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Relationship-driven and quick to listen: Meet Ysanne Spence, the next DUU president

Junior Ysanne Spence hopes to bring intentionality, strong connections and a compassionate spirit to her role as president of Duke University Union.

Spence was born in Kingston, Jamaica, where she lived for 14 years before moving to the United States. She told The Chronicle that she grew up with “very strong female influences” that have inspired her throughout her life.

“My grandmother and great-grandmother are totally amazing women who had careers in a time where women weren't expected to have careers outside the household,” she said, and her mother and aunt were likewise “very strong, independent women.”

Spence said that while growing up in this space, it was “very much expected of [her] to be a leader.” As the oldest of four girls, Spence described how she has always been in a role of leadership, having to set a good example for her three younger sisters.

Spence’s decision to take the next step and apply for DUU president was strongly influenced by the women in her life growing up and her dedication to serving people.

“I’m a lover of people,” Spence said. “I love interacting with people. I love meeting new people. One of my love languages that I give is acts of service. I just love making sure that people are okay, and DUU has been such a great way for me to do that.”

She said that applying for president was a “no-brainer” for her after how much she has come to love the organization—and looking at all the presidents who have come before her.

“It was always a goal of mine as a first-year to be a part of DUU’s history like that and to make actual change in that position,” she said.

Outside of DUU, Spence is pursuing double majors in public policy and cultural anthropology, as well as a minor in education. She is part of Dukes and Duchesses, has tutored for America Reads/America Counts and sings in the Duke Amandla Chorus, Duke’s premier African chorus. 

Spence has also served on many committees, including the Student Advisory Board, the Dean of Students Search Committee and the committee that brought in Shruti Desai as the new vice provost of student affairs for campus life. She is also on the Next Generation Living and Learning 2.0 Committee.

Strengthening internally and externally

As president, Spence is most excited to see things from a “bird’s eye view” and see all the moving pieces from DUU’s 13 committees come together. Her overall goal as president is twofold: strengthen DUU’s connection with the Duke student body and build its internal community.

For the former, Spence said her overarching goal is to make sure that all Duke students can access and feel included in DUU programming.

“It’s about making sure that the choices we’re making are well-informed and representative of the opinions and decisions of our student body as much as they can be,” she said.

Internally, Spence wants to make every member of DUU feel as though they’re part of the family that she believes the organization is.

“I want everyone who steps foot into DUU and everyone who is a part of the DUU community, all those who are on the executive board and committee members—I want them to all feel as though they are part of the DUU family no matter where they are in the world, in the country, in the state,” she said.

Senior Frank Thomas, current DUU president, believes that Spence’s vision will help make DUU a “more accessible, inclusive and diverse organization.”

“[Spence’s] vision will not only make DUU a better place with better offerings and scope, but its betterment will have a profound impact on the Duke community at large and the memory-making of thousands of students,” Thomas wrote in an email.

Leading with grace

Spence’s mantra as a leader is “lead with grace,” something she says her mother always repeated to her growing up. She tries to be a leader that is compassionate and understands the people she’s leading, trying to find common ground when she can.

“We are all students,” Spence said. “Even though I’m your president, we are in the same boat. We all have the same issues. We all have the same things that we need to do.”

While Spence said she has high expectations for those on her executive board, she believes that understanding people cannot always be at their 100% best has been helpful to her. She believes having grace is the best way to be compassionate and understand that no one is perfect, even though she expects good work from those she works with and wants to get things done.

Thomas commended Spence for the care she puts into her relationships with others as a leader.

“[Spence] also leads with intentionality, and no decision she makes is made lightly and without thinking of the impacts it may have, especially on groups that are often overlooked,” Thomas wrote.

Spence also discussed how she tries to take all sides into account when making decisions. She likes to parse through her options before making a final call, which she believes has been helpful through her time on DUU.

“People say I’m slow to react. I would say I’m quick to listen,” Spence said.

She also described herself as a fun person, and while she believes DUU is already a “fun, creative and collaborative space,” she said she thinks she can “turn it up a notch” and is excited to make it her own.

Zoila Airall, adjunct associate professor of education, noted in an email her appreciation for Spence’s humor, writing that she smiles when she sees her “because [Spence] can light up a room with her warmth.” She also praised Spence for being “giving, considerate, [and] poised.” 

Airall taught Spence in the Anthropology and Education seminar, for which Spence is a teaching assistant this semester.

Thomas wrote that Spence brings a “critical eye to DUU’s overall reach and impact on campus,” noting that she has “never been afraid of a challenge or hard work” and lauding the passion she brings to everything she pursues.

Airall wrote in an email that she admires how Spence “operates with a strong sense of integrity in everything that she does.” 

“I have witnessed [Spence] speaking truth to power because she believes deeply in taking the high road with a moral response as opposed to a response that is expedient or popular,” Airall wrote. 

She wrote that Spence’s multiracial identity and her being from Jamaica are large parts of “the reason that she is open to cultural differences and understands intimately the meaning of prejudice and discrimination because they are behaviors that she learned in the United States.” Airall added that she loves “the way [Spence] talks about home and her love of country” and that when Spence speaks, she feels as though she’s listening to her grandparents, who are also from Jamaica. 

The values of family

When asked what she really wants readers to know about her, Spence immediately thought of her sisters.

“I’m a very value-driven person,” she said, “and a lot of that stems from my family and how connected and close we are.”

Airall wrote that there is “a lot of love and tenderness, pride and respect” in Spence’s relationship with her parents, which she feels is “rare between many young adults and their families.” She wrote that Spence’s relationship with her parents reminds her of what she was like at Spence’s age.

Spence recalled a class presentation where students had to present about something they’re passionate about. While some students talked about machine learning and other academic passions, Spence presented about her family. To the surprise of the class, Spence was able to name and talk about 96 members of her family.

She has come to deeply value her relationships with others and finds that connection and connectivity are her two most important values.

“I was raised to value the people around me, the people that have come before me and the people who are here to help me along my journey,” she said.

Spence cited Tearria Beck Scott, associate director for student engagement, involvement, and Francesqa Santos, assistant director for arts and media, student engagement, involvement, as two of her mentors who have impacted her life “in a way [she] can’t really describe.”

“They’ve always pushed me to be the better version of myself. It’s been a huge blessing to have them because they understand me in a way that I don’t think many other people can understand, like what Black women go through and what they face in leadership positions,” Spence said, adding that she would not have even considered applying for president if it wasn’t for their mentorship.

Like Thomas, Santos praised Spence’s intentionality in her leadership, writing in an email that “she truly wants to make Duke better for everyone” and wants to create ways for every student to be involved in DUU. 

“She is a support for so many folks and her love shines through,” Santos wrote.


Leah Boyd | Editor-in-Chief

Leah Boyd is a Pratt junior and editor-in-chief of The Chronicle's 117th volume.

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