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Recognizing the entire Duke community—including staff

the optimist

We often speak about the Duke community, but who does that include? Students, faculty, administrators and Coach K are certainly part of it. But this list fails to mention the people who enable our community to function in the first place: staff. 

The people who work in dining, maintenance, and transportation are just as dedicated to our University as the other stakeholders, if not more so. It’s time we recognize that dedication in our campus programming.

A couple weeks ago, I took a tour of the Duke Chapel with Oscar Dantzler, the buildings custodian for over two decades. His insight was fascinating and wide-ranging, from the intricacies of the stained glass windows to his experience escorting Mary Duke Semans on his arm. He has been featured in The Philosopher Kings, a film about custodial workers on university campuses across the country, and was awarded the University Medal, Duke’s highest honor for distinguished service. Oscar is just one of the amazing staff members who contributes to our community every day. 

My experiences with staff have enriched my Duke experience more than I could have ever imagined. From the breakfast lines at Marketplace freshman year to the hallways of West campus dorm, these interactions have brightened my day on so many occasions and taught me things I never would have learned in a classroom. In a recent column entitled “Who’s in your Duke community?” Bella Miller eloquently conveys the immense value of connecting with staff and how special these relationships can become.

Despite constant interactions between students and staff, it seems like they rarely get beyond “Hi, how are you?” limiting the potential for meaningful relationships to form. Fortunately, some of our community’s staff members are engagement all-stars, building genuine relationships with students through their warmth and compassion.

Big Mike is a shining example of this. My interactions with Big Mike began during late night CCX rides. In the years since, we have developed a close bond, speaking about everything from our weekend plans to our families in person and over the phone. When I saw Big Mike for the first time this year riding my bike, he stopped the bus in the street just to open the door and give me a big hug.

Feeling so fortunate for this friendship, I want to create more opportunities for other students and staff to experience this. So, I gave Big Mike a call. When I told him about the prospect of creating a program to help facilitate such relationships, he said, “it really touches my heart. Everybody brings something to the table. We are the Duke family.” 

After getting his insight on how this goal could be most effectively achieved, I realized that there’s already the infrastructure available for these types of engagements. 

Duke Conversations is a student-led group which organizes free, catered dinners between faculty and students. I’ve had the opportunity to participate in multiple Duke Conversations and each of them has led to interesting discussions that bridge divides between students and faculty and enable these relationships to grow. Duke Conversations should go beyond faculty to include staff members as the guests of honor. Rather than needing to open up their homes to students, staff could attend these discussions right on campus at a time that aligns with the “host’s” work schedule. Perhaps a survey could be sent out to staff members to gauge their interest in participating, enabling any of them to sign up for this program.

Not only would Duke Conversations provide students an opportunity to talk with staff, but also to learn from them. Just as faculty pre-determine a general theme for the discussion, staff would do the same. As a result, students and staff would identify common interests, serving as a foundation for further conversations. 

These efforts would be an important step forward in creating a more inclusive and welcoming community for all of its members. However, each one of us can contribute to this goal in our daily lives. We can engage in full conversations with staff rather than just exchanging formalities. It will brighten their days while providing an opportunity to learn and connect. And who knows, maybe taking the initiative on this may lead to a life-long friendship.

Near the end of my most recent conversation with Big Mike, he said “I love my Duke students and staff. I love the University.” That love deserves a spotlight in our campus programs—from everyday conversations to Duke Conversations.

Elliott Davis is a Trinity Senior. His column, "The Optimist," typically runs on alternate Wednesdays.

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