Jessica Van Meir at graduation, 2017. Image: Kevin Seiftert
Duke University is brimming with outstanding students, but public policy senior Jessica Van Meir has pulled off an unusual hat-trick: She earned all three departmental honors awarded to Sanford School undergraduates.
One of two Terry Sanford Leadership Awards went to Van Meir.
She took Best Thesis Award for “Sex Work and the Politics of Space: Case Studies of Sex Workers in Argentina and Ecuador.”
Van Meir also was a co-winner of the Joel Fleishman Distinguished Scholar Award, which recognizes students with the highest grade point average in the major.
“I have come to know Jessica as a lightning-smart thinker who is always curious and full of initiative and stamina. She is among the best students I have worked with,” said Judith Kelley, senior associate dean of the Sanford School.
While she majored in public policy, Van Meir minored in psychology and in gender, sexuality and feminist studies. She braided together skills and insights from all three disciplines to craft an extraordinary career at Duke.
“Remarkable,” “fearless,” “tireless.” “Exhibiting a level of competence and effectiveness that is uncommon.” These were among nominators’ comments on Van Meir’s leadership skills.
Van Meir founded two campus groups to address gender violence: We Are Here Duke and Duke Students Against Gender Violence.
We Are Here Duke grew out of a service-learning class Van Meir took. She has served as co-president since 2016. The club surveyed students who report gender violence on campus and used the results to craft policy recommendations to the Duke administration. The group also created a poster campaign on consent, and brought a one-woman show about unprocessed rape kits to campus. It held two panels, one including a screening of the documentary “The Hunting Ground,” and another on partner violence in LGBTQ relationships.
Van Meir has served as co-chair of Duke Students Against Gender Violence, which brings together 13 student groups who work on the problem. The group received the “Emerging Impact Award” from the Duke Women’s Center for “creating foundational aspirations that positively impact the lived experiences of girls and women.”
“Jessica is a compassionate and strong student leader who stands up for those who cannot stand up for themselves,” Judith Kelley said. Kelley has known Van Meir since her freshman year. As Kelley’s research assistant, Van Meir helped measure U.S. influence on human trafficking policies worldwide.
Van Meir has also been a leader in other campus groups, including the Duke Sexual Misconduct Task Force, and “Duke Progress. Period,” which works to provide menstrual products to low-income women locally and abroad. She also served as a Senator of Equity and Outreach in Duke Student Government.
For her DukeEngage project in 2014, Van Meir worked with ZanaAfrica in Nairobi, Kenya, on a series of comics on health for women and girls and projects relating to menstrual hygiene.
When Kelley first learned that Van Meir aimed to interview sex workers in South America for her public policy thesis, she thought, “This is dangerous and difficult.
Van Meir had seen a gap in research on how policies regulating the physical space of sex workers affect them. Sex work is legal in both Ecuador and Argentina, but the countries regulate work spaces differently, so she decided to conduct a comparative study
Van Meir holds triple citizenship (in the United States, Belgium and Switzerland) and is fluent in Spanish. So, during the summer of 2016, she conducted interviews with 109 sex workers, and with government officials and civil society representatives.
During a phone call from abroad, Van Meir told Kelley she had found a low-cost apartment. “She said, ‘I don’t think I’m going to have any trouble finding sex workers. They are right outside my door.’
“She just goes for it,” Kelley said. “When I told her, ‘It would be nice if you could interview people in the city government,’ the next day she said, ‘I have five appointments with people in the city government.’ Nothing stops this woman.”
Van Meir’s research was published in April in the peer-reviewed journal Social Sciences.
Angie Vieth, associate director of undergraduate studies in psychology, said in addition to excelling academically, Van Meir “obtained a tremendous amount of experience – both humanitarian program and research experience – on three continents.”
Van Meir can also turn set-backs into opportunity. Her public policy internship was supposed to be at the U.S. Embassy in Ecuador, but she didn’t receive a security clearance in time. Through one of her contacts from her thesis work, she connected with a nonprofit that works on transgender rights and went to work.
“When I came to Duke I thought I wanted to be a psychology major because I was interested in clinical research and the psychology of gender.” But working as Professor Kelley’s research assistant led her toward the public policy major.
“She was a really good mentor for me.”
After graduation, Van Meir will attend the University of Cambridge on a Gates-Cambridge Scholarship. She will pursue a one-year master’s degree in development studies. The scholarship, funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, is awarded based on leadership potential, commitment to improving the lives of others and academic achievement.
“I want to learn about the global south, in particular Latin American and Africa, and learn about concrete ways to combat poverty,” Van Meir said. Beyond that, she is not sure what’s next, but she imagines eventually she will take another shot at the U.S. Foreign Service.
- Read more about Sanford's graduation here.
- Download photos from the graduate ceremony here.
- Download photos from the undergraduate ceremony here.
- Download photos from the MPP Family Night here.
- Browse a Storify of social media posts from Sanford's graduation festivities here.
Jessica Van Meir collaborated with Sanford's Senior Associate Dean Judith Kelley on human trafficking research.