Shruti Desai, Duke’s new associate vice president of student affairs for campus life, spoke to Duke Student Government senators on Wednesday about her background and goals.
Previously chief of staff at the Gephardt Institute for Civic and Community Engagement at the Washington University in St. Louis, Desai stepped into her new role on March 15. As associate vice president, she oversees Duke’s relationship with student government, Greek life and identity and cultural spaces.
“I’m on day three of my new role, and it’s been fun and a little bit like drinking out of a fire hydrant,” she said.
Desai said what interested her about the position was the combination of leadership programs, like Duke University Union and DSG, with identity centers, and she is looking forward to taking an “identity-conscious approach” to leadership programming and Greek life.
She pointed to the history of leadership programs in higher education “where you have fraternities, all of that was built for the average student at the time—a Christian, upper-class, white, straight man,” she said. Desai noted that many of those programs “are still in existence today and haven’t really been looked at through a critical lens.”
In her work, Desai hopes to spotlight the concept of cultural wealth, or the ways in which cultural or minority identities can “help us to adapt,” she said.
Desai also plans on helping student leadership ensure that their work is sustainable. Social justice movements, like the Black Lives Matter movement, have frameworks in place that allow for an easy transition across leaders, and these haven’t been adapted for higher education yet, she said.
“More and more this generation is going into the world and demanding things and saying we need to be better, and there’s a way to sustain that,” she said. “But how do we create the human resources so that every four years there’s not a student starting anew?”
Bennett David, a junior, asked Desai what she thinks the biggest problems Duke is facing right now are.
“I think there continues to be folks who are in the margins and folks who don’t care about the margins,” she answered. “So how do we start that conversation and build dialogue between those groups?”
She mentioned that at Washington University, for example, conservative students didn’t feel like they often had a voice, so her work included incorporating those voices when preparing for elections and discussions about voter engagement and democracy. At Duke, Desai plans to speak with students to find out “who are the voices that aren’t at the table” and brainstorm ways to include them.
Rebuilding the community and the sense of belonging Duke has lost this year due to the pandemic will also be challenging, she said.
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Devan Desai, a sophomore, asked if Desai had any goals for civic engagement with the Duke student body.
She answered that while she has “no clue what’s going on with civic engagement at the campus,” she recognizes that institutions like Duke “have historically not had great relationships with their community.”
She aims to approach building connections with Durham with a mutual relationship in mind and not focus on short-term solutions that may lead to the community becoming dependent on the University.
“I’m interested in how we become better neighbors to the Durham community,” she said. “And then in turn, how do we help.”
In other business
After tabling its application last month, the Senate chartered student group Sky@Duke, which focuses on “meditation, breathwork, emotional intelligence, social connection, and service leadership,” according to the application.
Senators approved a $5,000 funding request from the Environment Alliance to host speakers at their virtual Enviro-Art Gallery and a $3,674 request from the Duke Catholic Center to livestream six Sunday Masses.
Senators approved revised Senate bylaws after a second reading of the new version and conducted a first reading of a revised DSG constitution.
Milla Surjadi is a Trinity sophomore and a university news editor of The Chronicle's 117th volume.