When Lana Gesinsky’s preschool teacher sent her report card to her parents, she noted that Gesinsky was “a follower instead of a leader.” Now, the tides have turned.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, Gesinsky found herself at the center of a “switch time” for DSG, as administrators began reaching out to the organization for its student perspective.
“DSG had to work three times as hard to try to make sure that we were in the conversation,” she said. “That's really when I found my voice of advocacy and assertiveness.”
And find it she did—Gesinsky worked on a number of programs, including collaborating on the Blue Devil Buddies mentorship program, increasing on-campus outdoor seating and helping block students with their friends in on-campus housing throughout the pandemic. Behind the scenes, she recalls hopping on multiple calls a day with administrators to address everything from Zoom classes to missed COVID-19 tests.
“Lana has proven that she is willing to amplify constructive and dissenting student views to administration–which leads to better outcomes for everyone,” Christopher Rossi, assistant vice president of student affairs for strategic engagement, wrote in an email to The Chronicle. “One of my biggest concerns is that staff only hear from a small portion of the student body; Lana has shown an ability to broaden the feedback channel to help us see the broader picture.”
Despite the busy days, this time also allowed Gesinsky’s love for DSG to truly blossom. As members worked tirelessly on their projects, the three-hour-long Zoom calls became chances for them to bond and become more familiar with one another.
“That's when I really became friends with people in DSG and also just realize the power that we had and how we can use it,” she said. “My love for DSG has grown ever since and made me want to continue and run for president.”
The beginning of the road
Gesinsky was involved in DSG for the three years she’s been at Duke, serving as a senator of campus life for two years and the vice president of campus life her junior year. Yet, student government was far from first-year Gesinsky’s mind. As the former student body president of her high school, she was adamant about trying “something new.”
When she stepped into the activities fair, she immediately found it overwhelming. While throwing out ideas to her friends about how to improve the fair, they suggested that she run for DSG—and supported her ever since.
“[In] freshman year, one of my best friends, Nancy [Beaujeu-Dufour, a senior], was like, ‘You know, if you run for president, I'm going to be your campaign manager,’” Gesinsky said.
At the time, Gesinsky didn’t even know if she was going to run, but Beaujeu-Dufour’s words stuck with her. Two years later, when Gesinsky decided to run for president, she immediately knew who was going to be her campaign manager.
Gesinsky’s attunement with others was a major force driving her to the presidency. A self-described extrovert, she thrives when talking to and connecting with others.
“Her leadership superpower is how personable and empathetic she is,” Landy Elliott, the assistant vice provost for undergraduate strategic initiatives, wrote in an email to The Chronicle. “She is definitely not afraid to roll up her sleeves and tackle all the behind-the-scenes, unglamorous work to get the job done.”
Elliott, who first met Gesinsky her sophomore year, described her strengths in understanding all sides of an issue and building rapport with both students and administrators.
Former DSG Executive Vice President Ramya Ginjupalli, Trinity ‘22, echoed these sentiments. She wrote in an email to The Chronicle that Gesinsky “is known for not only her kindness towards others but her dedication to improving the University while empowering student voices.”
This extroverted nature also helped Gesinsky make a tangible impact through her DSG work. She guided her projects through the idea of “making the Duke experience less stressful.”
“You don’t have a mentor to guide you? Let’s get one. There’s no outdoor seating? Let’s figure it out. [The Brodhead Center] closes at 7 p.m., but you have meetings at 8 p.m.? Let’s try to extend those hours,” Gesinsky said.
Ultimately, it was this satisfaction with seeing the impact of her work and her connection to the greater Duke community that drove Gesinsky to run on a platform of ushering in a DSG “cultural reset.”
The campaign stop
Gesinsky is open about the emotional strain of her campaign and her gratitude for the support she received over the weeks leading up to the election.
“I would not have been able to do this without my friends and family,” she said. “[The campaign] took a lot out of me, and there is no way that you can do it on your own.”
She said her campaign team consisted of about 30 people, including close friends, fellow DSG senators and others that the campaign brought closer to her. Meanwhile, her parents and relatives sent their support in texts and comments from afar.
“I did feel very, very supported, because the campaign process can feel very lonely,” she said. “Knowing I had that support was crucial.”
Despite the strain of the election, Gesinsky noted that it helped her develop a “tougher skin”. When the polls officially closed on election day, her phone exploded with texts from her friends.
“I think people thought that I would be freaking out and not okay–I was actually so relaxed,” she said. “I was like, ‘At this point, what happens is what happens.’”
While lying on her bed, she received a call from DSG Attorney General Nellie Sun, a senior–and from the tone of her first words, Gesinsky knew she won.
“I was just so ecstatic. It had been such a hard process, and I wanted it so bad, and I’m so excited about it,” she said.
The road to the presidency began at home. Gesinsky immediately called her parents after she heard the news. She attributes her leadership style to the values instilled by her parents—empathy, leading by example and conflict resolution.
“My parents are my parents, but they're also like two of my best friends,” she said. “They've always just pushed me to try to reach the best of my abilities.”
Afterward, she called Beaujeu-Dufour, who started screaming.
“They all knew that I was doing something that I cared about and were more than willing to help–and that meant a lot to me,” Gesinsky said.
Former DSG President Christina Wang, Trinity ‘22, expressed her hopes for her successor’s presidency.
“[Gesinsky’s] very much a go-getter and an initiator, and I’m really excited to see what she brings to the presidency next year,” Wang said.
The path forward: community, clarity and communication
Gesinsky describes her leadership style as “leading by example” and hopes that as DSG president, she can help tap into others’ potential and “[put] everyone on the same playing field.”
During her term, she hopes to emphasize transparency about DSG to include the rest of the undergraduate population in the conversation. Her platform focused on community, clarity and communication to make DSG more accessible to students and student groups.
“No one knows what DSG does. It’s very mysterious, unclear, feels high and mighty,” she said. “I want to bring that back down, change the culture, make it approachable and pursue projects and policies students themselves want to see.”
As part of building community on campus, Gesinsky is currently working on expanding Blue Devil Buddies under QuadEx by pairing buddies across accompanying quads. She also hopes to create a similar program that pairs students with alumni.
She held conversations with SHAPE over her campaign with hopes of building a strong working relationship with the program and DSG, and she also hopes to revitalize tailgating in collaboration with DUU and other organizations on campus.
To improve clarity and communication, Gesinsky pushed multiple DSG reforms that aim to strengthen recruitment efforts and institute a mentorship program for first-year senators. She also intends on holding “pulse checks” once a week, where Gesinsky will sit on a BC plaza table and hold open office hours. She’ll also be accessible via a DSG phone number that students can “text with questions, comments [and] concerns.”
Finally, Gesinsky hopes to improve communication between DSG and student groups.
“In the past, DSG has not fully served student groups appropriately, and we need to be a lot more transparent and communicative,” she said.
For her, this starts with setting progress goals and communication channels, as well as giving student groups a direct voice to the senate by opening a nomination process for cabinet members. Gesinsky is also working on communicating with identity group leaders in advance so that they can disseminate information about joining DSG to their groups, thereby making DSG more accessible and potentially more representative of minorities at Duke.
She is also working on a “massive survey” to be sent over the summer or early fall, which she hopes will help senators be more attuned to issues pressing the undergraduate population.
Ultimately, Gesinsky hopes to make the most of the impact DSG can have. She noted that DSG has the power to pursue projects and policies that will “genuinely affect students.”
“We’re all students about the same age, and we all have different opinions–and I want to hear all those opinions,” Gesinsky said. “Not gatekeeping or holding information, but making it more of an open, free-flowing conversation.”
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Audrey Wang is a Trinity sophomore and a university news editor of The Chronicle's 118th volume.