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Sanford School Awards Degrees to 319 Graduates

May 15, 2017

wide shot of the graduation

Sanford School Awards Degrees to 319 Graduates on May 13, 2017. Photos: Kevin Seifert


By Jackie Ogburn

Viveros-Cano adressing the crowdAs a Mexican living in Damascus, Syria, Cynthia Viveros-Cano MIDP’04 wondered if she would have trouble flying to the United States. As it turns out, she breezed through customs, because she works for the United Nations.

“Even if there was no legal or objective reason for me to be concerned while entering the U.S., it speaks to the current state of the world that I was (concerned),” she said in her remarks as the Distinguished Alumni Speaker for the Sanford School of Public Policy’s graduate ceremony on May 13.

Viveros-Cano is a humanitarian affairs officer working in Syria. She spoke of overcoming our limiting ideas about “The Other – whoever that may be.” She told graduates after they leave the academic world, “having the right answer to a problem is not enough.”

To bring peace and to put your ideas and values into practice, “listening to the other is more important,” she said. “Beyond what we see on the surface, all of us, victims and perpetrators alike, long to share our troubles and find a way out of them. Please, don’t take this as a case for impunity; it is rather an invitation to have an honest conversation about what does it take to build peace after conflict.”

The undergraduate ceremony student speaker, Steven Richard Brenner, pointed to what all class members had in common: training in “the reality of choice in a world of limited resources,” and the understanding that “nothing is perfect, but more importantly, … real progress is possible.”

“The health of our democracy depends on us,” Brenner said, as people who understand the difficult, messy process of bringing about the world we want to live in. He urged his classmates not to sit on the sidelines or focus only on their own advancement.

“As people who understand choices, we can be those people. We should be, we must be those people,” he said.

During the two ceremonies, the Sanford School awarded diplomas to four groups of students: 202 undergraduates, 66 Master of Public Policy graduates, 47 Master of International Development Policy graduates from 21 countries and 4 PhD graduates.

Graduate Degree Ceremony

row of smiling grads

During the morning ceremony, several graduate students were recognized for service and achievement.  Their awards had been presented in a separate event for MPP family and friends on May 12.

Outstanding MPP studentsThree students were selected as Most Outstanding MPP Students: Meredith Bunnel, Zach McDade, and Jeannie McKinney.

Four students earned the MPP Citizenship Award for outstanding service to the school, the university and the community.  They were Matt Gerken, Karey Quarton, Izzi Hernandez-Cruz and Anna Alcaro.

Assistant Professor Jay Pearson received the Richard Stubbing Graduate Teaching and Mentoring Award. 

PhD Degrees Bestowed

4 PhD students in cap and gown

Left to right: Ying Shi, Zoelene Valenzuela Hill, Kristen Cooksey Stowers, Robert Richards.

Four PhD candidates received their degrees and walked the stage during the ceremony. 

Kristen Cooksey Stowers’ dissertation was “Food Swamps, Obesity and Health Zoning Restrictions on Fast Food Restaurants.”  She was advised by Dean Kelly Brownell and Professor William A. Darity Jr. Darity performed the hooding.

Robert Richards wrote “Public Opinion and Congressional Responsiveness in Policy Making.”  His advisor was Professor Donald H. Taylor Jr., who was attending his daughter’s college graduation, and so Professor Seth Sanders hooded Richards.

Ying Shi was advised and hooded by Sanders and her dissertation was “Essays in the Economics of Education.”

Zoelene Valenzuela Hill was advised and hooded by Associate Professor Anna Gassman-Pines and wrote “Examining the Role of Intergroup Relations in Black and Hispanic Parents’ Preschool Enrollment Decisions.”

Undergraduate Ceremony

Jessica Van Meir accepting three awards

This year, one student, Jessica Van Meir, earned all three departmental honors: Best Honors Thesis, and co-winner of both the Terry Sanford Leadership Award and the Joel Fleishman Distinguished Scholar Award.  In presenting the thesis award, her advisor Judith Kelley said, “I am honored that you have been my student and humbled to have been yours.” Read more about Van Meir’s accomplishments here.

Kelly receiving awardAlso receiving the Terry Sanford Leadership Award was Osasenaga “Kelly” Aghayere. Lecturer Catherine Admay, in presenting the award, called Aghayere, who emigrated from Nigeria in the fifth grade, “a natural born leader” who has “high ambitions for himself and others.” He was a mentor to other first-generation college students on campus. She also cited his involvement in the protests at Duke for a living wage and his intellectual courage in asking tough questions of the administration. A Duke Chapel Scholar, he was also a leader in DukeAFRICA, and helped produce the 2017 DukeAFRICA Jabulani Cultural Showcase.  After graduation, Aghayere will become a member of the Duke College Advising Corps, working with first- generation college students. Read more about Aghayere here.

Parker Gilbert was co-winner of the Fleishman Distinguished Scholar Award, given to students with the highest grade point average, in honor of Sanford professor and school founder Joel Fleishman. A native of London, Gilbert was an assistant coach of the men’s rugby team at Duke, and interned at Out Leadership, an LGBT advisory firm. He will work for a financial technologies start-up after graduation.

Other Awards

Justin Olivier Bryant received a Schwarzman Scholarship, which finances a year on study at Tsinghua University in Beijing. A Reginaldo Howard Scholar, Bryant was vice president of the Duke marching band and director of the Shockwave Acappella Ensemble during his semester at Duke Kunshan campus. He also earned the Ann-Marie Parsons Memorial Prize from the music department.

Four students won the William J. Griffith University Service Award from the Office of Student Affairs: Christina Elizabeth Oliver, Richard Aidan Phillips, Steven Jonathan Soto and Sydney Ann Speizman.

Elena Elliot speaks at Duke commencementAt the Duke commencement ceremony on Sunday, public policy major Elena Elliott was the student speaker. You can watch her speech or read her remarks here.

Two faculty members received the Susan Tifft Undergraduate Teaching and Mentoring Award:  Catherine Admay and Gunther Peck. The winners are selected from nominations submitted by students and alumni.

  • 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.