With a program that prides itself on experience and leadership, the presence of graduate students makes all the sense in the world for Duke. Not only do they provide on-the-court help, but also off-the-court mentorship for younger athletes looking to navigate the collegiate landscape.
This year, the Blue Devils have six graduate students: three returning, three brought in by head coach Kara Lawson.
Lawson inked transfers in forward Mia Heide (Tulane) and guard Taya Corosdale (Oregon State) to graduate-level scholarships, while guard Bo Shaffer (Colorado-Colorado Springs) walked on to the team to get her graduate degree. Adding to the group of graduates are guard Emma Schmidt, guard Jiselle Havas and forward Imani Lewis, all of whom played for the Blue Devils last year.
Looking to build a culture at Duke, Lawson will rely on the team’s experience to set the standard for a talented group of underclassmen.
It’s not always easy to transition from one college program to another: a whole different coaching staff and roster serves as a new home for graduate transfers to finish their collegiate careers.
Luckily for the three entering graduate students, this Duke roster has had its fair share of transfer experience. In fact, just six of the 17 players on this year’s roster started their career as freshmen at Duke.
“It's been really smooth so far with the current players that have been here, they've been super helpful with helping us get adjusted,” Corosdale said at the team’s media day in October.
Corosdale arrives in Durham with another unique aspect: two former Oregon State connections. Junior center Kennedy Brown transferred in after a successful sophomore season, and former Oregon State teammate Aleah Goodman joined Lawson’s coaching staff as director of recruiting and player development.
“It's been nice to have a few familiar faces here with me, and I'm super thankful that I get to be here with them,” Corosdale said.
Perhaps the Oregon State connections helped create comfort for Corosdale, who will surely become an important piece of the Duke puzzle this season. If anything, Corosdale hasn’t heard enough of Goodman’s leadership to deter her from becoming a Blue Devil.
“You know, on the court, she was a point guard. It hasn't really changed for me that much because she was always talking on the court, telling people what to do,” said Corosdale. “She's just not on the court with me. She's just more on the sideline, so it's been really nice to see that side of her.”
An opportunity to earn a graduate degree at Duke is surely nothing to scoff at; however, it’s a large time commitment, especially for Division I athletes. Just like adapting to a new basketball culture as a transfer, entering graduate school provides yet another transition.
Luckily for these six, they have each other.
“It's really nice to have a lot of other people in my position that can relate to the grad school level and that workload,” Heide said. “I've made some really great relationships, and [I] really enjoy spending time with the girls and hearing about their experiences.”
Although the workload is a challenge, the athletes view graduate school as another opportunity to extract more from their time playing college basketball. Whether it is finishing up a bachelor’s degree or exploring more programs that Duke’s undergraduate and graduate schools offer, there is a plethora of opportunities for the six to continue their education.
“I pretty much met the requirements for my degree. Thank God. So now I'm exploring other things I want to do,” Lewis said. “I think now [I’m] really trying to work towards minors and sub-certificates because if I'm going to be here, I want to make the most of it.”
Unlike the majority of the graduate students, Corosdale views playing professional basketball as a true possibility. The Bothell, Wash. native went into her graduate transfer process wanting to explore kinesiology programs, which Duke does not offer.
In her eyes, Duke offered the best chance at growing her basketball game enough to take the next step professionally.
“I knew I was going to be able to impact right away and so that was something that I was looking forward to,” said Corosdale. “I would definitely like to play professionally if that opportunity presents itself.”
Leading the way
Last season, the Blue Devils finished 17-13 without a NCAA tournament berth. In fact, the last time Duke reached the Big Dance was 2017-18. Lawson has reiterated the importance of consistency as a program to earn success in the ACC. Voted seventh in the preseason ACC poll, the Blue Devils have their work cut out for them to end the three-season NCAA tournament drought.
Who better to set a standard to exceed expectations than the graduate students?
To accomplish that, however, Duke needs its leaders to do just what their title implies: lead. Luckily for Lawson and her staff, the graduate students are prepared to do just that, even if they too are adapting to the new environment.
“I think [it’s important] just giving opportunities for [younger players] to talk and listen, and [for me to] hear from others as well, because this is a new experience for me. I'm also learning,” Heide said.
In a sport that relies so much on the transfer portal in adding both undergraduate and graduate talent, Duke is taking the widely accepted route to success in women’s basketball. What separates the programs who have success with the portal from those who fail: commitment to culture.
It’s easy to neglect a new program. After all, none of this year’s graduate students started as freshmen at Duke. They all had different alliances mere years ago.
Nevertheless, true leaders, the leaders that Lawson wants in her program, play for more than just their individual accolades and futures, but that of their teammates. In her final year with the program, Lewis realizes just that.
“My main goal right now is to leave this program better than I found it,” Lewis said. “I want to leave an impact for those coming in behind me.”
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