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Q&A: Kristina Smith discusses being a female student leader at Duke for International Women's Day

In honor of International Women's Day, senior Kristina Smith, president of Duke Student Government, shared her experiences as a female leader on campus with The Chronicle. 

She discussed the challenges that women at Duke currently encounter and the steps that can be taken to improve campus culture.The interview, conducted by email, has been edited for length and clarity.

The Chronicle: How has attending Duke shaped you as a leader?

Kristina Smith: Duke has made me understand how vital it is to bring lived experience along with your advocacy. I have had the opportunity to sit in incredibly intimidating rooms with powerful people who can influence the culture and direction of Duke, and have, simultaneously, learned that if my argument is strong enough and my examples are concrete enough, then I can actually persuade people in these rooms to think a bit more critically about the impact of policies and programs on students.

With this opportunity, I have discovered that I have to speak up because the administration does not always do its due diligence in obtaining opinions and perspectives before making a decision. If I am able to successfully incorporate my own lived experiences, as well as those of other Duke students, then we can really change the way our University operates.

Duke has also taught me that sometimes it is the job of a leader to allow other people to lead while you support. I have learned that my experiences and my knowledge are never enough, that being lucky enough to be in these spaces also means that I have an obligation to even give up my seat if someone else can do a better job. While I have learned that I can be leader, even a good one, I have also learned that are many leaders on this campus who deserve to advocate not just outside of the building, but also inside of it. 

TC: Are there any women on campus—student, faculty, staff or otherwise—who have been influential in shaping your identity as a leader?

KS: Since my first year at Duke, Emily Chen, [first-year medical student and Trinity ’17], has been my role model as a woman leader. I was fortunate to watch her lead Common Ground, an identity retreat near and dear to my heart, and tirelessly make everyone she encountered feel heard. It is from her that I learned to value lived experience and give space for people to speak who are not often listened to. From her, I learned that leaders can be empathetic, emotional and heart-driven.

I have also been lucky enough to work with influential leaders like Sue Wasiolek, [associate vice president for student affairs and dean of students], and Valerie Ashby, [dean of Trinity College of Arts and Sciences], who remind me every day that women work so hard to serve others. In witnessing their leadership, I have learned that if you work hard and are motivated by people, then your work can really mean something. 

TC: What are a few accomplishments you are most proud of from your time at Duke?

KS: I’m proud of so many of the projects that DSG has accomplished these past four years, and yet I also know there is so much [more to do]. I am most proud of the advocacy around the proposed financial aid cuts [last semester]. I was able to work with students in many different spheres to fight against these changes. I truly believe our advocacy is what convinced the administration to reverse the [healthcare policy decision].

I am proud of the way that my focus on financial/socioeconomic accessibility is becoming a larger conversation within DSG and the administration, which all started with the Daily Devil Deals.

I am proud of the way that DSG has supported the demand from student activists for a hate and bias policy, as well as actively encouraging the administration to actually go out, do listening tours and learn from the students most impacted by hate on our campus.

Ultimately, I am proud of the way that DSG is trending towards focusing on communities most ignored on our campus, partnering with them and ensuring that they are in the rooms where decisions are being made. These are all small steps, but I am immensely proud of the foundations of support we have built.  

TC: What are some of the biggest challenges for female leaders or women in general on campus?

KS: As a woman, I have found that I always want everyone in the room to like me, regardless of whether or not they agree with me. While I have found this to be helpful when speaking with administrators who might not agree with my point of view, I have also found this to be difficult for leading effectively.

When you’re too concerned with what others think of you, you sometimes modify what you believe or what the students you are representing believe. I’ve worked really hard this year to overcome this feeling so that I can represent opinions and concerns as accurately and effectively as possible. It’s a challenge most days, but when I remember that I serve students first, that my service can actually change their day-to-day experiences for the better, I realize that I have a greater responsibility that does not end with ensuring that everyone in the room likes me.

TC: A survey conducted last year found that 47.8 percent of undergraduate women who responded said they had been sexually assaulted while at Duke. Given this statistic, what about Duke’s campus culture needs to change? What do you think needs to be done in order to reduce these numbers?

KS: I honestly don’t know what the solution is to reduce these numbers, but Duke must be looking at and learning from other universities, as well as Duke students who [are active] in preventing sexual violence [on campus].

I would say that our current teaching of consent is too few and too infrequent to create any large cultural change. [In my opinion], it is entirely possible for a student to graduate from Duke having only learned about consent, sexual assault and gender violence during [Orientation] Week. Duke must make prevention training a priority every year students are at this University. This training must be accessible and applicable to different communities, including communities of color and the LGBTQIA+ community.

I would also say that the University must have more public conversations about sexual violence within our community. These conversations must include students, staff, faculty and administrators. No student should leave our University without having to engage in a discussion about preventing sexual violence.

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