge of technology research," Ahlawat said. "But also how to do this ethically and ensure that we’re establishing Duke as a university that is really creating technology and research for the world in an ethically and socially conscious way."

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